Theatre lives, ultimately, on the stage, not the page; but because it is a necessarily ephemeral art, it lives on thanks largely to the words written about it. That begins, of course, the day after the first night, when the first reviews are published - and these days, frequently in advance of that, with internet bulletin board chatter (such as on the Discussion Forum) and preview features. But since today’s newspapers line the cat-litter tray or wrap fish and chips tomorrow, we seek some more permanent ways in which today’s theatrical performances can be remembered forever.

No wonder there’s such an industry in the seemingly endless parade of theatrical autobiographies, diaries, critical studies and more that are constantly being published. These can sometimes not just remember and record but also expand the experience, by providing access to private places that theatregoers don’t usually see: not just backstage or in the rehearsal room where theatre is made, but also to the art, heart and craft of its makers. This new, occasional series on is intended to celebrate (and occasionally criticise) some of those books, as they seek to make something permanent out of impermanence.

Melting away

For the director Richard Eyre, the transience of theatre is precisely what attracts him to it: “It’s in the present tense, it’s live, it’s unreproducible. It’s ephemeral: It lives on only in the memory, melting away after the event.” Those words are from a diary entry for 17 March 1996 that’s now forever preserved, unlike the related shows that have come and long gone, in a superb book chronicling his decade-long tenure running the National Theatre, called National Service (Bloomsbury, £18.99).

Like Peter Hall, his immediate predecessor at the National, also did, Eyre has written a fascinating, revealing and compulsive diary. (Eyre’s successor Trevor Nunn, however, is yet to publish his, but if he chooses not to, perhaps someone could simply re-print the letters he used to routinely fire off to journalists, this one included, who had incurred his wrath.)

Eyre’s thick, intensely readable volume is packed with the kind of personal revelations that’s as much about gruelling self-doubt as it is about celebrating a career that saw him dubbed by the then chief New York Times critic Frank Rich as “the most successful and versatile producer in the world” (a claim Eyre is rightly not shy of reprinting in his entry for 4 March 1992, the day before he goes on to tell us he collects his CBE at Buckingham Palace).

Doomsday honesty

Eyre, who, again in common with Hall, admits to dealing with black depressions, had an amazing run at the National; there were extraordinary hits, but also, inevitably, occasional flops. He details some of the latter with unstinting, doomsday honesty. We follow the journey of what would be his greatest personal disaster, a production of an old Broadway comedy called Johnny on a Spot, in all of its painful, inexorable momentum.

On 6 January 1994, Eyre confesses: “I know it’s the wrong thing to be doing. Nothing about it feels right – wrong play, wrong theatre, wrong actors…. I predict disaster but it’s too late to cancel, and I don’t know how to minimise the damage.” No wonder, four days later, he’s predicting: “It’s going to be a bad year, in a wilting theatre. I want my life back….from the moaning, from the sniping, from under the constant cloak of anxiety.” And two days later again, “I’ve started a course of an anti-depressant, Prozac…. I’m not happy, just not in pain.” When it opens in April, his dire premonitions prove accurate: “Reviews predictably terrible.”

National Service beautifully conveys both the politics and process of running a theatre with unerring detail, yet he never actively seeks sympathy or lapses into undue sentimentality, even when achingly recounting the death of his father, who barely understood him or vice versa. In a book of unsparing feeling about a hard-nosed business, Eyre’s not averse to making some pointed barbs himself. Of Mary Archer, for instance – once famously described as ‘fragrant ’ by the High Court judge in her now infamous husband’s libel case - he says, “Actually, she’s about as fragrant as ammonia.” And, of dining with Guardian critic Michael Billington, he notes: “Throughout lunch I am transfixed by the toothpaste round his mouth.”

It’s also a book full of delicious bon mots collected over the years: from Karl Kraus, “Journalists write because they have something to say, and they have something to say because they write”; and from Berlioz, “The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have the talent for luck”. Eyre has something interesting to say as well as a lucky talent – and we are both lucky to have had him at the National and to have this remarkable book as a memory of that remarkable time.

