Bowing Out

Should American Actors Flee a Muddled, Unrewarding Profession?

The phone rang, and I knew it was going to be another of those phone calls: an actor / writer / director friend announcing his/her intention to give up "the business." They've been coming lately at the rate of two or three a month. Computer school, law school, physiotherapy training, counseling gay high school kids, vegetarian cookery, stockbroker traineeships—the options are as varied as the departures are numerous. While the young pour out of drama schools in increasing numbers, crowding into New York and L.A., babbling nonstop of auditions, agents, new companies and new venues, the slightly less young, if their careers haven't yet taken off, are making a beeline for the nearest available exit. We live in a youth culture, where a 32-year-old is typed as "too mature" for a young romantic lead. The notion of Sarah Bernhardt, at age 70, playing the 19-year-old Joan of Arc seems a relic of the Pleistocene past. (Not that Bernhardt, when she played Joan's trial scene in later life, had any illusions: After the line "J'ai dix-neuf ans" [I'm 19], she used to add, under her breath, "ou pourtant soixante-quatorze" [or rather, 74].)

Why shouldn't artists, especially actors, fly from a medium that seems at once so narrow and centerless in itself, so disregarded in the larger cultural picture? For Americans in the mass, the theater means nothing, except perhaps as a shopping mart where the producers of our two-dimensional media find young talent to suck dry through commercial exploitation. A theater with a stronger sense of itself might have the power to withstand, or even take strength from resisting, such vast external apathy, but ours, these days, is a deeply riven and confused place. There is no longer any generally accepted definition of what a play is, what acting is, what constitutes an evening in the theater. Practitioners and public alike, we know when we experience it, but we don't carry that knowledge over from one experience to the next, much less reach back in time to catalogue it with other great experiences we've had or read about; in our profession, the United States of Amnesia has done its evil work with special effectiveness.

Disagreement over definitions would hardly matter if the faith within each definition were strong. Theater history now teaches us—it didn't always—that in every era, the stage is a polymorphous place, with many different modes of art being practiced, sometimes in balance and sometimes in rivalry with one another. (One creepy outgrowth of our widened historical horizons: Minor aspects formerly ignored are now made central; the young think, for instance, that the "geek" acts which lurked in the fleapit corners of vaudeville were its principal raison d'être.) The broad range of choices didn't prevent the theater in any earlier age from locating its creative core in one genre, one style, one form, or even one artist. Wonderful works and important clues may lurk in those overlooked corners, but who, offered the choice, would willingly trade Hamlet and King Lear for an evening of bear-baiting, or Goldsmith and Sheridan for a collection of harlequinades? One reason postmodernist theory is such b.s. is that all works may be equally "readable," but greatness is still greatness, an unprovable fact that's constantly reaffirmed by our theatergoing experience.

If our theater affirms greatness so rarely and so tenuously, one logical conclusion is that it isn't often there to be affirmed. Largely for financial reasons, our system is arranged to promote an amiable mediocrity at the center, a conventionalized eccentricity (mixed with conventional postures of righteous anger) on the outer edges. Many artists of extraordinary gifts float through this anodyne atmosphere, but with precious little to inspire or challenge them; the presence of any truly remarkable figure—Richard Foreman and the Wooster Group come to mind—is a kind of ongoing astonishment. (One could expand the pleasurable list, according to taste: Karen Finley, David Greenspan, Adrienne Kennedy, Ain Gordon, John Kelly, Maria Irene Fornes, John Jesurun.) But they float, for the most part, through a limited sphere of their own; the theater as a whole has taken no more than gentle nudges from them. The innovative artist ready to charge down the art's main highway, challenging it head-on in terms of both theme and form, is a rare creature. ("You are never surprised to find money changers in the temple," Eric Bentley quipped in the '50s. "The shocking sight is Christ with a whip.")

Not that the theater is alone in its confusions, or in the absence of figures of giant stature. The two-dimensional arts, film and video, may engulf us and form the principal subject of our conversation, but it's hard to find much greatness in them; at best we get technological ingenuity and a few bare flashes of humanity. Independent film, which began as an attempt to create an alternative to Hollywood—a cinematic Off-Off-Broadway—has become, to a dismaying extent, an audition mill for big-studio financing. Painting, poetry, fiction, music, and dance all have their bright talents, and even one or two giants apiece, but the overriding picture is that of a generalized amiable blur, with the artists too often sorted by ethnic and gender categories rather than stature. One key test of a work's quality—that of being able to rouse admiration across disciplinary lines—is the most frequently failed. Who is the novelist every playwright reads, the choreographer to whose premieres the young painters flock, the poet whose new book all the composers dash out to get? These days, when the arts talk to each other, it tends to be through the marriage brokering of artistic administrators and grant programs, which often has an uncomfortable tinge of Yenta the Matchmaker's mishaps. Within the theater itself, there's something analogous in the weird pairings casting directors increasingly tend to make these days between dressy avant-garde projects and kiddies being groomed for media stardom, who find themselves lost in mazes of "intertextuality" and viewpoint study when they'd be happier, and better cast, in stock productions of Oklahoma! or Lost in Yonkers.

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