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August 30, 1987|Vincent Curcio

THEATRICAL ANECDOTES by Peter Hay (Oxford University: $17.95; 384 pp.). For people in the profession, the theatrical anecdote has always been more than the source of wit, style and sentiment it is for most people. For us it is also instruction, the repository of the oral traditions by which we shape our craft and inspire what art we possess. Peter Hay's "Theatrical Anecdotes," though covering Western theater from the Greeks to the present, is drawn mostly from British and French theater of the 17th to 19th centuries, a richly anecdotal era.

It is wisely chosen, a subtle compilation designed for telling views of theatrical life and practice through the ages. Hay's interweaving of stories of every type of stage practitioner--from actors and playwrights through directors, designers and producers--gives a sense of the general though the everyday details of particular lives. From a conversation between Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quayle, one learns what sort of part is the most difficult to play; the female impersonator Julian Eltinge tells how to create an ideal of feminine beauty through stage artifice; George Bernard Shaw gives Ralph Richardson, struggling as Sergius in "Arms and the Man," perfect advice for playing Shaw, and so on, in hundreds of wonderful tales.

Hay promises a second book on Broadway, which I for one will eagerly await, after the treasures I have found in this one.

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