Drama in Schools: Theory and Practice by John Allen - review by A.W. England

A.W. England

Drama in Schools: Its Theory and Practice

Drama in Schools: Theory and Practice


Heinemann 208pp £5.50

This is an ambitious and wide-ranging book. It aims to examine the theory and practice of drama in schools in the context of current and recent educational theory, against a background of developments in theatre and the arts an in relation to the condition of contemporary society. Drama in schools is also placed alongside drama in higher education and professional training establishments.

The thesis is that the evolution of school drama into theatre and art is not only inevitable but desirable. Witkin is invoked in justifying the use of ‘realised form’ and while Mr Allen recognises that the instigators of the Schools Council Drama Research Project have been beforehand in insisting that the educational drama be classified with the arts, he feels he still has a duty to follow up the implications, his predecessors being ‘strong on pedagogy but weak in aesthetics’. The pupil, the creative actor and the dramatist are all engaged in the symbolic transformation of reality, the quality of what they do depending upon their ‘sincerity’, their honesty to the original ‘reflex-stimulus’. The impulse towards action and form is seen as a psychological necessity. `if the forms discovered by the dramatist can facilitate symbolic projection by the pupil, the linking up of the improvisation and the play should be theoretically possible.

There may be little that is new in this stance but Mr Allen is uniquely qualified to give the argument substance, since he straddles both the world of education and the world of professional theatre. Personal, too, is the passion with which Mr Allen pursues his task of clarification. He defines theory as ‘a conception of something to be done or the method of doing it’. In the matter of principle, he raises all the right issues and even where what he thinks has oft been thought before, he makes some memorable formulations. To his credit, he doesn’t let his enthusiasm lead him him into over-simplification, by, for instance, placing too great a value on theatre at the expense of open-ended exploration. He can be refreshingly sacriligious, though, as in his description of Dorothy Heathcote’s approach as sometimes ‘brutal’. If he is critical of himself and when the reader finds himself preparing to object, he discovers that Mr Allen has got there first.

But the very amplitude of the book puts the seams under a strain. Sometimes one has to keep referring back to the cover to remember where the focus is supposed to be. Writing it may have been personally fulfilling but Mr Allen over-indulges himself, particularly in the historical sections, in anecdotes and name-dropping. Rightly he admits that a teacher finds his own salvation and he scorns to offer ‘tips’, but ‘the method of doing it’ is not merely something that results from theory but what validates it. The descriptions of classroom events offered with the subjective assurance that they were ‘electrifying’ are inadequate to convince us that the theory has a basis in the art of the possible. The teacher buying the book in the hope of getting some help with how to proceed, with how, for example, to present a script in such a way that the ‘reflex-stimulus’  remains virgin-pure or with how to encourage the script-writing which assertion assures us is a good thing may be disappointed.

While commending Mr Allen for being fair to all sides, one does tend to lose him at times and to be faintly surprised by a confession such as that he has been all along undervaluing ‘intelligence’. His laudable concern not to appear too starkly reactionary sometimes seems to have made him leap on his horse and attempt to ride off in both directions at once.

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