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.

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."

With all this in mind, I answered the phone that was ringing back in the first paragraph. It was an actor friend who, for a change, hadn't called to tell me he was leaving the profession. "Can I come talk to you about plays?" he said. "We're thinking of starting a company."

"Good," I said. "Then there's hope. These days, that's something."

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