There's Drama and Comedy with These 8 Gripping Books Set in the Theater

There's Drama and Comedy with These 8 Gripping Books Set in the Theater

Wednesday, 7 June, 2023

There’s that magical moment in the theater: The house lights go down, the curtain rises, and you — along with the rest of the audience and the company of actors — agree to let your imagination take you somewhere else. The energy ping-pongs back and forth, from seats to stage, creating a shared experience that’s all the sweeter for its fleeting nature.

It’s not unlike what happens when we open a new book. We’re in league with the author, visiting the world they’ve created for us and bringing our personal histories along for the ride.

The theater is rich with stories — on stage and backstage, too. These books take you behind the scenes of theaters in New York City, Jamaica, London, Greece, Japan, and Canada — and inside tales of betrayal, heartbreak, triumph, and love. Plus, there’s a whole lotta Shakespeare.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Theater: Act One, Scene I, Lights Up.


A Bright Ray of Darkness - Ethan Hawke

A Bright Ray of Darkness
> Ethan Hawke

If you’re of a certain age, you might only know Ethan Hawke as the grungy and charming Troy Dyer in the 1994 movie Reality Bites. But in the decades since then, he’s been writing well-received fiction — including this engaging story that tackles how and how much we learn to value ourselves.

Here’s the setup; prepare for parallels with reality.

William Harding, a young, good-looking movie star, is about to debut on Broadway, playing Hotspur in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Just as rehearsals are about to begin, the news breaks that William has cheated on his gorgeous, super-famous rock star wife.

The story follows our would-be hero from his first rehearsal to the show’s closing night, and it’s packed with the everyday details of working on a professional stage. With William, we attend a script read-through, rehearsals, and fight training. We see the rituals he repeats in the countdown to the curtain each night and hear the director’s pep talks. If you like reading about how people do their work, you’ll love this.

Want to hear this story straight out of the author’s mouth? Ethan Hawke recorded an affecting audiobook that breathes gravitas and authenticity into his words. {more}

Shakespeare isn’t beautiful. It isn’t poetic. Shakespeare is the greatest mind of the theater, ever. Shakespeare is nature, like Niagara Falls, or the aurora borealis. The Grand Canyon. Shakespeare is life, and life — if it is to be a great life — is not meek. Life is full of blood, piss, sweat… tears, and I want to see that all onstage.’ Some people kind of half-chuckled. ‘Don’t laugh. We will do it. I want the audience to smell you. When your friend dies, I want to hear your tears smack the floor. When you fight, I want to feel adrenaline slip through my bloodstream. Violence electrifies a room. I want our fights to be so real that people think about leaving the theater and I want no one to get hurt. That is the razor’s edge that we will walk. We can do it because we are serious craftsmen and artists and our life is dedicated to something larger than ourselves. — Ethan Hawke


Black Heart of Jamaica - Julia Golding

Black Heart of Jamaica
> Julia Golding

Meet Cat Royal. She’s four feet tall with long red hair and an affinity for close scrapes. She’s been a spy and a ballerina, gone undercover as a boy, and been kidnapped and forced to sail across the Atlantic. The year 1792 finds her in Philadelphia. But it won’t be long before Cat joins a theater troupe, accidentally falls in with pirates, and is caught up in an uprising of enslaved people in the Caribbean.

Eager for a change of scenery, Cat and her best friend Pedro — an African violin virtuoso and formerly enslaved person — join the Peabody Theatrical Ensemble and sail from London to various ports of the Caribbean to perform the works of Shakespeare, including As You Like It in Kingston.

Don’t be fooled by the hijinks of this YA adventure; this story has teeth and knows its history. The story unfolds in Cat’s feisty first-person narrative as she recounts her run-ins with old nemeses and new friends. Her tale has everything you could want in a pirate/theater/sassy-heroine adventure. {more}

Our destination of Kingston sat on one side of a natural harbour, a settlement of brightly painted houses, fringed by lush mangroves, set against the backdrop of the Blue Mountains of the Interior. Across the bay on a protective spit of land lay Port Royal, a naval base and centre of shipping. The bay was a thicket of masts as ships waited to off-load the ‘black ivory’ of slaves and take on cargoes of sugar, coffee, tobacco and other plantation goods. Small boats plied the water between the sea-going vessels, offering fresh goods for sale. The sea sparkled blue under a cloudless sky; the wind was warm and spicy. — Julia Golding

Hag-Seed: William Shakespeares The Tempest Retold - Margaret Atwood

> Margaret Atwood

The Hogarth Shakespeare series brings together the Bard’s classic works and modern high-caliber authors. In this novel, the brilliant Margaret Atwood reinterprets The Tempest to dazzling effect.

When the story opens, we meet Felix Philips, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival (a thinly-veiled version of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada). The festival is a big deal — the local community depends on it — and Felix has let it all go to his head a bit.

