Your Future, My Past

Off-Off: The Old, the New, and the Next

I've never met John Clancy, artistic director of the Present Company. I was out of town last spring when he turned his theater's real estate travails into a solo performance piece. My only experience of his work comes from his recent phone calls to me—impressive performances in their own right, seductive and elaborately argued. Their burden is simple: Clancy wants me, as a survivor of the old Off-Off-Broadway, to write a piece studying the new one that has taken root on the Lower East Side, to weigh up how the new contrasts with the old, to what extent it does or doesn't sustain the tradition. In short, he wants to be judged.

This shows courage, plus a certain generosity of spirit: Clancy has been pitching me to write about a movement and a generation, not just about his theater or his pet playwrights; he does not want to be judged alone. The cynical might mutter "safety in numbers," but "all for one and one for all" may be more to the point, depending on what those in solidarity with Clancy hope their theater will achieve.

That, maybe, is why I haven't yet taken up his invitation. I know all too well what the mainstream theater isn't doing. I also know that, since I started writing here (30 years ago come February 2001), I've watched a generation and a half of theater artists working Downtown, or moving up from there, to try and redress the deficiency. When they began, in the late 1950s, Broadway had become both increasingly expensive (how little we knew!) and virtually closed to new plays and to any sort of experiment. It was the home of stock thrillers, slickly generic comedies, musicals that were inchoate mishmashes more often than not, and the occasional dressy British import.

Like any historical trail, Off-Off Broadway's is littered with corpses.
illustration by Christopher Buzelli
Like any historical trail, Off-Off Broadway's is littered with corpses.

The old Off-Off-Broadway was invented equally to fight all that and, by fusing with it, to transform it. One wing of the movement wanted to stay in place, playing to a small but elite audience, for a host of reasons ranging from the quest for intimacy through the distrust of commercialism to a cherishing of the avant-garde tradition. The other wing favored using Downtown as a launching pad from which to gain an ever wider influence for the new. I, an inveterate both/and fellow, gave aid and comfort impartially, wherever I saw something of value.

Both schools succeeded, and both successes were a kind of failure. Influence at any price was a devil's bargain, dragging some artists contextless into the mass market; staying small, too often, meant getting ingrown, self-referential, and ultimately sterile. Ironically, some of the most hermetic spirits ended up as superstars; some of those with the broadest popular appeal were rejected, turning into embittered or burnt-out cases. Many, of course, didn't survive to choose either path: The AIDS plague cut an unimaginably wide swath through a movement that had been created, in part, because openly gay and lesbian work was so unwelcome in the commercial arena. And AIDS wasn't the only way to go: There were drugs, crime, epic self-destructiveness. Like any historical trail, Off-Off's is littered with corpses.

The heritage they left behind has hardly begun to be explored. Like most vanished theaters, it survives only as a few documents and a lot of conflicting descriptions, mostly by scholars who were never there. The latter always seem to me to be describing some other theater, in some remote era; certainly not the Off-Off I lived through. But of course, as Irene Fornès remarked in one of the era's seminal Downtown musicals (musicals could be seminal, back then), "I have to live with my own truth/Whether you like it or not." Compared to the mainstream's alleged history of "the American theater" of that time, even the academics' fantasies look convincing. I often tell myself I should write down the truth about that history—my truth—to set matters straight; no doubt somebody would publish it.

But—to come back to Clancy's phone calls—I wonder what good it would do. The smart and edgy young, who've inherited the mode of theater my generation evolved, have pretty much decided which past artists and modes of work they will use as guideposts on their path to the future. I recognize their version of the past—containing at least some people and works that I treasure, it's much less foreign to me than the academics' Colonial Williamsburg-style reconstruction—but much of it I don't share, just as I don't share much of the younger generation's taste in painting, film, or music. Imagine coming of age in a New York that cherished the best-quality cabaret performers, and then finding in midlife that the young hunger to know all about . . . Liberace.

I cite him not to ridicule a generation's taste—though why shouldn't I if I think it stinks?—but to point up a qualitative shift: Four decades ago, when I arrived in New York, there was a difference between popular taste and mass taste, more clearly marked here than in any other American city. This wasn't a matter of snobbery: Popular taste is exciting and complex; it has geographical, ethnic, generational, and class bases, all of which mass manufacture, in its effort to please everybody, tends to flatten out impartially, like a bulldozer leveling landmarks and eyesores alike. Mass taste came in with the Industrial Revolution, and will probably be here till the factory wheels stop turning, part and parcel of the erasure of individuality—the real terror behind this terrifying, overcrowded century, in which the earth's population increased faster, and its resources were depleted more rapidly, than in all previous ages combined. And 20th-century theater, the part of it that you and I care about, is notched from end to end by the cries of individualities that refused to be erased: "I'm not capitulating!" (Ionesco); "I won't go on living as less than myself" (Witkiewicz); "the world is all covered over with people and no one knows who anyone looks like" (Gertrude Stein).

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