Writing about the theater—is this a possible activity for the independent critic just now? Those who write for the newspapers and the popular magazines do so as a part of a larger enterprise. They have responsibility, so to speaks, for the activity called “theater.” Other critics and writers, living in the eternal, may write of general ideas about dramatic literature without ever going out at night; and they would be no more negligent of their duty than would Professor Leavis by ignoring Jacqueline Susann or—who knows?—Ernest Hemingway. For one, however, who is self-propelled toward comment upon an art from, upon the passing scene, his very activity is fogged with doubt at a time like the present. Without a sufficient measure of positive feelings on cannot write to much purpose about any art from. In the shadow of the negative there must always be the promise of something hoped for, the lament for losses. In the long run, why are we asked to remind the world more than occasionally of the trashy? How can one give, time and again, attention to the trivial? To think of oneself as a constant corrective is a morbidity.
These remarks, alas, are a foreword to some further animadversions. Hope, like any fever, came with the autumn—and that itself is the measure of the addiction, sustained for decades. Perhaps the theater is finished for good this time. Many people think that to be true and the shrinking commercial situation confirms them. However, the diminishment of the commercial theater has to do with efficiency rather than art. Films and television offer entertainments in a more useful packaging, and the films, in addition, are far more interesting. I do not feel that the commercial theater, playing to more or less large audiences, bears any special claim upon our loyalty. The use made of its large budgets is a hindrance to interesting art. I believe Oliver Smith, with his two hideously mounted new productions—Indians and A Patriot for Me—belongs in Las Vegas. But true theater is an ancient and noble calling, both for those who create it and those who watch it. The wonder about it, the meditation on what theater can be in our time, what joy and beauty and knowledge it can bring to our lives—and how to bring it—that, in spite of disillusion and anxiety, occupies the thoughts of those who have still within them a belief in the form. But isn’t all of this just cant? I am not sure. I undertake new assaults with great misgiving.
These misgivings are especially painful in the case of the “New Theater”—and for a number of reasons. Last year I spent many evenings downtown. Disappointment was sharp. Reluctance to think what one actually thought was even greater, for the atmosphere of the new theater is warm and trusting. It is benevolent, evangelical, and yet seems knowledgeable enough about the world not to expect real understanding outside its own …