Bookshelf: Best Television Plays (1956)

Bookshelf is a monthly column examining printed matter relating to television. While I love watching TV, I also love reading about it, from tie-in novels to TV Guides, from vintage television magazines to old newspaper articles. Bookshelf is published on the second Thursday of each month.

Best Television Plays
Edited by Gore Vidal
First Published in 1956
Published by Ballantine Books, Inc.
185 Pages

A family member stumbled upon this book while on vacation and gave it to me as a Christmas present. I can’t imagine there are a lot of people who would have been thrilled to receive a copy of Best Television Plays. I was certainly was and promptly announced I would be reviewing it at my blog as soon as possible. It includes “eight complete one-hour dramas by television’s outstanding writers.” The eight writers in question are listed on the front cover; the plays (or episodes) are listed on the back cover.

The dramas reprinted in Best Television Plays originally aired between 1953 and 1955 during the Golden of Age of Television as part of Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, or Goodyear Television Playhouse.

Here’s a list of the eight dramas:

“The Mother”
Paddy Chayefsky
Philco Television Playhouse
April 4th, 1954

“Thunder on Sycamore Street”
Reginald Rose
Studio One
March 14th, 1954

“My Lost Saints”
Tad Mosel
Goodyear Television Playhouse
March 13th, 1955

“Man on the Mountaintop”
Robert Alan Aurthur
Philco Television Playhouse
October 17th, 1954

“A Young Lady of Property”
Horton Foote
Philco Television Playhouse
April 5th, 1953

“The Strike”
Rod Serling
Studio One
June 7th, 1954

“The Rabbit Trap”
J.P. Miller
Goodyear Television Playhouse
February 13th, 1955

“Visit to a Small Planet”
Gore Vidal
Goodyear Television Playhouse
May 8th, 1955

I must admit that I was only familiar with six of these writers. The two names I didn’t recognize right away were Robert Alan Aurthur and J.P. Miller. Once I looked them up, however, I realized I knew more about their work than I thought.

Scan of the front cover of the 1955 Ballantine Books anthology Best Television Plays.
Front cover to Best Television Plays – Copyright 1956 Ballantine Books, Inc.

Gore Vidal, whose “Visit to a Small Planet” is one of the dramas reprinted, edited Best Television Plays but there’s no introduction or any explanation of what sort of editing was required. There is the following notice on the back cover:

Each of these plays has won enthusiastic praise from critics and has been discussed by millions of Americans. In presenting them in a reading edition, the authors have expanded stage directions and descriptions of settings and characters to make the plays more enjoyable to the reader.

In other words, Best Television Plays doesn’t contain reproductions of actual scripts. That’s too bad because it means the book isn’t really useful the way an actual copy of the script might be. It can’t be used to compare an early draft to the final draft or the final draft to what ultimately aired. The book was no doubt aimed at the sort of readers who both attended plays and watched live dramas on television. At a time when repeats were unheard of, having eight dramas compiled in a book was the next best thing.

I only have access to one of the eight dramas–Rod Serling’s “The Strike,” which was included in the Archive of American Television Presents Studio One DVD collection released in 2008. I watched portions of the episode to compare to the version reprinted in Best Television Plays. Much of the dialogue is close to but not quite verbatim. There are slight differences here and there but everything is basically accurate. There were multiple lines of dialogue spoken on screen that aren’t in the book and vice versa.

The “expanded stage directions and descriptions of settings and characters” in the book are often wrong. For example, the description indicates a character is smoking but he isn’t in the episode that aired. Or a character is described as standing in front of a window but is actually sitting at a table. There are also several instances in which added description would have been useful for someone reading the play rather than watching it on television.

Scan of the back cover of the 1955 Ballantine Books anthology Best Television Plays.
Back cover to Best Television Plays – Copyright 1956 Ballantine Books, Inc.

I don’t know if I would recommend Best Television Plays to anyone–not even passionate fans of the Golden Age of Television or aspiring scriptwriters hoping to learn from early masters of the craft. Because these are “reading editions” of television dramas and not scripts, they’re too different to be useful as examples or research material.

I suppose if someone is obsessed with watching one of the eight dramas but isn’t able to, reading a slightly expanded version of it might be enjoyable. What might be interesting would be to compare the shooting script for one of these dramas to the version found in Best Television Plays and then compare those to the television version.

I will say that after reading Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet” I now really want to see the Goodyear Television Playhouse broadcast.

See Also:

In October 2014, I reviewed Doug Allen’s 1946 book How to Write for Television, which reprinted six television scripts from 1944 and 1945.


3 Comments

  • Marty McKee says:

    Well, now I know two copies of the book exist, because I have the other one.

  • Tony says:

    Just out of curiosity, I checked to see if this was available at my “go to” site for obscure books, Open Library (openlibrary.org). Sure enough, it’s there and can be checked out and read online or downloaded as a PDF or EPUB file.

  • rick johnson says:

    I believe had this book ore one like it in an Eiighth grade English class in the 195-66 school year.

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