Clearly intended to answer national curriculum requirements for the study of pre-20th-century literature, this anthology for lower secondary classes consists of 14 short extracts from English drama, ranging in period from the Middle Ages to the late19th century.
The four sections of the book purport to be thematically organised, but in practice the groupings are so capacious and vague ("Heroes, Heroines and Villains") or so arbitrary ("Melodrama and Wit") that they serve no useful purpose. The extracts are really grouped by period, not theme, and more clear-cut recognition of this would have strengthened what the book most seriously lacks - a sense of context. Some of the scenes, like that from Maria Marten or The Murder in the Red Barn, are successfully free-standing, but others are high and dry without a fuller presentation of the play they belong to. All the extractswould be better for more editorial help with the historical moments that produced them.
The emphasis is heavily on violence and killing (the York Crucifixion play, The Duchess of Malfi, Macbeth, not to mention Punch and Judy) and on comedy of courtship and marriages (Noah's Flood, The Rover, The School for Scandal). Some effective sub-themes can be traced through the collection - notably the position of women, and the torments of conscience - but the piecemeal compiling does not help to highlight them. On the credit side, however, the suggested assignments place plenty of stress on performance, especially tableaux and experimental role-play, and there are ample opportunities for productive group work.
Peter Hollindale is reader in English and educational studies at the University of York.