The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner, edited by Laurence Senelick, forward by John Lithgow; Library of America, 858 pages ($40). Even in a publishing series as uniformly superb as the invaluable Library of America, there are some books that stand out. This is, without question, one of the Library of America's stellar contributions to American literature of the past few years -- as well as one of the richest and most readable collections of writing on the American stage that you will ever come across (and, truth to be told, such anthologies have not exactly been scarce over the decades).
What helps distinguish this anthology is a contribution that, at the very beginning of the Library of America, the remarkable series strove mightily to avoid. In its obeisance to the French Pleiades editions of classic literature, the Library of America, at first, vehemently avoided letting an editor contribute his own prose, much less his personality, to its collections.
But so apt and sharp and well-written here are the introductions to each entry by Tufts University Theater professor Laurence Senelick that the book has an additional strength beyond the nonpareil collection of writings.
The title is literal. These are pieces encompassing everything for the stage -- including burlesque and vaudeville -- and not just American theater. It begins with Washington Irving, in a column for his brother's Morning Chronicle, on "The Battle of Hexham" and ends with Tony Kushner, author of "Angels in America," writing on Arthur Miller dying "on Bertolt Brecht's birthday" and paying tribute to the "humility, decency and generosity" that are the "trademarks" of Miller's "voice."
And what a cornucopia are the 800 pages between Irving and Kushner -- everything from Whitman grousing about "the miserable state of the stage" to Edmund Wilson on burlesque, Fred Allen on vaudeville and Mary McCarthy imperiously demolishing Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." An authentic treasure chest.
-- Jeff Simon