Unseasonable Reflections

Something Was Missing in the Theater This Year—Did Anybody Notice?

I shouldn't be tired and irritable. I should be sitting here in exhilaration, gleefully composing my post-season 10-best list, my take on the end-of-year flood of awards, my summer festival roundup, my fall preview. Well, I ain't. I am on strike against season summaries and all the generalizations that go with them. Sometimes the routine profanations are simply out of place, and this was a year to which lists and awards and roundups just don't belong.

Maybe my angle on the year is a little different from everyone else's because, like the theatrical season itself, I wasn't wholly here. I'd gotten a grant that allowed me three months' leave; I was looking forward to a peaceful, busy time digging through library stacks. Instead I got, as we all did, September 11. Suddenly delving into the European literary past didn't seem so important. At the same time, I was away from the journalistic checkpoints that normally structure my theatergoing life; I had no distraction from the news, the nightmares, and the numbing frenzies all around me. After about six weeks, the shock wore off and I got back to work—half a grant is better than none—but I don't think I've fully recovered yet.

Nor do I think the New York theater has, particularly. After the initial trauma ebbed, people began opening plays, and people talked about the theater, mainly about how Broadway's ticket-buying needed to recover, as a leading edge of the city's economic and spiritual recovery. I don't think these declarations were either ill-meant or notably untrue. Commercial theater as manufactured on Broadway is one of Manhattan's principal commodities, and there's no reason to deny that just because the same could be said if our island were famous instead for its glass factories, whorehouses, or organic fruit markets. The reality of our theater's economic effect doesn't have much to do with the reality of the theater, why we go to it, and why, in a world increasingly dominated by technological media, some of us persist in loving it beyond all bounds. In the aftershocks of 9-11, the gap between what theater is and what New York markets as theater seems to me to have become gigantic. The terrorists did not cause the gap, which has been growing quietly for a decade, but the shock has made it stand out, glaringly, the way the empty space at ground zero has suddenly made the surrounding buildings so visible.

Robin Bartlett and Kevin Isola in Everett Beekin: a mysterious dismissal
photo: Joan Marcus
Robin Bartlett and Kevin Isola in Everett Beekin: a mysterious dismissal

I went to some plays, not many, in the months after 9-11, with a vague hope of justifying my temporarily functionless existence. Having taken a leave of absence from the Obie committee along with my writing post, I spent little theatergoing time downtown, but I noted that, as usual, what was more interesting and more theatrically immediate was to be found there, along with a more desperate and less publicized struggle to survive than the one that sent the daily press and the civic relief organizations moaning over Broadway's condition. The latter, in fact, bounced back to tolerable fiscal levels with surprising rapidity, while the hardscrabble end of Off-Off is still scrambling for dear life. The disparity in coverage, in the public consciousness of the two struggles, dramatized another gap: between the myth of Broadway and the reality, which is that New York theater is made virtually everywhere except on Broadway and then shipped to midtown. Yes, numerically, more people pay more money to see Broadway shows every night than the rest of New York's theaters take in in a week. But numbers aren't everything. And—though this is a deeply shocking and un-American thing to say—money isn't everything either.

That last thought has an extra hook, of a kind Jane Jacobs explained long ago in The Economy of Cities: In art as elsewhere, the big money dries up when the steady flow of little money is impeded. Broadway is a less organic place today than it has been in my adult recollection, because it has less to do with the lower echelons of both New York theater and the New York audience. The ultra-rich elite that rules the city—the folks who built the World Trade Center when they were supposed to be building a shipping-rail link to New Jersey—decided long ago that small manufacturing had to leave Manhattan. When commercial real estate boomed, they did nothing to protect small retail shops from being displaced by giant chains. Incoming young artists can no longer afford to live in Manhattan, let alone rent rehearsal and performance space here. The thinking apparently is that a few notable artists who've hung on long enough will be allowed to remain, kept on display like peacocks in a royal enclosure; the rest of Manhattan will be a costly theme park for the wealthy and the upper-income tourists. This is a lousy prospect for urban life, and even worse for the theater, which gets its energy from the mix of upper and lower.

Those forebodings seemed closer than usual this year. A lot of talent was on display, as always, but it offered me little theatrical excitement, in any venue. The devotion of Downtown audiences and artists was always palpable but was mostly more meaningful than the specific event at hand. Uptown, with rare exceptions, was frippery as usual, and the circumstances made the frippery seem more maddeningly irrelevant than ever. (Note to knee-jerk defenders of commercial entertainment: I don't mean escapist, I mean irrelevant.) The only shock in all this was the pervasive sense of absence: Every element of theater was on hand, but the theater itself was missing. The quintessence of the year was The Graduate, the emptiness of which apparently gave vast audiences the joy of experiencing absolutely nothing.

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