The Disaster at Lincoln Center

Theatre; drawing by David Levine

“Dullness, good queen, repeats the jest again.”

The new Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center—a woeful enterprise. Out of the pocket of a patronage truly munificent this group has plucked three little dead bugs. It is clear, from this first season, that nothing whatsoever is to be hoped from this company. It is so new and yet so freshly corrupt. No gladness, no joy, no beauty come forth to greet us. It is the same old sordid know-how, lowliness; the same heartless banality, the same flaccid acting. But most distressing of all is the scent of that fetid air long so characteristic of the New York theater—the breath on our necks of those endlessly self-regarding, famed “professionals.” If the season had not left one cynical, he might cry out against the injustice, the fraud, the betrayal. Instead the mind is merely perplexed. It is as if some moribund heiress had endowed a torpid old desert sheik, already stupefied by riches, with another million.

We might recount the donations, stand amazed before the throne of hope. But, indeed, what is the use? The malignity is only a little worse than had been feared. Defeated, what choice is there except to surrender? And who is left to care? The vapidity of the final offering—S. N. Behman’s But For Whom Gharlie—think on that, ye suffering, who imagined the gods had no further tortures after the meretriciousness of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, the miserably acted votive offering of O’Neill’s Marco Millions!

And yet, can we really give up the theater? If only it were possible. Anyone would gladly be excused from this degrading attachment. The truth is that this ancient art, so natural to mankind, holds us in a holy pact. Rage and contempt do not annul it. The phrase, “theater-lover,” is pitifully apt for our desperate hanging on, our yearning, our unreturned devotion. Disillusionment does not hinder the birth of new hopes. The audience is like the anxious wife who, in the evenings, hears the footsteps on the stairs and says, “Ah, please God, tonight he will be sober!” Tonight, tonight.

Can contemplation, desperation, yield one over-riding sin from which all the little transgressions obediently follow? The destruction of the American theater seems to have come from the fact that producers and directors and actors do not know that the drama is a branch of literature. Those who have been told so do not truly believe it—not for our time, in any case. The last decade shows that the professionals, in whose pitiless subjection this great art lives, believe drama is an arresting idea or situation, projected by mechanical, theatrical devices, and embodied finally in the movements of stage stars. From the top to the bottom of the commercial theatre this is the conviction—the only one they have. There is no sense that drama is first and last an act of literary composition. A thousand humiliations and…

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