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Theater in America by Mary C. Henderson (Abrams: $45; 327 pp., illustrated) : A Pictorial History of the American Theater, 1860-1985; new sixth edition by Daniel Blum; updated and enlarged by John Willis (Crown: $25.95; 462 pp., illustrated)

June 28, 1987|Vincent Curcio | Curcio is an Off-Broadway producer-manager and for the last nine seasons has been general manager of Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre in Westport, Conn

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.

The sixth edition of "A Pictorial History of the American Theater, 1860-1985" continues to provide an encyclopedic view of what the American theater actually looked like, from the days of Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman to the present. Theater is evanescent and leaves few artifacts behind, so this book presents a unique and fascinating opportunity to see photographs of virtually every great, near-great and merely famous American actor who trod the boards from 1860 on--many in the costumes and settings of famous and representative roles. The years from 1860-1900 are organized by decades; from 1900 on, each year is covered individually with a text, so the total effect is like watching a diorama of 125 years of American stage history.

Whether it is Richard Mansfield in 1900 or Gwen Verdon in 1959, these photographs speak volumes about acting styles throughout the period, and it's amazing how often the reality differs from our preconceived notions. The one unfortunate thing is that Crown Publishing has chosen to do such a cheap printing job on the book, for many of the illustrations sadly lack detail and have a white, overexposed look, which better printing would have eliminated. Still, it is an important book for every theater student and professional, and a lot of information and fun for the curious playgoer.

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