The Theater of Sentimentality

Sentimentality—it is always there, in our theater, like an usher at the back, yawning, but not quite asleep. And, like the usher, sentimentality represents the claims of a commercial culture. It is a presence, inescapable, not an attitude. But our theater does not function very well, commercially. The actor, the director, the playwright, the practical critic, the audience, the repertory, and the Broadway musical: they are all second or third generation Welfare clients, born into insecurity. Rehabilitation grows harder. The student of American drama, the witness to the American experience in the theater, can only surrender to a kind of respect for a mood so deeply institutionalized. Often the most moving thing about an evening in the theater is the bitter-sweet sense of another drop-out, or of something good and true, months ago, years ago, possible and now lost, caught in some desperate repetition of history. Sentimentality is retroactive: the Lincoln Center production struck the splendid ice of The Alchemist like a ray of tropical sun. A puddle of water was left.

How to define the special sentimentality of our stage? It is not in the emotions, since we have the same store as the rest of mankind. It has to do with the fact that received, conventional ideas are presented with a peculiarly vehement claim to freshness. It is the vehemence that kills. The way they throw themselves into these counterfeit problems! Frenzy is a disguise for the essential blandness and acceptability of the project. The manic efforts of our actors to imitate reality are the truest measure of their doubts about the common sense of their roles. The effort, the sweat, the drudgery of the production are themselves part of the playwrighting; they announce, or try to, importance, significance, and so on. Sometimes you can close your eyes and remember with what hope and love of truth it might have begun. Sometimes you can mark where the goodness began to fail, like the light fading at the end of the day; but often you cannot place anything, because it is in our lives, the way things are. No doubt, Tyrone Guthrie meant in Dinner at Eight to pull off a jeu d’esprit like the charming London revival of Hay Fever. Arlene Francis and Darren McGavin fell upon him like the smell of death. But that is a simple case.

IF ONLY THE SENTIMENTALITY were cynical it might have a creative purpose. We would all be willing to find a place for a shrewd combination of marketable facts. But it does not happen that way. Cynicism is the accusation made by those who try to succeed in the popular arts and fail. Popular art is the voice of the artist’s inner life speaking to the inner life of some thousands or millions like himself. Shrewdness, consciousness, manipulation are more typical of high art than of low. In our theater, sentimentality takes the form of excessive sincerity, a too vibrant assertion of feeling about the matter at hand, an…

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