mtop9709 picture
m_side picture
Brief Reviews
by Phoebe-Lou Adams


by John C. Meagher.
Continuum, 240 pages, $34.50.

The author's "intent is to provide a general survey of the principles of Shakespeare's dramaturgy" and thereby enable readers of the plays to understand how they were constructed and why discrepancies and lacunae occur in the texts. He describes the wide-open Elizabethan stage, the practice of doubling roles, the unbroken action, and the absence of any concern for the classically derived unities -- a point that has worried earnest scholars ever since Ben Jonson. Much of this information is useful, some of it is needlessly belabored (the author is a professor of English and theology, and professors often forget that a reading audience does not need time to take notes), and all of it adds up to one very sound point. Shakespeare was an actor, a playwright, and a part owner of a theatrical company. In all three capacities he abhorred a dead house and a silent box office. He meant to keep his audience alert, excited, surprised, worried, or distressed, but always to send them home pleased with a fine show -- and to that end he would do anything that made the show work. The play really was the thing. It is a refreshingly clearheaded way of approaching Shakespeare. It compels a reader to admit that whatever Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, or feminist meanings he finds in a play are his own responsibility.

Each highlighted book title can be ordered from

Browse an anthology of Brief Reviews by Phoebe-Lou Adams
A Mad, Mad, Mad,
Mad World

by Stanley Kramer with
Thomas M. Coffey.
Harcourt Brace, 262 pages,

Mr. Kramer's Hollywood is not mad in the least. His memoir chronicles a life of hard work and the production of a number of motion pictures on topics that at the time were considered too dangerous for film treatment. He can rightly claim to have been a pioneer in making entertaining films on serious and provocative subjects. Readers hoping for scandalous or hilarious anecdotes will be disappointed. Mr. Kramer will quote a good line, but he ignores gossip. He conforms to the unwritten rule of theatrical memoirs: never speak ill of a colleague who is still alive or whose friends are. Harry Cohn, under whom Mr. Kramer worked at Columbia, is dead and presumably friendless. He is described as "vulgar, domineering, semi-literate, ruthless, boorish, and some might say malevolent" -- which suggests that Mr. Kramer has more of a temper than ever appears in his suave recollections.

The Napoleon of Crime

by Ben Macintyre.
Farrar Straus & Giroux,
352 pages, $24.00.

Mr. Macintyre promises a "love affair between a crook and a canvas" and delivers an even stranger tale. The real-life original of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty was Adam Worth, an American, the son of poor German-Jewish immigrants. He began as a Civil War bounty jumper, progressed to picking pockets in New York, and eventually became the master of a criminal network that ranged from Europe to Latin America to Turkey. His early associates in New York seem to have escaped from Damon Runyon -- Boiled Oysters Malloy, Wreck Donovan, Eddie the Plague, Gyp the Blood, and Gallus Mag, a female saloon-keeper who "periodically bit the ears off obstreperous customers." His European crew was less picturesque. Worth aspired to pass for an English gentleman, and controlled his troops. He also had two professional principles: never waste the time and brains required for a successful robbery on a trivial job and never carry a weapon. Privately he was willing to go to great expense to get his people out of trouble. It was probably Worth's unexpectedly decent character, combined with his unprecedented skill in redistributing other people's wealth, that won him the respect and even liking of the Pinkerton brothers, detectives who emerge in this engaging narrative as men almost as unlikely as Worth himself.

Tales of H. P. Lovecraft

selected and with an introduction
by Joyce Carol Oates.
Ecco, 328 pages, $25.00.

Given the popularity of horror fiction, it is strange that the work of Lovecraft is not widely known, although it has a devoted cult following. Ms. Oates, who appreciates Lovecraft's ingenuity in evoking strange evils from ordinary surfaces, does not attempt to explain his status. She merely reports it, analyzes with sharp intelligence the elements underlying his fiction, and offers a very well chosen selection of tales.


by Nathalie Sarraute,
translated by Barbara Wright.
Braziller, 163 pages, $22.50.

According to sound old tradition, one does not speak of rope in the house of the hanged. Ms. Sarraute assumes that this principle is so ingrained in society that people operate on it lightning fast and without deliberate thought. The subject of her idiosyncratic novel is the quick, unconsidered process that occurs behind the normally mannered façade. The novel has no plot, no physical action, and no human characters except by implication. The characters are words -- poor little defenseless words panicked into flight, humiliated into paralysis, or evicted for trespassing before they reach audibility. The work is not entirely devoid of incident, however. There is the gathering at which the arrival of a noble name alters the attitudes of all those present. It is truly astonishing to find oneself chuckling over obliquely impersonal satire and pitying unspoken words in a fictional world inhabited by ones and theys. Ms. Sarraute plays by her own rules; the reader who adapts to them will enjoy a witty, provocative view from under the rug.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; Brief Reviews; Volume 280, No. 3; pages 116-118.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture