Large-format books that deal extensively with one subject are often meretricious. Either they are pretty but pointless and vapid picture books, or they are obtuse, windy texts decked out in badly chosen or inappropriate illustrations. Mary C. Henderson's "Theater in America" and Daniel Blum and John Willis' "A Pictorial History of the American Theater, 1860-1985" are nonesuch. They are models of what imagination and exhaustive commitment to research can produce and are of great value to readers on all levels of interest.
"Theater in America" is divided into seven chapters: Producers, Playwrights, Directors and Choreographers, Actors, Designers, Architects and Beyond Broadway. Each traces the complete evolution of its subject from Colonial times to the present, covering major trends and important figures who contributed to them, all strung accurately along a line of development from era to era. Henderson does this with the clarity and concision of a master miniaturist in only 297 pages of text and illustration. Wonderful photographs, lavishly distributed throughout the book, reinforce the text with the unique focusing power of the visual.
The book has a few flaws, in balance and proportion. The section on lighting design is fine until it reaches the present day, when suddenly it becomes truncated and rushed. The playwrighting chapter is 46 pages long, and eight of them are devoted to O'Neill, including several to a single play, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," while at the same time, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are given only a paragraph and a picture each. Phillip Barry is barely covered, S. N. Behrman and George Kelly are not even mentioned. But such lapses are occasional, and, on the whole, Henderson has made an important contribution to American theater history with a book that is artfully constructed and beautifully rendered.