The act of creation

Remaining at the National, an excellent, ongoing series called ‘The National Theatre at Work’ remembers some productions more immediately and in more detail, memorialised even in the act of their creation. This series is newly and richly expanded by its third book (out of seven so far), The Art of Darkness (Oberon Books, £12.99), in which former Independent on Sunday critic Robert Butler goes behind the scenes of one of the theatre’s biggest and most ambitious productions ever, the recent stage version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

A quick read – it only runs to 118 pages, complete with plenty of photographic illustration – The Art of Darkness nevertheless provides a gripping account of some of the preoccupations and challenges, not to mention occasional doubts and obstacles, of bringing this immense project to the stage. In his quest, Butler speaks to and observes many of the principal collaborators at work, from Pullman and adaptor Nicholas Wright to director Nicholas Hytner, as well as the leading actors, designers and production crew.

Gossipy & self-absorbed

Far less gracious, but also more irresistibly crabby, is the first-hand backstage account that British actor Martin Jarvis provides of the long, and ultimately ill-fated, road of taking Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn’s musical By Jeeves to Broadway in the autumn of 2001, by way of an out-of-town try-out in Pittsburgh. Entitled Broadway, Jeeves? (Methuen, £16.99), Jarvis’ book is gossipy and self-absorbed. Many actors (perhaps necessarily) are so inclined, but few are shameless enough to parade it in book-form like this, especially when they come across as so desperately unlikeble in the process.

Jarvis resents almost everyone in the course of Broadway, Jeeves?: his co-star (who gets equal contractual terms to him on everything from salary to dressing room fixtures, though Jarvis’ agent does all the work); the producers (who keep the company on a knife-edge as to where and when the show will move from Pittsburgh to Broadway); his New York landlords (he stays there at the flat of London journalists Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon, except when the aforementioned Mary Archer comes visiting and displaces him); the backstage crew of the show (“an amusing, almost universally obese group… they remind me of amiable Mafioso”) and especially, the unnamed New York PR firm (“faceless promo people”, whom he keeps challenging for their apparently multiple failings, from not dressing the front-of-house quickly enough to not running listings in Time Out New York). Eventually opening in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the musical’s chances are never good anyway, and you’re relieved instead of saddened when it does eventually close, if only so it can finally bring an end to Jarvis’ unending litany of woes.

It’s not a story that does anyone credit, least of all the teller. But there’s, at least, one terribly useful piece of advice on how to deal with unsolicited sales calls. “You tell the cold-calling sales person, ‘I can’t talk to you now, but give me your home number and I’ll call you tonight’.” It works every time to get rid of them quickly.

Quintessential company man

Though I couldn’t wait to be out of Jarvis’ grudging, sniping company, I didn’t want my time with Denis Quilley to end, and in his tenderly told, posthumously published autobiography, Happiness Indeed (Oberon Books, £19.99), there’s ample evidence of why he was one of the most beloved actors of his generation. It’s not just his lack of personal ego - which made him the quintessential company man, and therefore a stalwart of the National, which he was with “on and off, since the day it was born”, as well as the RSC – but also that he comes across as an incredibly warm and compassionate family figure.

Happiness Indeed deals with unforced intimacy with his wife’s loss of their young baby while he was working in Australia, and a marriage that was happily sustained for over half a century right up to his death last year.

Quilley also writes about the craft of being an actor (and a singer) – he was equally at home in plays and musicals – with real intelligence and the kind of unmediated directness than goes right to the heart and art of the matter.

“Just as faxes, e-mail or your mobile phone can never replace the simple but essential pleasure of actually taking your friend by the hand, looking him in the eye and telling him how happy you are to see him, so canned music, electronically transmitted pictures and computer-generated images can never replace the joy I feel when a thousand living breathing people sharing the same space with me, all laugh together, or go suddenly silent, or spontaneously applaud.”

No one can replace Denis Quilley; but his own words are a wonderful testimony to a generous life, well lived, that gave pleasure to thousands of theatregoers as well as colleagues.

For related book features & extracts, see:

  • "National Service: Diary of a Decade" (Features, 3 Nov 2003)
  • "The Art of Darkness: Staging the Pullman Trilogy" (Features, 2 Jan 2004)
  • "Denis Quilley: An Actor's Life" (Features, 8 Mar 2004)