The American theater, always in decline, seems today to be at one of its lowest ebbs. But this could be deceptive. The last six years, so apparently barren of vital dramatic activity, may have involuntarily nourished the seeds of new theatrical promise. Is it conceivable that these may eventually blossom? Let us examine those years—and, with the reader’s forbearance, my own relation to them—to see if a qualified hope is really possible.
In the fall of 1959, when I first joined The New Republic as its theater critic, America was preparing to awaken from that long drugged sleep called the Eisenhower age; in a few months, it would begin to rub away the accumulated rheum of those eight dismal years. The end of our national lethargy was signaled, in most cultural areas, by a rush of radical dissent and artistic ferment; but the theater, traditionally retrograde, continued to doze in the center of blandness and mediocrity, impervious to experiment, immune to achievement, hostile to thought. Financed by timid producers, manufactured by pedestrian playmakers, and evaluated by conventional-minded reviewers, most American plays were exuding an ooze of squalid contentment which worked like a narcotic on an audience already stupefied by affluence. In this atmosphere, theatrical advance was blocked before it could even get under way, and an increasing number of spectators—the more discriminating ones—were turning their backs on the stage.
These conditions helped to fix me in an adversary posture. Coming to criticism from the university where I share with my students the excitement of the great plays, I was appalled at the absence of distinguished drama on the American stage, and astonished that the standards of our theater were being arbitrated (often in less than two hours of hurried scribbling) by newspaper reporters, many of whom had prepared for dramatic criticism through stints in such departments as music, foreign affairs, dining and dancing, and sports. I loved the drama above all other literary forms—loved it for its blending of language and action, its galloping immediacy, its economical means and structural beauty—and I loved the theater when it gave body and substance to plays I admired, or improvised a rich, imaginative life of its own. Now this art was in the hands of spoilers and profiteers; one style dominated our stage, and one system of acting; plays had lost their relevance to the deeper realities of contemporary life; and the only debate the theater was stimulating (this issue raged week after week in the Sunday Times) concerned the rude treatment of theater-lovers at the hands of the box office.
Talented writers of integrity, who might have helped to revive this failing medium, had grown wholly indifferent to it; some were even beginning to question whether the dramatic form could support a serious work of art. And while theatrical values were still being preserved in a few weekly and monthly magazines, the ranks of the serious critics had been badly depleted by the retirement of Stark Young and Eric Bentley. Impatient with the tripe and treacle that constituted the hits of each Broadway season, and depressed by the uncomprehending antagonism that awaited any work aspiring above the commonplace, I edged cautiously into a reviewing career, curious to see if a declining theater could still be subjected to the same rigorous tests that were currently being applied to literature, poetry, music, and painting.
This rather foolhardy undertaking involved me in two distinguishable functions—one literary and analytical, the other cultural and polemical. My principal responsibility as a critic of the drama was to evaluate and elucidate works of interest, but since these were appearing—let us put it gently—rather infrequently, I was forced to develop a secondary purpose: identifying the various obstacles in the way of a genuine dramatic art. Because such obstacles were so numerous and so stubborn, my secondary purpose eventually threatened to become paramount. Broadway was capable of lodging pleasant entertainments in its show-shops; many of these I enjoyed. But I was soon convinced that the commercial system would never encourage real dramatic adventure, indeed was preventing such adventure from taking place. And so I joined the ranks of those who had warred upon Broadway as a cultural institution, underlining its inadequacies, exposing its values, anatomizing its fakeries, and attacking its heroes and saints.
Much of my writing, in short, had become a form of destructive criticism. This was hardly an endearing occupation in that smiling age when the highest Broadway virtues were togetherness and good will, but since there were a sufficient number of reviewers, press agents, producers, directors, and show-biz sweeties bestowing flattering kisses on one another, the theater could certainly survive those disgruntled outsiders who refused to join in the general embraces. And then I believed such destructive activity to be a secret good. As Shaw wrote: “Construction cumbers the ground with institutions made by busybodies. Destruction clears it and give us breathing space and liberty.” It certainly gave me breathing space and liberty: there was something exhilarating about being able to record my impressions without having to hedge or weasel.
For the sake of this freedom, I turned down invitations to extend my influence: I was very content where I was. Thanks to the unfailing support of my editors, I had complete control over what, when, and how often I published; thanks to the growing circulation of the magazine, I enjoyed the luxury of an authoritative platform without being shackled by the restrictions of power. Because of the high volume of American mass communications, my own voice never carried very far. But although I was speaking in sibilant stage whispers, and uncertain at first about my audibility, I grew increasingly confident that I would somehow be overheard. Then, too, my advantages were many. Most of my readers did not attend the theater, so my adverse criticism was not likely to affect the run of a play. And since few theater professionals were reading my column, I did not have to worry too much about wounding feelings. I wounded feelings anyway, of course, as well as outraging many who thought me too harsh, too bitter, or too sweeping in my condemnations, but I was too deeply engaged to stop and count the casualties.
