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The Theater of Decadence

Should we call it “the end of an era”? In any case, it was “curtains” this season for one sort of American playwrighting. Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge produced works of startling antiquity. Fashion, we suddenly saw, had moved on. Tennessee Williams’s play were brilliantly directed and acted, but nothing stayed the flight of the restless audience. They shunned our trio of dramatists as if they had been last year’s hemlines. No doubt it was “Marat/Sade” that overthrew the reign. Goofy ladies in furnished rooms in New Orleans; Albee’s chubby, inexperienced (in every way, including the professional) young boy, all concupiscent innocence, and literally screwed to death by a knotty little woman, a sort of prefiguration of Candy Mossler: These jokes could not stand up to Charlotte Corday and her spastic knife. The harsh idealism of Marat and the soul-destroying naturalism of the Marquis de Sade, the insane in their tub-gray institutional smocks, all spoke of the deepest sexual fantasies of our time, of our suppressions, our madness, our suffering, our cruelties. The delicate and decadent themes of our own writers seemed by comparison a tired midnight drag party that might better have been forgotten with the morning’s hangover. This is not to say that “Marat/Sade” is a model of dramatic art we would wish to see infinitely Xeroxed in the offices of our playwrights. But its appearance did, like any work of art, stand for itself alone and also as a critique of other works.

WILLIAM INGE does not have the same degree of talent Albee and Williams have, but he shared with them this season his obsolescence and also their puzzling lack of control over their material. In a quite literal way, one felt that these playwrights did not know what they were doing. Neither taste, nor truth, nor formal design seemed within their grasp; they appeared to put in and to take out without knowing why. Inge, for instance, apparently was mistaken about the whole nature of his project. What turned out to be a vapid, square situation comedy was intended as a radical play of ideas. The action of Where’s Daddy? turned upon a dummy baby. Motherhood, Fatherhood (“Hold it, man! It won’t hurt you!”) and the rearing of the young came under the scrutiny of an old queen, two beatniks, two sturdy, no-nonsense stage Negroes, and a suburban grandmother. The fussy, aging pederast turned out to be the best father, or mother, of us all. And so the curtain came down not on a sick, pansy show, but on a wholesome, little didactic confection, consoling to the middle-aged. This play had the longest run of the three and no doubt Inge got the message.

Albee’s Malcolm was the merest trifle, an adaptation, and beside it Tiny Alice of the previous season would stand with Faust. One would not call this work back from the shades if it were not for the prominence in the text of Albee’s obsessions. These obsessions have, we suppose, a death grip on him, and yet they are, in his art, while ever-present, always inchoate, unarticulated. He has not found an image, a plot, a symbol that would bring them into art; they are, instead, an addition, a threat lurking in the last act, an assertion. I refer to the strange business about mothers and sons, adopted or imaginary, and to the sexual exploitation of the adopted son, the raped, ravaged boy, victim of a mother who is not actually a mother. These ideas appear as a paranoiac intrusion: Things are going along sensibly and there it is, the conspiracy again. The theme is repetitive and yet undeveloped. The compulsiveness of the idea is most evident in Virginia Woolf, where to the perturbation of everyone it appears at the end with the sudden intrusion of the imaginary son. The idea is so bizarre and so unsuitable to these particular characters that one cannot accept it in terms of art or design. It is a private fantasy.

ALBEE’S WORK IS SADISTIC and decadent. The sadism does not seem to wish to make any suggestions beyond itself. It is enclosed, elegant, teasing, almost a game, as in The Zoo Story, almost pleasant to the actors. You are never reminded of the cruelty of society, or of natural injustices. Indeed, you feel that the arguments, the teasings, the tormenting might simply cease if the characters wished it. Albee’s plays, and those of Williams too, conform more closely to Leslie Fiedler’s ideas about the American novel than does the novel itself.

The failure of the American fictionist to deal with adult heterosexual love and his consequent obsession with death, incest and innocent homosexuality are not merely matters of historical interest or literary relevance. They affect the lives we lead from day to day and influence the writers in whom the consciousness of our plight is given clarity and form.

From the proto-typical Huckleberry Finn you come at last to the fancy and decadent elaborations on the stage. Perhaps the decadence comes from the fact that the plays do not spring from the unconscious, but are instead a sort of dressing up, a disguise, an exploitation for theatrical purposes of an all-too-conscious nostalgia for youth and fear of women.

WILLIAMS’S “SLAPSTICK TRAGEDY” was considerably more interesting than Malcolm, and yet one would say, I think, that it shows Williams’s situation to be more desperate. Sentimentality is his vice, just as sadism is the vice of Albee’s plays. To go beyond the sentimental setting, the archaic, Southern, feminine, timeless, alcoholic vision, would mean an abandonment of the very texture of Williams’s imagination. The lonely, the hurt, the mutilated, the dreaming—if these are not to be the very substance of his art, what can we imagine will take their place? No doubt it is presumptuous to say that this mood has been drained, squeezed, of all strength and meaning, but I feel that it has and the failures of the last season poignantly confirm it. The Mutilated, the first of the two one-act plays, was a queer, unwholesome valentine. One lonely lady has lost her breast by cancer and the other lonely lady has, by drink, lost everything except her breasts. Who would have imagined that the mere possession of breasts could be so supporting? As the play went on I kept thinking of Lenny Bruce’s, “Toilet, you’re lucky you’re white!” The whole theme was so perverse, so askew and unaware, so vulgar and improbable—and all wrapped in melody and tears—that it was clear the writer had somehow lost touch with his own work. The other play, Gnadige Fraulein, was much more alive, but here again the mixture of the sentimental and the strangely unwholesome—mixed, one felt, not by design but out of this same unawareness—alienated most of the critics and all of the audience. They did not, it seems, really want to see the lovely Margaret Leighton—tall, thin, plucky—stalking about with her eyes pecked out by cockaloony birds. In the struggle for the morning fish, the old trouper—and was it Williams himself?—endured every humiliation, every degradation to the body and soul. Her voice gone, this poor, abused Pagliacci nevertheless continued to offer her entertainments to a reluctant audience. There was a sort of Nineties feel to all this, but Williams again did not seem in control of the mood; he put in and took out without any artistic direction. A young blond man playing an Indian was an embarrassment that reduced the moments of more inspired symbolic comedy. Things went too far and not far enough. The lack of proportion tired the senses and created a peculiar feeling of discomfort.

