Our Theatrical Century—II

Theater's Been in Flux All Century Long, So What's Left for It in the Next?

I do not think there will be very much poetry in the future.
—Maria Irene Fornes, The Danube (1984)

Until World War I, America was a prime receiver of the theater's changes; after the war it was a primary source of them. Unlike England, where censorship kept key works out of the public eye until very late (Miss Julie wasn't played complete in London till 1965), the U.S., with its vast touring circuit and booming population of immigrants, was fertile ground.

The first genre America altered substantially, however, was the musical. The new polyglot sound emerging from the U.S. in the ragtime era—a mix of African rhythms, Russian-Jewish chromatics, and Irish lilt—began to transform the musical theater fully during World War I, through major access points like Irving Berlin's Watch Your Step! (1915) and the Jerome Kern-P.G. Wodehouse "Princess Theatre" musicals. Unlike prewar European operetta, with its ponderous style, or the elaborate and random musical spectacles of the turn of the century, new American musicals were fast, taut, breezy in attitude, and rhythmically varied—the latter even more so after the success of Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along (1920) ushered in a new era of admiration for black performers and black dancing styles.

Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe in the Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones: Expressionism's endgame
photo: James Hamilton
Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe in the Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones: Expressionism's endgame

While the American musical entered the great creative flowering that lasted into the mid 1960s, when the desire to be "serious" finally sank the form under its own ponderosity, Americans joined continental Europeans in the effort to redefine what constituted a play in the "modern" world picking its way out of the war's rubble. Only England, caught between the censor on one hand and the class system on the other, contributed little to this rethinking; its great theatrical achievement of the time was the light comic style embodied in Noël Coward. Expressionism, which dominated the German stage of the 1920s, found sympathetic echoes in American writers like Elmer Rice and John Howard Lawson. The latter subsequently became the dogmatic leader of the blacklisted screenwriters known as the Hollywood Ten; both his Stalinist rigidity and his unjust persecution could stand as emblems for the many bitter disillusionments that struck down the adventurous artists of the interwar years.

In smaller countries, new theater movements were nativist and poetic, as with the Abbey Theatre's push to develop an Irish drama, which culminated in the boisterous, unsettling works of O'Casey, or the surge toward a renovated Spanish poetic theater, so spectacularly embodied in García Lorca. France, characteristically, evolved its boulevard entertainments, through Giraudoux and Anouilh, into a modern offshoot of 18th-century drame philosophique, questioning each action as it was being taken—an eerie mirror, in the 1930s, of France's inaction at a time of economic chaos and political upheaval.

In Russia, a generation of rebels against realism was led by Vsevolod Meyerhold, drawing on the outburst of satiric and free-form writing that had followed the 1917 Revolution; even Stanislavsky himself, in later life, began formulating a new theory of acting based less on realism and more on physical being. Ideas not dissimilar were being pondered, in Paris, by Antonin Artaud. The sense of unchannelled violence and helpless, predetermined doom suffuses almost all the most daring theater work of the 1920s and '30s, and countless artists were fated to suffer what they had instinctively predicted. If Hollywood, as Edmund Wilson wrote, was "one of the dooms of our era" for a writer, it was at any rate the most comfortable of them, far preferable to being shot like Lorca, stabbed like Meyerhold, confined to a lunatic ward like Artaud, gassed to death by Hitler, or reduced to skin and bones in Siberia by Stalin.

The condition of exile as an alternative to state-sponsored murder would become, in the late 20th century, the common condition of non-American artists, while those living here, even when successful, found themselves in a constant state of bitter argument with the culture. When Eugene O'Neill, one of the century's most celebrated American playwrights, made the cover of Time in 1946, he infuriated its right-wing publisher, Henry Luce, by declaring that America, with its obsessive materialism, was "the greatest failure in the world"; Luce devoted his column in the issue to attacking the hero of his own cover story. Another instance was the gradual shunning of Tennessee Williams as his plays grew more open in their homosexual ambience while employing more daring strategies to extend traditional realism poetically. Williams, whose feverish later works have yet to receive their full due onstage, was the latter half of the century's answer to Strindberg in his wide-ranging willingness to explore every stylistic mode and device.

** Before any of them, though, a self-exiled American had made a world-altering contribution to dramatic literature. Early in the century, Gertrude Stein had settled in Paris, where neither her small inherited income nor her lesbianism could severely inconvenience her life as they would have here. Starting to write what she designated as plays in the years just before World War I, she created a series of texts, fluid in form and accessible to an infinity of approaches, that made up one of the century's most fruitful fields for interpreters: What other artist has appealed to Virgil Thomson, Frederick Ashton, the Living Theater, and the Wooster Group? When American theater, heated by growing frustration with the complacent commercial entertainments of the 1950s, created the underground explosion of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, Stein was the mother of it all, as Jarry was its wicked absentee father; the Al Carmines-Lawrence Kornfeld productions of Stein works ran through Off-Off's first two decades like a bright ribbon of otherworldly joy.

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