My strategy raised certain tactical difficulties. How do you continually confront the specious products of a debased theater without falling into an impotent rage or, worse still, losing faith in the value of your calling? These were problems without a satisfactory solution; I have not yet solved them. At first, I tried to justify my discussions of trivial Broadway successes by using them as frameworks for essay-reviews on more general subjects; but after a while, I began to write less and less frequently. The great majority of plays I couldn’t bring myself to review at all. If an anaemic little comedy or drama—bloodless enough to be absorbed by all the daily reviewers—was analyzed accurately by one of my colleagues on the weekly and monthly magazines, I felt relieved of the responsibility to cover it. If the daily reviewers themselves correctly evaluated an inadequate play, I ignored it completely. As time went on, only three types of event aroused me to write: the significant new work or revival; the portentous overpraised fraud; the local or visiting company whose work illuminated some aspect of the theater as a whole. I grew less and less interested in the common run of plays, and more and more concerned with the conditions under which these plays were being produced.
For a short time, such conditions were very auspicious off Broadway. The first play I was to review in my new post, coincidentally, was Jack Gelber’s The Connection at the Living Theatre—a production now renowned for having helped to alter the structure of opinion about the American stage. Briefly dismissed, bitterly attacked, or totally ignored by all the newspapers and glossier magazines (even the helpful New Yorker notice appeared long after the play was established), The Connection, nevertheless, managed to survive its initial reception, hanging on to life through the faith of its producers and the support of a handful of partisans. When the magazine reviews began to accumulate in its favor, it went on to become one of the longest running productions ever staged off Broadway. For the next Living Theatre offering, the newspapers sent their first-string reviewers. And while the hostility of these men to minority theater never disappeared, it did become more guarded and uneasy. On the occasion of its first New York showing in 1956, Walter Kerr could confidently patronize Waiting for Godot as some kind of precious highbrow curiosity written by an author out of touch “with the minds and the hearts of the folk out front”; after 1959, he was never again to seem so certain he was writing for a consensus. In the minority theater, at least, the centers of influence were shifting. Artists and intellectuals, for the first time, began to hope that some day they might have a theater too.
The off-Broadway movement, of course, had been in existence all through the Fifties, but it had always depended upon the bounty of the majority reviewers. With this dependence more doubtful, the movement—led by the fanatically independent Living Theatre—grew more courageous for a time, going on to stage some of the most important plays in the contemporary theatre. These works, though occasionally mauled by bad productions, provided some of my most interesting experiences as a reviewer; and since they represented the theater at its most elevated, they also served to whet an almost blunted critical purpose. Off-Broadway was responsible, too, for discovering such native talents as those of Edward Albee, Lewis Jean Carlino, Murray Schisgal, Arthur Kopit, Kenneth H. Brown, and Kenneth Koch, but my attitude towards some of these writers was usually more ambiguous. I never relinquished an instinctive suspiciousness towards certain tendencies in the American avant-garde, particularly its fashion-mongering and cultural opportunism, but I was always grateful to off-Broadway for remaining open to freshness and experiment.
Alas, success proved no friend to this movement, and it eventually began to falter. As an increasing number of spectators began to notice the minority theater, so did an increasing number of unions, and spiraling costs soon made all adventure risky. Apparently determined to prove that it was merely another creak in Broadway’s arthritic joints, off-Broadway began to grind out a huge number of musicals and revues, as well as many of the straight plays that Broadway no longer welcomed. And when the Living Theatre collapsed after a collision with the Internal Revenue Service (an episode which ended in the imprisonment for contempt of court of Julian Beck and Judith Malina), the heart went out of the movement, and never really returned.
But Broadway also had the staggers, a development which caught me rather by surprise. I had enlisted myself against a giant who seemed extremely strong and formidable; but after lowering my head and charging wildly in all directions, I looked up one day to find this brawny Goliath supine—kayoed not by any of its critics but rather by its own internal failures and disorders. Each season was being declared the worst in memory; the press was full of sour news for investors. A few musicals and light comedies were capable of surviving in this noxious climate, along with occasional Merrick-imported shows from abroad. But straight plays were appearing rarely, and usually failing when they did appear. The works of Edward Albee were exceptions, his particular brand of astringency having proved acceptable to uptown as well as downtown audiences. But Miller was still silent, Inge was no longer considered a serious contender, and Williams was repeating himself from year to year. The aesthetic crisis of the American theater was finally manifesting itself economically—that is, in a way understandable to all—and the Great White Way was blanketed in gloom. Broadway had taken on the look of an expensive funeral chapel, admitting new victims every week. There were hordes of mourners, to be sure, waiting to file by the biers and pay their respects to cadavers that showed the slightest sign of life (whim! bang! hit!) but the more inert stiffs (whoosh! bink! flop!) were being quickly hauled off to the boneyard, unattended by family or friends. It had become a dark unwholesome sanctuary, and a drama reviewer couldn’t help but feel a little like Virgil among the shades.
