The Modern Theater

It is distressing to come to the end of a book that has been written with care and attention and feel such a peevish grudge against it that fair criticism seems impossible to achieve. Perhaps it is best in such a case to try to analyze the grudge rather than the book, so that one’s prejudice can be shown openly and subjected to a proper discount by the reader.

Certainly, the grudge begins with a personal horror of most intellectual writing about the theater. One does not feel this horror about the intellectual writing of the past: it is always a pleasure to read Hazlitt, Swinburne, Wilde, Shaw, Eliot, and Beerbohm because their language is so lucid and agreeable and their dramatic sense so exciting and easy to share. Shaw, for example, was almost as intellectual as you and me, and yet he always leaves the impression that thinking is a great joy, and writing an apparently spirited business. Were he to discuss Pirandello, he would not write:

Thus, in Six Characters, the six (eirones, pharmakoi) try to persuade the actors and their manager (alazones) to publicize their fictional private lives; and in Tonight We Improvise, the actors (eirones) are finally forced to throw the director (alazone) out of the theater in order to expose the inner souls of their characters (pharmakoi). In the theater trilogy, the conflict between the eirones, pharmakoi, and alazones no longer serves to make a social point, but rather to illustrate the different levels of reality which the stage encloses.

Of course, when Mr. Brustein writes such a paragraph, he doesn’t do so out of the blue: he has told us beforehand what eirones and alazones and pharmakoi are and paid decent tribute to the intellectual who first thought them up and laid them on. But do they make Pirandello easier to grasp? One hopes so, because they certainly make Mr. Brustein difficult to read.

The grudge begins, then, with the involved nature of the writing, and one asks why critical literature has become like this, and when the change took place. So far as one can tell, it is largely a consequence of Freudian researches “in depth”: the theater—and virtually any other subject that commands intellectual attention—is examined with such profundity that its mysteries become abysmal. By comparison with Mr. Brustein and his peers, critics like Shaw and Eliot are neither critics nor intellectuals. They are merely representatives of an old school of “surface” criticism: they play with what is visible to the eyes, audible to the ear, understandable to the mind, and suspect nothing whatever below these superficial expressions.

This is where the grudge gets sharper. For, intellectual theater critics are not, it seems, particularly interested in the theater—not, certainly, in the excitable way that Swinburne and Hazlitt were. Their interest is not so much in stage-characters as in the characters of those who write for the stage: they are prepared to discuss—and at great length, very often—that finished product which…

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