Archival and Departure

Maybe, in Our Hemmed-In World, One Step Back Could Mean Two Steps Forward

I was opening a week's mail—a grim task for a theater critic in August. The current openings, aside from that overstuffed surprise box called the Fringe Festival, were mostly the kind of assignments that make even the interns dig in their heels. And the announcements for the upcoming season were—well, they were no surprise box. There was the usual (small) number of plays by writers whose next work one might look forward to, and the usual (rather smaller) number by unknown quantities whose work might be anything. And there was, of course, the usual large majority of plays by writers, and directors, and composers that nobody in the world cares two pins about, including some who the world (if the theater is a world) had hoped would never be back from that alien, barren planet called sitcom. But they do come back—they like draping a frill of artistic prestige around their piles of money—and some theaters, inexplicably, like having them. The TV hacks gain no real prestige from their return; instead the theater loses credibility. Our larger nonprofit institutions, though, never seem to grasp this point. The whole system gets to look more and more like an agents' marketplace, and less and less like a theater.

The business of the deal—add the increasingly obsessive casting of young actors being prepped by their managements for the two-dimensional media—replaces the business of knowing what you're doing. How to be heard and seen onstage, how to make a dramatic point without triple underlining, how to convey the world of the play and the shape of its experience—these matters have been left far behind. The postmodernists, acting on the basis of theory, give us a stage world in which everything is the same and nothing matters; they never seem to ask themselves why anyone would pay to see it. The commercialized theater—the work of nonprofit institutions that wear spiffed-up Broadway attitudes—has more subtlety: Here too everything's always the same, but the designs are showier. And the life of the theater, not having been supplied, leaches away.

In part, it goes Downtown, to the far-edge scene that's just beginning to take form. I approach this scene with caution: It tends to express enthusiasm for a certain deadpan absence of action, a distrust of effect. This has its justifications: Certainly the Uptown theater, as it stands, can't currently be inspiring many young people with a sense of the art form's great possibilities. Proof, to take something I enjoyed for an example, is an entertaining if conventional play with some first-rate acting and directing. But it's hard to imagine the youngsters who, taken to see Proof, would fall in love with the greatness of the theater—though they might come away vowing to see every play Mary Louise Parker appears in. But people would hardly remember Duse if all she had played was La Princesse de Baghdad, though she made as big a sensation in the confession scene as Parker does every night when she tells the truth about the theorem. No, one performance doesn't make an art form, any more than one swallow makes a summer; and the young can't be compelled to take the theater on trust.

Faye Dunaway in Hogan's Goat: stage faces the camera loves
photo: courtesy of the Broadway Theatre Archive
Faye Dunaway in Hogan's Goat: stage faces the camera loves

Yet, ironically, they don't need to: The theater has always been there, waiting for them. But it doesn't wait up ahead; rather, it lurks just behind the dreary theater they are so understandably anxious to reject. "Grandparents," wrote Thomas Bernhard, "are our salvation," and the curious part of Downtown, today, is its lack of more than a highly selective, lip-service interest in its own grandparent, the theater before this one. If Americans in general have always had a deep apathy toward the past, theater people have always been at least a slight exception. The theater runs on memory: You have to remember your lines; playing in repertory, you have to remember which show you're in at the moment (actors onstage have been known to forget); you have to remember your credits when you're interviewed, and who to thank when you pick up the award. All of the above would lead to no more than exactly the kind of theater that repels the Downtownites, if memory didn't have an additional function: By tradition, theater people have to remember their past. Because no one else will. Because no documentation, as such, tells the whole truth. Because they carry it about with them, the way turtles (if there are still turtles) carry their shells. If this seems like the end of Fahrenheit 451—all those people walking around being the great books they love—it may be just where Ray Bradbury, himself theater-smitten, got the idea.

No one, fortunately for us, has yet taken to destroying the archives the way Bradbury's firemen destroy books. Books—playscripts, theater histories, almanacs like Theater World, picture books—retain some of the truth. So do old recordings, of which more and more are available on CD—discs by stars past, cast albums increasingly enhanced by scraps of rediscovered material. Old movies, also more widely available, are a trickier guide: You have to take stage actors in the roles they were handed, and plays with the modifications visited on them by the Production Code. The recent tendency to stage, in revivals, the movie version instead of the original script is another sign of the artistically spineless time we live in. Looking back over the movie versions of American plays—theater critics need some summer alternative to outdoor Shakespeare—makes one realize that our majority culture lived, for decades, in a fool's paradise, sheltered from all but the briefest glimpses of reality by the Hays Office, Louis B. Mayer's mother, and the network departments of Standards & Practices. No wonder the awakening of the past few decades has been so endlessly raucous and rude; no wonder our theater now tends to veer between false gentility and a willed boorishness, both equally tiresome.

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