Oh, Felix. He’s theatrical, flamboyant, even. Middle-aged, his world revolved around the theater and his found family there. He’s smart. He’s known grief. And he’s enamored of over-the-top productions: His version of Macbeth was notable for incorporating chainsaws.

After years of devotion to Makeshiweg, he’s betrayed. The theater business manager Tony (a.k.a., the ‘devious, twisted bastard’) wants Felix out, and he convinces the Board to fire Felix. Our would-be hero spends years sulking, living in a cabin off a dirt road. He eventually gets himself together and finds a new purpose: Running a theater program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, where he helps inmates put on Shakespeare plays.

And one day, Felix is given his chance for sweet, sweet revenge.

This is a lively, playful ride through The Tempest and an excellent reminder of what makes theater so very personal and universal at exactly the same time. {more}

‘Let’s see how you made out with your curse words,’ he says. ‘Who’s got the consolidated list?’

‘Bent Pencil,’ says Shiv.

‘And who’s going to read it so we can all hear it?’

‘Him,’ says Leggs.

‘Cause he can pronounce them,’ says PPod.

Bent Pencil takes the floor and reads out, gravely and impressively, in his best board-meeting voice: ‘Born to be hanged. A pox o’your throat. Bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog. Whoreson. Insolent noisemaker. Wide-chapp’d rascal. Malignant thing. Blue-eyed hag. Freckled whelp hag-born. Thou earth. Thou tortoise. Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself. As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed, With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen, Drop on you both. A south-west blow on ye, And blister you all o’er. Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr’ed slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up, From bogs, fens, flats, fall on—add name here—and make him, By inch-meal a disease. Most scurvy monster. Most perfidious and drunken monster. Moon-calf. Pied ninny. Scurvy patch. A murrain on you. The devil take your fingers. The dropsy drown this fool. Demi-devil. Thing of darkness.’ — Margaret Atwood

Nights At The Circus - Angela Carter

Nights At The Circus
> Angela Carter

Aerialist Sophie Fevvers is the glamorous star of Colonel Kearney’s Circus, the toast of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. She’s 6-feet-2 and curvy with platinum blonde hair and a voice that demands attention. And oh, yeah… she may or may not be part swan.

We meet Fevvers in her dressing room where, among the detritus of a starlet’s chamber (stockings and face powder and handbills and champagne), she entertains a skeptical American reporter with the story of her life. Jack is on a mission to determine the truth: Is she part swan or complete scam artist?

For now, her ‘notorious and much-debated wings’ are tucked away under a baby-blue satin dressing-gown, and she claims to have been hatched from a giant egg. As Ben Ben chimes the hour of midnight, she regales the newspaperman with tall tales of her early attempts at flight, her time in a brothel, and her first foray onto the stage. Throughout the intoxicating evening, he (and we) are seduced by the stories she tells. They’re melancholy, thrilling, and so outrageous they just might be true.

This is a massive technicolor fantasy rendered in prose as intricately embroidered as brocade. But the plush turns of phrase and Fevver’s verbal razzle-dazzle are all in service of the points being made by author Angela Carter about social class and wealth, sexism and feminism, and appearance versus reality.

We also love the audiobook, narrated by British actress Adjoa Andoh. Fevver’s voice is a blend of cockney and theater that clangs ‘like dustbin lids,’ and Andoh’s interpretation is enthralling. {more}

Her native city welcomed her home with such delirium that the Illustrated London News dubbed the phenomenon Fevvermania. Everywhere you saw her picture; the shops were crammed with ‘Fevver’s garters, stockings, fans, cigars, shaving soap…She even lent it to a brand of baking powder; if you added a spoonful of the stuff, up in the air went your sponge cake, just as she did. Heroine of the hour, object of learned discussion and profane surmise, this Helen launched a thousand quips, mostly on the lewd side. (‘Have you heard the one about how Fevvers got it up for the traveling salesman…’) Her name was on the lips of all, from duchess to costermonger: ‘Have you seen Fevvers?’ And the: ‘How does she do it?’ And then: Do you think she’s real?’ — Angela Carter

Shadowplay: A Novel - Joseph O’Connor

> Joseph O'Connor

This lush historical novel tells the real-life story of the mercurial friendship between Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, and the two most famous actors of the time: Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Imagine the London of 1878. Its narrow streets and cobblestone alleys are dimly lit by gaslight. All those hard surfaces and thick fog play tricks on the ears, warping the near-constant sound of horse-drawn carriages and heels clacking on the streets. Beggars and prostitutes haunt the shadows, as does Jack the Ripper.

