The American theater, always in decline, seems today to be at one of its lowest ebbs. But this could be deceptive. The last six years, so apparently barren of vital dramatic activity, may have involuntarily nourished the seeds of new theatrical promise. Is it conceivable that these may eventually blossom? Let us examine those years—and, with the reader’s forbearance, my own relation to them—to see if a qualified hope is really possible.
In the fall of 1959, when I first joined The New Republic as its theater critic, America was preparing to awaken from that long drugged sleep called the Eisenhower age; in a few months, it would begin to rub away the accumulated rheum of those eight dismal years. The end of our national lethargy was signaled, in most cultural areas, by a rush of radical dissent and artistic ferment; but the theater, traditionally retrograde, continued to doze in the center of blandness and mediocrity, impervious to experiment, immune to achievement, hostile to thought. Financed by timid producers, manufactured by pedestrian playmakers, and evaluated by conventional-minded reviewers, most American plays were exuding an ooze of squalid contentment which worked like a narcotic on an audience already stupefied by affluence. In this atmosphere, theatrical advance was blocked before it could even get under way, and an increasing number of spectators—the more discriminating ones—were turning their backs on the stage.
These conditions helped to fix me in an adversary posture. Coming to criticism from the university where I share with my students the excitement of the great plays, I was appalled at the absence of distinguished drama on the American stage, and astonished that the standards of our theater were being arbitrated (often in less than two hours of hurried scribbling) by newspaper reporters, many of whom had prepared for dramatic criticism through stints in such departments as music, foreign affairs, dining and dancing, and sports. I loved the drama above all other literary forms—loved it for its blending of language and action, its galloping immediacy, its economical means and structural beauty—and I loved the theater when it gave body and substance to plays I admired, or improvised a rich, imaginative life of its own. Now this art was in the hands of spoilers and profiteers; one style dominated our stage, and one system of acting; plays had lost their relevance to the deeper realities of contemporary life; and the only debate the theater was stimulating (this issue raged week after week in the Sunday Times) concerned the rude treatment of theater-lovers at the hands of the box office.
Talented writers of integrity, who might have helped to revive this failing medium, had grown wholly indifferent to it; some were even beginning to question whether the dramatic form could support a serious work of art. And while theatrical values were still being preserved in a few weekly and monthly magazines, the ranks of the serious critics had been badly depleted by the retirement of …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.