Bowing Out

Should American Actors Flee a Muddled, Unrewarding Profession?

These mishmash marriages, like many other forms of misguidance, are tolerated for several reasons. Just as we all live at the end of modernism, and have not yet figured out what will replace it, we in the American theater have outlived the death of Broadway, a method of making plays that no longer exists, and have not yet evolved a myth to replace the one Broadway so carefully wove about itself for 70 years—a myth of glamour, speedy superefficiency, and perfect style that, like most such things, has often proved so shabby and trivial in retrospect. Many little myth-weavers in various realms, from the East Village to the nation's grander resident theaters, would like to supply the replacement myth, but none has yet wholly succeeded in supplying the audience with a steady outlay of creative product that would justify having such a myth woven about it. As with Broadway in its heyday, the myth-weaving today is often more evident than the value of the work being mythicized. Broadway at least had the honor, even at its lowest, to give common entertainment value in return for common currency, and only got truly phony when it started to wax poetic about capital A Art; nowadays we often get the wax and the capitalization minus the entertainment value.

In this the theater is much like every other American institution: a lot of attention-getting smoke and noise, but precious little substance. No wonder the young, justifiably suspicious, cling to various kinds of dreck as being more genuinely representative of American culture: If you have nothing substantive to discuss, chattering about the arcana of William Castle movies and the late recordings of Barbra Streisand is much more fun than pretending that you believe writer X, hailed as a genius on the strength of a few half-formed efforts, is one of the world's major artists. We have better playwrights than X, but they work on a smaller scale, and are rather self-effacing; X's real skill is for publicity. His story shows how much we long for greatness, so that we snatch at even the faintest hint of it.

I occasionally supply commentary to a foundation that gives very large grants, meant to sustain artists of established quality; the other day they asked my opinion of a newcomer—far younger than X—who has only created two publicly performed works. I don't know how to reply: Should I tell them that he deserves the grant because every gifted young artist does, or throw the information request back in their faces, screaming that they're just youth-hungry celebrity fuckers like the rest of this disgusting country? Neither answer would do anyone much good, but there is no middle ground. Our society having no place for art in its values, we hardly have a sense of our established artists; the public eye sees only young victims, old vampires, and a shadow world in between of uncertain souls in transit between the two conditions.

The most uncertain souls, of course, are actors, those driven creatures flocking out of the profession at one end and being sucked into pointless two-dimensionality at the other. The art of presenting another person through the medium of yourself is uncertain by definition, and American actors are the most preposterous people—insanely arrogant and helplessly humble, astoundingly uninformed yet incredibly perceptive and alert, subtle and crude, wild and docile, proudly owning a vast range of skills and utterly willing to toss them aside or prostitute them for any paying idiocy. When scripts and direction are the least bit interesting, they shine; even when both are horrific, their presence can make an evening bearable. That our theater is less than great never seems to be their fault, but its lack of luster comes from their one major shortcoming: their willingness to accept the system as it is, to let scripts and directors drive them, instead of searching out for themselves, in groups, the plays or directors they need and want. What they lack, oddly, is a sense of their standing as artists: Masters on the stage, they are petty servants behind the scenes, bowing to agents, managers, casting directors, producers, or any Hollywood half-wit waving a 13-week contract at them, which is why Los Angeles is the Bermuda Triangle of American acting. And all this time, they should be running the theater, not letting the theater run them. Barring the classic Greek plays, about the production of which we know little, nothing of any value has ever been done in the theater except by permanent companies of actors—though, granted, they have sometimes needed a writer or director to scream at them a bit. We wouldn't have Shakespeare's plays, Moliere's, Shaw's, Pirandello's, or O'Neill's, without such companies; nor could such plays be kept alive without great acting troupes to blow the dust off them every so often.

Yet our actors drift from play to play, from city to city, from medium to medium, when they might, by pooling their efforts, create something to beat their exploiters hollow. No, it probably wouldn't bring them the Park Avenue triplex with indoor heated pool that's apparently every American artist's dream. But it might offer a satisfaction with themselves and their profession that would run a little deeper than the residual checks from the two seconds of looped dialogue before they get their heads blown off by Bruce Willis. And it might give those who can't get through the casting directors' doors some second thoughts about that computer-programming course. Actors, an old saying tells us, are cattle. Brecht supplied the answer to that in Puntila: "If the cows could get together and talk things over, the slaughterhouse wouldn't last long."

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