But it wasn’t all bad. As it is today, London was a cultural hub with art galleries, music halls, and theaters. In the late 1800s, the theater was the Lyceum, managed by the beloved actor Henry Irving. He oversaw all aspects of the productions, casting and directing the shows, supervising sets and lighting, and starring in the plays. Bram Stoker was his right-hand man — and Henry’s female acting counterpart and sometime lover was Ellen Terry.

Author Joseph O’Connor’s writing is the textual equivalent of a plush stage curtain; it’s rich and velvety. It also does a bang-up job of transporting you backstage at a working theater. Throughout the story, the actors Henry and Ellen explain their craft, revealing how they transform themselves into their characters, changing their voices and adapting how they carry themselves to embody another person.

Filled with sharp observations about how we define our self-image, this poignant story explores friendship and sexuality and the challenges of being a creative person — and gives you a chance to hang out in London with Oscar Wilde, famous actors, and a ghost that haunts the Lyceum Theater. {more}

Then, 72 cities in 25 weeks, 122 shows. The exhaustion, the trains. The Niagara Falls of paperwork. The receipts and lost passports, the cancelled hotels, the actors suffering diarrhea and toothache and fevers, needing doctors in the middle of the night, losing their wages at cards, falling in love with attractive Midwesterners and not wanting to move on to the next city, getting rolled by finaglers, robbed by ladies of the street, being arrested, arraigned, jailed, bailed, bitten by mosquitoes, stung by hornets or roasting slowly on the flames of American success, everyone wanting to touch them and asking them to talk ‘in that accent,’ the impresarios arguing out every clause of the contract, bargaining, hectoring, in several cities weeping, not wanting to pay, pleading bankruptcy or a dying relative, scenery going missing, an actress absconding with a cowboy, the stagehands wanting more money, five broken limbs, three impregnations, one surgical procedure (‘extraction of bullet from actor’s thigh following misunderstanding at barn dance, $80’), the theatre destroyed by a tornado in Detroit. — Joseph O’Connor

The Secret Life of the American Musical - Jack Viertel

Jack Viertel is a producer, director, and author who’s helped bring some of Broadway’s biggest hits to life: Into the Woods, Angels in America, and Dear Evan Hansen, just to name-drop a few.

He’s an old pro who worked Broadway for decades, ‘handicapping musicals,’ a specialized skill that had him traveling the world, watching shows, then recommending which ones should make their way to Broadway. He also taught a class at New York University for most of a decade; this book is a result of that class.

This is probably stating the obvious, but let’s make it overt: Viertel loves musicals. And he knows how they work.

You might assume this book will be about how shows are produced: an idea, then a script, then music writing, casting, choreography — that kind of thing. This is not that. Instead, and more compellingly, this is a book about the structure of a musical and how musicals work as story.

Viertel takes us through the structure of a musical from the overture to the curtain call, explaining what typically happens at each step — and why. He tells stories about shows that have succeeded, but he also tells stories about shows that failed and speculates about why they did.

The final chapter is a treasure trove: Viertel recommends the best recordings of the 47 musicals he’s analyzed and 20 more that he says ‘can’t be ignored even though they are not quoted in the book.’ {more}

Miranda wrote all of Hamilton — book, music, and lyrics — by himself, but many of the greatest classic musicals were the result of famously fractious collaborations. One might look at the master collaborators — from Kern and Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and Loesser and Jule Styne and Jerome Robbins — and come to the conclusion that the history of the Broadway musical is the history of short Jewish men yelling at each other. But to understand how these shows really came to be, it’s important to know what they were yelling about: the form and function and how the pieces fit together. These are the things that Broadway writers and directors used to carry inside them. You can’t turn back the clock (the world only spins forward, as Tony Kushner reminds us in Angels in America), but there’s pleasure in understanding this unique form of American entertainment and how it worked in its heyday. In the bones of that disused machine, some writers in the twenty-first century have begun to find inspiration, although most of their shows sit side by side with others that are more inspired by theatrical rock concerts than by Oklahoma. Hamilton is a telling example, being a work that grows out of a tradition and grows radically away from it at the same time.
— Jack Viertel

This Rough Magic - Mary Stewart

This Rough Magic
> Mary Stewart

First published in 1964, this is the dreamy, delightfully melodramatic novel that will make you want to book a trip to Greece as soon as possible. Mary Stewart was the queen of mystery-romance, and all of her gifts are in full effect here. Grab a sun hat!

Although it’s set in the golden sun of the Greek island of Corfu, there are Gothic tropes galore. There’s a melodramatic actor, a shadowy mansion, a secret cave and underground cellars, a deadly fight on a boat in an epic storm, a missing diamond ring, a possible murder, romance, trickery, and a magical dolphin.

At this point, does the plot even matter?

We would argue that it does not. But happily, there is a cracker of a plot that takes advantage of the gorgeous scenery.

