Archival and Departure

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

All of which explains why I was pleased, not to say startled, to find in that grim pile of mail a press release from something called, which purported to offer a vast number of plays, recouped from televised versions of stage productions since the 1960s, on commercial videocassette. The offer turned out to be legitimate; the tapes don't answer every need, but they mean that we turtles can take some of the weight off our shells. For those disillusioned with the theater of the present, a fair number of revelations are available in this catalog of the past. I acquired four tapes, from a list that seems to lengthen every time I go back to the company's Web site: Ronald Ribman's Journey of the Fifth Horse, with Dustin Hoffman still enrapturing in the role that made him famous back in 1966; William Alfred's Hogan's Goat, with Faye Dunaway and George Rose cutting a swath of acid truth through the script's juicy 1890s ornateness (abetted by young, blazing actors like Philip Bosco and Rue McClanahan); David Storey's Home, a stupid play humanized by the masterful presence of Gielgud and Richardson; and for dessert, William Gillette's deliciously cunning Civil War melodrama, Secret Service, with another batch of unknown young actors—Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Mary Beth Hurt, and Don Scardino as the boy too young to enlist.

There's no point in pretending that the tapes stand on their own as entertainment today; "Archive" is the operative word in the company's name. Once that's established, they're as riveting as the best museum show: Here is the American theater of 1965, '75, '85; here is how it dealt with a classic, an obscure old play, a new work. Here, modified for video, is its design, its staging, most of all its acting. The latter, along with the range and daring of the playwrights, is the real excitement. An uneven excitement, granted: Omitting Home as sui generis, each of these tapes contains one or two performances that go overboard, one or two painfully under par. But they are all large-cast, wide-ranging pieces, the Ribman a visionary nightmare, the Alfred a sprawling tale of political intrigue (in verse, no less), the Gillette a tightly wound but elaborately plotted thriller.

Apart from the joy of seeing known actors young and fresh, the series offers the triumphs of the overlooked or underrated: Michael Tolan, Dee Victor, Alice Drummond. It memorializes those who died unfairly young: Lenny Baker in Secret Service; Margaret Linn in Hogan's Goat. It does not solve the whole problem of memory: The catalog doesn't have all the plays you want, or the best productions they received; public television only stretched its embrace so far. But it is our technological family vault; it holds what remains: You can view Jason Robards's performance in Sidney Lumet's 1960 telefilm of The Iceman Cometh—the complete text, originally broadcast over two evenings—and say, "I don't need a second-rate English production with a movie star to teach me how to do this play." You can watch Eva le Gallienne in Ellis Rabb's 1977 revival of The Royal Family and think, "There is an American tradition of great acting."

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

The Archive is just beginning to broach the kinescope stockpiles of the 1950s; its packaging, which tends to follow the TV credits, doesn't convey much of the theatrical context out of which these tape events rose. Its very name is a misnomer, since its catalog covers the great era in which American theatrical energy was not focused on Broadway; almost all its tapes are of Off-Broadway or resident theater productions. But these are small quibbles. The big point, for the young, is that they have a grandparent who doesn't lie, offering videotaped memories of a theatrical life richer, livelier, and more authentically our own than the one currently on view. With that as a springboard, a young theater can easily leap over the mire in which our middling stage institutions seem to be stuck.

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