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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 insistence that a banality be acknowledged a unique mystery, an effort to feel what cannot, under the given circumstances, be felt. It is not always greed nor the desire for success that lies at the bottom of sentimentality. The origin may be near to greed but it is not quite the same thing. The infection attacks those who care little for money as well as those who care much. Sentimentality seems to breed in the space between idea and execution.

Perhaps the worst thing our theater has done is to convince everyone that drama is the art of “making things work” on the stage. This is a legacy from commerce: The thing may not sell—that in the end is the Eleusinian mystery before which we are all silent—but it must work. From the top to the bottom, the most lavish to the dustiest little loft, they are all sharpening and shaping, maiming and taming. The disturbing sense we have of repetition, déjà vu, of having been there before: this is the pay for making it work. Things work because they are like other things that work. End Game and Happy Days by Samuel Beckett cannot be said to work at all, in the sense of our theater. Only a mind free of the obsessions of conventional forms could produce works of such formal beauty.

The weighted atmosphere of The Apple Tree, the abyss of “Italian psychology” in The Rose Tattoo, the trifles by Thornton Wilder resuscitated at The Cherry Lane a few months ago, the pugnacious banalities of Viet Rock: one need not attribute the lacks in these events to greed or calculation. They all meet their death in the swamp of memory and platitude. What is called the production in America is really the energy that goes into concealing the fact that when the thing has at last reached the stage no one any longer believes in its lyrics, its book, its form, its content, its message, its significance, its reviews, or its box office. This disguising energy is ferocious, as we all know; it is called The Method, or Actor’s Studio, or Stanislavsky, or whatever. Often as not it is totally unsuited to the material; it is either an embarrassingly lively dressing of a picked skeleton, or an unbalancing memory of what may, in the beginning, have been the purpose of the play. Commerce shows its strength in the theater not by making people write for money, but by inserting a false sense of the sovereignity of a commercial craft. Alice James once wrote in her diary about the efforts of a newspaper syndicate to get regular contributions from her brother, Henry James. They assured him that they had no desire to censor, to cut or to control, that he could write anything he pleased “so long as there was nothing literary in it.”

IT IS SENTIMENTALITY that makes a single production in the American theater seem like every other production. The Rose Tattoo, A Delicate Balance, The Alchemist, Viet Rock, Dinner at Eight: alas, you are always at home, in any of them. The Rose Tattoo1 is an encyclopedia of absurd ideas. The Italian nation needs a committee to protect it from the foreign exploitation of the Italian soul, with its passionate nature, its evil eyes, and its men with roses tattooed on their chests. In the Williams play, every sentiment—married love, grief—is introduced, only to be riduculously exaggerated, to take off like a balloon full of air. Anna Magnani appeared in the film version a few years back and even the most faltering memory of her performance will explain what is wrong with Maureen Stapleton’s version. Here in New York, poor Serafina is played as if she were a real person, instead of a stage Italian. It is not admitted that this is a role; the pretense is to a life.

Sentimentality is often the handmaiden of moral and political instruction. This is the most melancholy union of all. The morally earnest fall back upon conventional patterns with less guilt than our mere entertainers. They try by a judicious use of the stage to do something for the Jews, the Negroes, for Peace. They shape and cut and spell it out for us, they lecture and threaten, and there is considerable gain—for the playwright. We like to be lectured, and to see actresses staring down at us with contempt for injustices we are also contemptuous of. We like to be told not to be Fascists, or prudes, or bad parents. Or if you don’t like to be told what you know, you may look around, wondering to whom it is all addressed. But Lester Maddox, or George Rockwell, or Hitler do not go to the theater. The intensity then will seem a bit of a waste, since our true sins, the neglects and fears and sloths are not so easily brought into life, “made to work” on the stage.

Viet Rock2 is only the faintest hint of our reality. The public utterances of our leaders are funnier—if that is a suitable designation—than anything the authors can dream up. For the horrors of war, the images on television could hardly be surpassed or even suggested by the people on the stage. It was always risky, but one hadn’t thought our peculiar war would be done in such a middle-aged, over-fed way, like the old skits for dust bowl victims.

What we might have hoped for was the mad anarchistic pantomime of The Fugs,3 of Tuli Kupferberg in “Kill for Peace.” Looking like some obscene Yeshiva student, he has a catatonic relaxation that does more in one pornographic slump than all the agit-prop frenzy of Viet Rock. The Fugs are neither art nor theater, but noise (“total assault”) and Free Speech. Still they make all sorts of popular entertainment obsolete. After “Coca Cola Douche” it is not the easiest thing in the world to sit through the first act of The Apple Tree and watch Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin in the garden of Eden, trying to “evolve” a word for love. The Fugs are soft, liberal exhorters to “Group Grope.” There is a schizophrenic sweetness and dirtiness about them and the leader of the group, Ed Sanders, is a dismayingly archetypal American. If he weren’t “groping for peace,” he would have been in the Twenties an atheist, in the Thirties a Trotskyite. But he is an actor, possessed of a subversive energy that does not come forth on records and certainly not in his books of verses, or whatever you might call these “lyrics.” In person he is a new, indefinable image. (Kupferberg is a more accomplished actor, but he is not the prime spirit of this group, a group whose purpose is far from evident.) Ed Sanders in dirty black cotton pants, a horrible white plastic vest, dirty red scarf, matted hair, holding a mike with a cord, is some sort of parody of all the MC’s of history. He looks like James Jones, or a foul Bob Hope. Neither he nor his “slum goddess of the lower east side” is aphrodisiac, but they are wildly funny because he and his songs have trapped the infantilism of smutty little boys. To be clean and well-dressed and concerned about homosexuality or four-letter words: that is the real madness. It is not free sex, but free speech they celebrate: dirty words, dirty feet, laughter. The Fugs are ideologues of some kind, not orgiasts; their ideas are few and simple, and all of them are pacific. The young couples in the audience, soiled, longhaired, were strangely soft and domesticated also, as if they had some parody nest, with a few pans, a few drugs, and then, all smudged and sweaty tucked themselves into a passive sleep. Still there is something final about The Fugs. It is hard to see how Alan Jay Lerner can carry on after “My Baby Done Left Me and I Feel like Homemade Shit.”

  1. 1

    At the Billy Rose Theater

  2. 2

    At the Martinique Theater

  3. 3

    At the Players Theater

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