Another Bow

Some Simple Clues for Not Quitting the Theater—Maybe

Maybe there won't be a depression--I'm not an economic prophet--but things like the stock market's recent frenzies may start to make New Yorkers as jumpy as Russians. And people who expect the bottom to drop out of everything are a more restive group than people who think boom times are trickling down on them. They will demand a different kind of theater, organized and presented in a different way than the kinds we offer now. (Maybe it is time for the playwrights to start yelling "Strike!" again.) They will want substance, they will want passion, they will want something that connects to their lives. They may want to reach, rather urgently, for links to the greatness of the past; in desperate times, the notion that someone has been there before, and felt the same desperation, can be eerily comforting.

Who will pay the actors then? As they are hardly paid enough now, their situation won't seem appreciably worse. The fading away of the comfy, closed-off institutions that now seem to be the theater will bring a new sense of freedom, mixed with a heavy ache of loss. But there will be bigger things to worry about--breathable air, drinkable water, food and shelter--a concern for the public welfare in a sense of the word that our current politicians barely know exists. That includes a concern for the welfare of the spirit, which cannot live on a diet of brain-dead spectacle and fancy imports uptown, offset for the few by a tastier regimen of small sincerities and personal explorations downtown.

Le Gallienne, who was not interested in such things and had the money to do otherwise, walked away from Broadway stardom to found the Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street. In the nine years it lasted, she produced 37 plays, by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Molière, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and living playwrights from Giraudoux to Susan Glaspell. She did not do everything right, but no one ever does. What she did achieve is impossible today, because no one has her combination of knowledge, will, and monetary resources. Today's world demands a lot more of the last, and has an even more violent apathy toward the first. The odds are strongly against anything good happening. And computer programming is always there as an alternative; no one is forced to pursue a career in the theater. But the theater never goes away; and if it looks like a trivial diversion now, there is always the dark chance looming up ahead that it may become the spiritual necessity it has been for other cultures at other times. Actors who believe, and can walk past their frustration and disappointment, will do well to ponder what greatness is, learn everything they can about their predecessors, and lay their plans. Something is taking its course, and the theater, like the world, may be about to change faster than we think.

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