Our heroine Lucy, a struggling actress in London, finds herself emotionally adrift when her latest show closes. So she takes off to Corfu to visit her sister, who happens to be married to a wealthy husband, landlord of several large homes on the island — including one he’s rented to an iconic stage actor who retired under mysterious circumstances.

Lucy is just getting settled on the island when strange occurrences begin to happen. When two islanders mysteriously drown, she’s drawn into a perilous investigation that puts her at odds — or does it? — with the famous actor’s son, a talented but enigmatic musician.

The interpersonal hijinks and investigation into the deaths are set against the backdrop of Corfu and Greece in the late 1950s. To say anything else about the plot would ruin the fun. Rest assured, however, that there are moments of perilous danger, shocking revelations, and sweet romance. We love this audiobook narrated by British actress Helen Johns in a just-right combination of warm and breathy that embodies Lucy’s fear and bravery with equal aplomb. {more}

I shuddered, and drank my coffee, leaning back in my chair to gaze out across pine tops furry with gold towards the sparkling sea, and surrendering myself to the dreamlike feeling that marks the start of a holiday in a place like this when one is tired, and has been transported overnight from the April chill of England to the sunlight of a magic island in the Ionian Sea… The bay itself was hidden by trees, but the view ahead was glorious – a stretch of the calm, shimmering Gulf that lies in the curved arm of Corfu. Away northward, across the dark blue strait, loomed, insubstantial as mist, the ghostly snows of Albania. It was a scene of the most profound and enchanted peace. No sound but the birds; nothing in sight but trees and sky and sun-reflecting sea. — Mary Stewart

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms: A Novel - Gail Tsukiyama

This sweet and sad multi-generational family saga spans from 1939 to 1966, taking us — along with the unforgettable Matsumoto family — through the worlds of sumo wrestling, traditional Noh theater, and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.

When the story opens, two brothers — orphaned by their parent’s tragic death — are being raised by their grandparents. The boys are very close and polar opposites: Hiroshi is strong and outgoing, with dreams of becoming a superstar sumo wrestler. His younger brother Kenji is slim and quiet, nicknamed ‘Kenji the ghost.’ He’s a sensitive, artistic soul who longs to become a mask-maker for the Noh theater.

As the novel weaves the threads of the boys’ and their grandparents’ lives, it branches off to share the stories of the other people who become important to them: friends, lovers, spouses, co-workers. It’s a bit folkloric in tone, and Tsukiyama is adept at knitting the stories together in a way that keeps the pages turning and keeps us invested in the characters.

Early in the novel, the grandfather Yoshio tells the boys, ‘Every day of your lives, you must always be sure what you’re fighting for.’ and that’s the theme of the whole book. Each of these people is trying to do the right thing: for themselves, for their family, for their country.

With rich detail about the world of sumo and Noh theater and vivid descriptions of Japanese food, the culture, and the landscape, this book is evocative, sweet, sad, optimistic, and heartbreaking — just like real life. {more}

He heard Fumiko inside cooking dinner, the scent of rice wine and sugar in the air letting him know that he was still alive. He tilted his face up toward the warmth of the setting sun and closed his eyes against the dull throbbing in his head. He hadn’t forgotten the footsteps, feeling someone standing right there beside him, even if he refused to acknowledge their presence. Yoshio wasn’t ready to go yet. Life was too long and too short at the same time. — Gail Tsukiyama

If We Were Villains: A Novel - M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains
> M.L. Rio

This coming-of-age murder mystery is set in the acting program of an arts college populated by sensitive, eager young things. When drama of Shakespearean levels begins to unfold offstage, the line between acting and real life isn’t just blurred, it’s obliterated.

When we first meet Oliver Marks, he’s being released from jail after serving 10 years for a murky crime. As he and the detective who put him away spar over the old days, the real story of what happened at Dellecher Classical Conservatory finally comes to light.

When Oliver and six other students became fast friends at school, it was all quoting the classics and good-natured ribbing in drama class. But eventually, they fell into playing the same characters onstage and off — hero, villain, femme fatale, ingénue, sidekick — until some of them began to resent the way they’d been cast.

During their fourth and final year at the Conservatory, the competition and resentments among them heat up, and violence mars the opening night of the Scottish play. The ensuing police investigation leads to an arrest, but what really happened behind the scenes?

This novel is great fun and deliciously dark, and it works even if you’re not overly familiar with Shakespeare’s output. The students and faculty helpfully fill in whatever gaps might exist in your knowledge of Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and the sonnets through their conversations and performances. It’s smart and devilishly twisty — an appropriate homage to the verse that’s the benchmark for English literature.

We 100% recommend the audiobook performed by the American stage actor Robert Petkoff, known for his work in Shakespeare productions. {more}

How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else’s words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding? An attempt to forge that tenuous link between speaker and listener and communicate something, anything, of substance. — M.L. Rio

Top image courtesy of Alev Takil/Unsplash.

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