An Immodest Proposal

Success Has Gotten Us Where We Are. Why Not Try Failure?

The press releases are swimming upstream to spawn again. Some will grow, some will die; some will be caught and feasted on, others will be tossed away to rot on the scrap heap. The ice age will not have arrived, just yet. There will be another theatrical season.

And what if there weren't? What would be gone from our lives if the theater disappeared overnight? Would we miss it? I suspect that even in New York, most people would be content with movies and TV, grinding their two-dimensional way through the standard dramatic situations, with a suitable amount of noise and color, plus the latest variations on all the traditional jokes.

The notion may come as a bitter shock to theater people. We all like to believe that what we do is important; we may even imagine that as artists we are specially blessed with opportunity in this regard. And it is nice to feel, given the amount of ego on display in any theatrical situation, that we don't do it entirely for ourselves. What rarely gets talked about is the other side of that question: the obligation you entail by practicing your art on behalf of some larger force—your nation's culture, the audience's pleasure, the public good. The notion of theater artists as "public servants" is a tricky one, from which we have wandered a long way in the course of the 20th century's frenetic history. Technology and the corporate state have made things so complex that we have trouble, these days, imagining even our elected public servants as public servants. Maybe we've consumed too much of the alcohol of elitist prerogative; maybe it is time—to reverse an old complaint of W.C. Fields's—for somebody to start putting orange juice in our orange juice, in the arts as in other public arenas.

I've been bothered, over the past year, by a flickering sense of déjà vu while watching a parade of corporate eminences take the Fifth Amendment before congressional committees investigating the collapse of Enron and its ilk. I grew up in the 1950s, and buried in my cortex is the notion that the Fifth Amendment is something artists cling to when right-wing bullies in Congress are forcing them to reveal political allegiances that are nobody's business but their own. The FBI tapped artists' phones, shadowed their visitors, and opened their mail, too, Big Brotherish acts of scrutiny that are probably not being imposed on "Kenny-Boy" Lay and his like. And yet the writers and actors who were blacklisted in the 1950s did nothing that was criminal; mostly they just traded bits of jargon, calling each other "premature anti-Fascist" and the like. The corporate executives who swindled stockholders, gutted employee pension plans, and played three-card monte with their accounting firms have committed genuine crimes, and it is cheering to watch the indictments being handed down, and to think that one or two of the guilty parties will do hard time, however briefly, once the plea bargaining is straightened out.

In such a climate, the corporate kingpins who have acquired so much prestige and admiration in America over the past two decades might no longer be the role models for which we've mistaken them. You don't need all that long a memory to recall the days when nonprofit theaters were being urged to put their operations "on a sound business basis" by setting up respectably constituted boards of directors, elaborate networks of endowment funds, and a systematic cultivation of corporate sponsors that more often led to a bulge in the theater's financial development staff than to an increase in its artistic achievement or daring. Special events for big donors often ballooned, though; people for whom a charitable contribution is a business expense like to make sure their friends notice how their money is being spent.

For advertising purposes, they like to make sure the public notices, too, which is how the Apollo and the Selwyn became the Ford Center and the American Airlines Theatre. The tradition of a theater blessed by gods and tasteful producers was less important to the donors than the tradition of the product tie-in. My friend George Rios, the caricaturist, insists that before the trend is over we will be going to the I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Belasco, but these days, when an opening looms at the former Selwyn, my colleagues now ask which night they will see me at the Chapter 11 Palace. No doubt of it, corporations are in low repute.

So, undoubtedly, are artists of the theater. "Your very humble and devoted servant," as the great 19th-century stage stars used to describe themselves to an audience in their curtain speeches, is now either a wealthy celebrity, thanks to some medium in which he or she has no personal contact with the viewers, or is just a busy and harried professional, racking up credits in the hopes of getting into the celebrity's situation. Or—thanks to that hideous corporate-marketing device, the long run—the actor is simply the equivalent of an industrial drudge, making his or her little cog in the machine spin for eight shows a week, banking the salary, keeping up the suburban home, and putting the kids through school. Some artistic skill is required to sustain such a life, but even its practitioners must know the extent to which they are the humble and devoted servants, not of the public, but of a large manufacturing process. This is not, by the way, a sneer at musical theater artists, since the corporate operators have discovered that nonmusical plays—or things they call plays, anyway—can be plugged into the machine as easily as musicals.

What, in a defense against all that, can artists rediscover that would restore some of their lost standing, as figures of integrity rather than celebrity, as spokesmen for our culture rather than for its dollar-power? Well, they could rediscover quality: They could write, stage, and appear in plays which they believed to be good in themselves, and which gave them pleasure, rather than wasting their lives for the sake of their bank accounts. Next, they might sit down and ponder the sorry state of the world, and to what needs to be said about it that the theater could say, but is not yet saying.

This calls for thought; even more, it calls for reading. Wherever you find a great theater movement in the past, you find voracious readers—Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, Shaw and Granville Barker, Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill. It's no coincidence that Duse, who grasped the value of Ibsen when the Italian theater in general was still a welter of semi-literate posturing, said the ambition of her later life was to found a library for actresses, where they could study greatness in quietude, away from the noise and triviality of the commercial theater. Playing Rosmersholm, Ghosts, and The Lady From the Sea became for her a mission in life. It undoubtedly didn't hurt that the mission's daring made her an international rebel and hero. Ghosts, which had been banned in every European city when it first appeared—it had its world premiere in Chicago—was still a forbidden object when Duse took it up.

Like many of the crusading female stars who took up Ibsen's cause—Alla Nazimova, one of the first graduates of Nemirovich-Danchenko's school, became her American equivalent—Duse was seen by those who did not idolize her as a sort of failure, a problem case who should have kept busy fitting herself into the preordained commercial patterns, instead of taking complex risks. Such people were delighted when she attempted Shakespeare's Cleopatra and failed to stir audiences. Very few people admired Duse's Cleopatra, but the very few included Anton Chekhov, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Bernard Shaw, and Henry James. It proves the wisdom of aiming for quality: That way, if you can only win a small audience, it will be the very best small audience. Bear in mind, too, that Duse and Nazimova, in taking up Ibsen, believed not merely that they were going on a social crusade, but that they were interpreting the works of a great theater poet.

Duse's admirer Henry James once wrote a sly, sad short story about a James-like writer who keeps trying to churn out a commercial hit, but whose instincts play him false every time, leaving him with another subtle masterpiece that will only sell a few dozen copies. He finally accepts his fate, realizing, the narrator tells us, "that there was something a failure was, that a success, somehow, ineffably wasn't." This un-American sentiment, from one of America's most cherished writers, makes a useful moral touchstone for artists just now, bitter as it may be for those raised, as we all are, to love money and applause. At a time when things are in transition, it's possible that the audience is waiting for some alternative to the glittery items they currently pay so much to be fed. They, too, read the news, and know that our faith in the corporate life has led us down a wrong path. Perhaps they are saying, like Donald Barthelme's Snow White, "Oh, why can I not hear some words that are not the words I always hear?"

The artists who find those new words will be in a very good position, though they may have to struggle for a long time first. They might find a note of encouragement in the story of Gertrude Stein's lecture at Oxford. When asked "if she thought she was justified in writing as she did," she replied that she had been writing that way for many years "and now they wanted to hear her lecture, which did not prove anything but on the other hand may tend to indicate something." Those looking for indications of a change will take the hint.

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