Our Theatrical Century—II

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

It was not, of course, the first such explosion: In the 1920s, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, and O'Neill had animated the Provincetown Playhouse as an alternative; in the 1930s, the Group Theatre had jolted Broadway's escapist monotony with urban life and politics. The Federal Theatre, America's first experiment with government-subsidized performance, had tried to broaden the theater's audience base while widening its scope as a public forum. The time was ripe for a new resurgence.

As it was elsewhere. Except in Russia and Eastern Europe, where all the notable theater productions after World War II were in essence elaborately encoded messages from prison, there was a pressure to move the art as far as possible from business as usual. Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, establishing postwar theaters on opposite sides of divided Berlin, expanded their old games of provocation with a new richness. The ethical debates encased in prewar French drama fed into a brilliant theatricalist reembodiment deployed by aliens who had adopted France as their new home: the Irishman Beckett, the Romanian Ionesco, the Catalan Arrabal, plus that French-born but perpetually alien force, the convict Genet. Lumped together as "absurdists" on the basis of their dubiety about the value of human endeavor, they struggled to meet the challenge of holding audiences with a purely negative vision.

In England, the explosion was held off till 1956, when the noise made by Osborne's Look Back in Anger, obscuring the script's triviality, encouraged a broad spectrum of new writing. Like the resident-theater movement in America, the innovations of directors' theater in France and Germany, and the theater of slowly transforming images exemplified by Robert Wilson, the profusion of new English dramatists slowly hardened into a routine, co-opted by a mixed system of commercialism and public funding, that tended to discourage excitement and risk, leaving in each realm only one or two stubbornly individual artists to find their own way. Directors who tried to buck the mechanistic production-factory system, like Jerzy Grotowski, tended to veer off onto soul-searching pathways almost irrelevant to theater; those who tried to bring it in tune with some larger collective spirit, as Peter Brook did with The Mahabharata, found only that even communal aspirations could be commodified. There was still always room for the director whose fierce integrity could burn a vision into the public mind—Kantor, Mnouchkine, Bergman, Wajda—or, equally, for the writer who could order contemporary experience with a new cogency: Fornes, Shepard, Mamet, Vogel. But the tendency of the century's last 20 years has been one of drift, of flat affect and disaffection, with little that's new to offer a sign of hope, and the clutter of technology to move everything further and further from the human. Our world is one in which the ordinary plus and minus signs of theater, a living event shared and witnessed by a group of people in a single place, seem to have no more meaning.

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

Except that they do. As long as there are people in a place, the theater will exist. The more the Internet locks people into their computer cubicles, the more the urge for three-dimensional contact with others will strike them. No one can tell what form it will take—maybe a return to simple narratives, medieval style, such as the French director Jacques Copeau already felt the need for 75 years ago. We know that we are all unhappy with the way society currently exists, and theater is a microcosm of what we imagine society to be; we know that we are all unhappy with our relation to nature, and the first definition of theater is "a natural formation of land." Stein, again, is informative: "A landscape is such a natural setting for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays." What they will be, who will write them and who attend them, it is too early to say. On the edge of the new century, we wait.

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