If this decadent, homosexual theater has indeed had its run, why should the end have come now? Perhaps it is simple exhaustion, and yet it may be more than that. Art has not yet taken in directly the new America of President Johnson, McNamara, the Pentagon, the lonely, looming power of America itself. We are not the same and the protest or affirmation that art will make about what we newly are cannot be the same. The new America is much more subtle than McCarthy or the administration of Eisenhower. It seems to be some strange permanent alteration in our relation to things that will not die with new administrations. Perhaps some unimaginable Cherry Orchard will be cut down and tell us what we have lost or gained…or perhaps it will not come like that at all but from a nihilistic comedy. No matter, the threat of the engulfing mother, the rape of the son, the tyranny of the little woman, the tears of exotic misfits—these do not seem to be what we are truly like, either in our dreams or our waking.

SERJEANT MUSGRAVE’S DANCE and The Caucasian Chalk Circle are as masculine and as deep in social engagement as one could wish. John Arden’s play is a work of striking originality. In his Introduction to the printed text, Arden states the theme: “I think that many of us must at some time have felt an overpowering urge to match some particularly outrageous piece of violence with an even greater and more outrageous retaliation.” The play is stately and serious and the theme is embodied in the extraordinarily complicated and compelling creation of the character, Serjeant Musgrave. Revenge, a rigid, programmatic revenge, has seized the Serjeant. He is “swart, commanding and sardonic,” and “might have served under Cromwell.” He has been serving in an occupation army—perhaps in Ireland in the last century—and has witnessed the meaningless death of civilians, and also the meaningless death of a young English soldier. Out of evangelical pedantry and a menacing idealism he has concocted his scheme to arouse the people in the town of the dead soldier to a protest against the Queen’s army and against such wars themselves. Musgrave has a specially thick, rugged intensity, compounded of Biblical visions and the hysterical discipline of a master-sergeant. He is brave and he is mad. His feelings about his mission are cloudy and yet fixed in his being like a piece of bone. What is most appealing about the play is the complexity of the moral vision. You feel with the Serjeant against the occupying army, but you fear his purifications even more. His dissent is cold, his revolution dangerous. This theme of the sergeant is combined with some Abbey Theatre strikers in a small coalmining town. The strikers are too hungry, too much occupied with their own revolt, to take up the Serjeant’s mission. The play is written in a mixture of British folk style, Brechtian theatrics, and sturdy realism. In the present production, I liked John Colico’s sluggish, heavy Serjeant. The rest of the cast, if not entirely satisfactory, was better than we are accustomed to.

BRECHT’S PLAY, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, is a beautiful, I suppose one could say “Leninist,” parable: “the children to the motherly, the carts to the good drivers.” The production at the Lincoln Center is splendidly dressed, but the interpretation was rather truculently conservative in its approach to the art of the stage. Its disappointments are those of the other plays and now at the end of the season we sense that the Blau-Irving Company does have a style. All of the performances have been alike, so much so that all the plays seem finally to blur into one play. The mood concentrates always, whether rightly or wrongly, on energy and openness. There is little poetry, mystery, or sweetness. Instead it is always activity, strength, fortissimo. You begin to feel that the directors cannot even see the quiet parts of the texts, the moments of melancholy, of nostalgia. In this production they employ a chorus of three women who stare right at you as if to win an argument and sing in the loudest, fastest clip some very tender lines, such as:

When the house of a great one collapses
Many little ones are slain.
Those who had no share in the good fortune of the mighty
Often have a share in their mis- fortunes.
The plunging wagon
Drags the sweating beasts with it
Into the abyss.

(The last line was given to the Story Teller but he made of them no more nor less than of any other line.)

Grusha is played by Elizabeth Huddle as a middle-western Mother Courage, plain, sure of her feelings, absolutely unmodulated. The company goes neither up nor down, sad nor gay; it is always on dead center, working and struggling. Robert Symonds was quite appealing as Adzak. Sometimes when he was on stage, he brightened everything around and for a moment the other players transcended themselves. For the rest it was noise without pause.

And so this season at Lincoln Center comes to an end. Four important plays were brought to New York. Except for The Country Wife, they were political and historical plays, having to do with the affairs of nations, with change, with injustice and guilt. They were not easy and they did not gratify our taste for the luxurious in feeling or in plot. They were episodic, philosophical. A daring offering to New York. That the company suffered from a peculiar literalness was a great sadness.

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