The Third Theater Revisited

In the middle Sixties I wrote an essay saluting a new theater that was just beginning to evolve in opposition to the existing theater on Broadway and in the culture centers. At the time, the “third theater” as I called it, was a fringe movement whose continued survival was as problematical as its anti-war position was unpopular, so it was with considerable surprise that I watched it, soon after, begin to take a position of power in the theater. This development paralleled a failure of nerve among the middle classes, as the forces of conventional culture seemed to grow guilty and weak before the culture of the young, and the American avant-garde, for the first time in its history, became the glass of fashion and the mold of form. What was once considered special and arcane—the exclusive concern of an alienated, argumentative, intensely serious elite—was now accessible, through television and the popular magazines; vogues in women’s fashions followed hard upon, and sometimes even influenced, vogues in modern painting; underground movies became box office bonanzas, and Andy Warhol’s factory was making him a millionaire.

The narrowing of the traditional distance between serious and mass-middle culture was accompanied, in the “third theater,” by a growing callowness, sloppiness, and arrogance which made me suspicious of it. Indeed I developed much the same ambivalence toward the anti-war and black power movements as they have changed from noble acts of non-violent resistance by highly serious individuals to disruptive and histrionic acts by infantile “revolutionaries.” For just as the frustrations over the endless conflict in Vietnam and the unresolved dilemmas of the black people have given a vaguely totalitarian coloration to certain cadres of the Left, so the success of the third theater, which reflects these frustrations, has tended to sanctify its failings and conventionalize its virtues. What once seemed daring and original now often seems tiresome and familiar; stereotyped political assertions, encouraged by their easy acceptance, have replaced instinctive, individual dissent; and the complex moral and metaphysical issues of great art are being obliterated by a simple-minded nihilism.

Does this suggest that I am ready to repudiate my earlier assumptions? Only in so far as I must repudiate all theater movements that begin to take an ideological direction. While the new theater as a whole has taken a wrong turn, however, there are still many young American playwrights with the gifts to blast this theater out of its formulas. Jean-Claude van Itallie, Sam Shepard, Charles Dizenzo, Ronald Ribman, Leo Rutman are a few of them. Similarly, while I overvalued Viet Rock in my relief to discover a play that mentioned the Vietnam war at all, I still regard America Hurrah, Dynamite Tonite, and Macbird! as works of real imagination and originality, and will continue to defend these plays against hostile critics who attack what is genuine in the new theater movement along with what is spurious. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly clear, now that the new theater has …

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