The Theater of Decadence

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams; drawing by David Levine

Should we call it “the end of an era”? In any case, it was “curtains” this season for one sort of American playwrighting. Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge produced works of startling antiquity. Fashion, we suddenly saw, had moved on. Tennessee Williams’s play were brilliantly directed and acted, but nothing stayed the flight of the restless audience. They shunned our trio of dramatists as if they had been last year’s hemlines. No doubt it was “Marat/Sade” that overthrew the reign. Goofy ladies in furnished rooms in New Orleans; Albee’s chubby, inexperienced (in every way, including the professional) young boy, all concupiscent innocence, and literally screwed to death by a knotty little woman, a sort of prefiguration of Candy Mossler: These jokes could not stand up to Charlotte Corday and her spastic knife. The harsh idealism of Marat and the soul-destroying naturalism of the Marquis de Sade, the insane in their tub-gray institutional smocks, all spoke of the deepest sexual fantasies of our time, of our suppressions, our madness, our suffering, our cruelties. The delicate and decadent themes of our own writers seemed by comparison a tired midnight drag party that might better have been forgotten with the morning’s hangover. This is not to say that “Marat/Sade” is a model of dramatic art we would wish to see infinitely Xeroxed in the offices of our playwrights. But its appearance did, like any work of art, stand for itself alone and also as a critique of other works.

WILLIAM INGE does not have the same degree of talent Albee and Williams have, but he shared with them this season his obsolescence and also their puzzling lack of control over their material. In a quite literal way, one felt that these playwrights did not know what they were doing. Neither taste, nor truth, nor formal design seemed within their grasp; they appeared to put in and to take out without knowing why. Inge, for instance, apparently was mistaken about the whole nature of his project. What turned out to be a vapid, square situation comedy was intended as a radical play of ideas. The action of Where’s Daddy? turned upon a dummy baby. Motherhood, Fatherhood (“Hold it, man! It won’t hurt you!”) and the rearing of the young came under the scrutiny of an old queen, two beatniks, two sturdy, no-nonsense stage Negroes, and a suburban grandmother. The fussy, aging pederast turned out to be the best father, or mother, of us all. And so the curtain came down not on a sick, pansy show, but on a wholesome, little didactic confection, consoling to the middle-aged. This play had the longest run of the three and no doubt Inge got the message.

Albee’s Malcolm was the merest trifle, an adaptation, and beside it Tiny Alice of the previous season would stand with Faust. One would not call this work back from the…

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