As a result of this deterioration in the commercial theater, hope began to collect around cultural center and permanent companies: the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre came into being, presumably to relieve the theater from degrading economic pressures and tawdry commercial fare. But it soon became clear, after Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead were appointed directors of this company, that relief was not yet in sight. What should have been a total revolution proved only a diversionary tactic by the palace guard, permitting the very people responsible for the theater’s collapse to regroup their forces. Intensely disappointed with these nominations, I had doubts about Lincoln Center before it even produced a play; I sensed a ghastly repetition of the whole Broadway syndrome, this time under the dignified aegis of subsidized culture.
I was extremely hard on Arthur Miller, too, for much the same reasons. Having broken his eight-year silence with two plays in succession, he was assuming a role with this company that was virtually guaranteed, I thought, to set back theatrical clocks. It was not simply that After the Fall and Incident at Vichy seemed to me bad and pretentious plays, but that they seemed so moribund in their style, ideas, and language. This was the theater that had dominated Broadway forover twenty years, the theater that effectually banished poetry and imagination from the stage. Had it been discredited on the commercial stage only to be resurrected in this new form?
Once again, I had overestimated the strength and vigor of the theater establishment: Lincoln Center soon proved not a resurrection of Broadway but merely another of its post-mortem spasms. Harassed by the press and harried by the Repertory Theatre Board, Kazan, Whitehead, and Miller submitted their resignations shortly more than a year after their first production. The social-psychological theater they had championed was losing its appeal for younger playwrights and more sophisticated audiences awakened by the radical metaphysical drama from France; and when Lincoln Center finally produced a classical play—The Changeling—it proved to be the major disaster of the repertory, demonstrating how inadequate was the realistic acting of our stage. This histrionic inadequacy was also being demonstrated by the Actors Studio Theatre, a producing unit formed out of rivalry with Lincoln Center; it soon proved to be another branch of the same rotting tree. Like the Kazan company, the Actors Studio quickly exposed the substantial limitations of its method when applied to works of range and thrust; play after play was choked up in the self-conscious mannerisms of its more famous personnel. Performances of a similar flatness had once enraged the poet Yeats enough to write:
But actors lacking music
Do most excite my spleen,
They say it is more human
To shuffle, grunt and groan,
Not knowing what unearthly stuff
Rounds a mighty scene
And such performances were enraging many of us. Splenetic over the prosaic “reality” of Lee Strasberg’s earthbound school, we impatiently awaited not only a more ample kind of acting, but also the unearthly music of some mighty scenes.
Both were to come, first in William Ball’s original approach to Pirandello’s Six Characters and then in Jonathan Miller’s production of Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory. These two events—each so poetic, atmospheric, and heavily charged—were to awaken for the first time in years a sense of real theatrical possibility. Robert Lowell’s play, particularly, was exciting not only in itself but also for the promise it held that gifted writers from other literatures would soon begin to nourish the stage; Saul Bellow’s The Last Analysis, though disfigured by a meretricious Broadway production, offered a similar promise. Around the same time, the Lincoln Center company was taken over by Herbert Blau and Jules Irving, both of whom had already demonstrated their selfless allegiance to the repertory ideal by building the San Francisco Actors Workshop into an ensemble notable for its intelligence, versatility, and adroitness. And in anticipation of a more hospitable professional climate for unconventional drama, many young writers were beginning work on experimental new plays.
Are these the tokens of that renewal we have awaited so long? The signs are scattered, but I am tempted to suppress a natural skepticism and say yes. The American theater finally seems to be emerging, five years late, from the Eisenhower age—its roots torn, its complacency battered, its center displaced, but healthier, nevertheless, for all the confusion and uncertainty. Consistent achievement is yet to come, but one can begin to have hope at last that it will come: theatrical conditions, still pretty awful, are better than they were, if only because everyone is now aware of a crisis. Should this awareness engender some exciting new plays and venturesome production techniques, then the crisis will have been justified. And I, personally, may be able to forsake polemics entirely, and return to the primary critical task of cool analysis. Such a promise is admittedly rash, the products of our stage being so erratic, and my own threshold of exasperation so low. But I am counting on the American theater to keep a long-delayed promise to us all.
This is the Introduction to Stage-Whispers: Theatre Reviews and Articles 1959-65, to be published next fall by Simon & Schuster.
April 22, 1965