Now Plus 50

What comes next for Off-Broadway? The last 50 years may offer a few clues.

Will there be an Off-Broadway to honor with awards in 50 years? Being asked to ponder the question pulls my mind back to 50 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, I wasn't working here when the Obies began, but I was an alert child, growing up in what was then and still is a big theater town, Chicago. When I got to New York in 1962, a very green Midwestern college kid, I had heard of Off-Broadway (Off-Off-Broadway had barely been born), and had even seen a few of its products. I knew, mainly, that it was somehow different from Broadway. And although I liked Broadway, I also liked the idea that something different was available: not better, not worse; different. America seemed to me then, and still does seem, despite the divisive time we're living through, a nation about difference, by which I mean one in which differences are a cause for celebration, not a cue for hostility, and recriminative rancor.

Though the '50s have gone down in legend as a time of comfort and conformity, there was plenty of rancor under its blank suburbanized surface. America was fighting a supposed "cold" war that kept blazing up into smaller hot ones like Korea. Nixon accused his political opponents of having "lost" China, as if that giant nation had somehow fallen out of their pants pockets. The concern that there might be Soviet spies in government offices, which was true, somehow kept oozing across, like a particularly nasty oil spill, into the less tenable notion that Americans who favored a different political system should be hounded from their jobs for thinking so, even if they were only actors on TV sitcoms. Off-Broadway, in those days, was one of the few refuges such artists had.

What was true in politics was also true aesthetically. All over Europe, theater was booming with creativity in the post-war recovery; in America, plays, foreign imports included, were Broadwayized to leave out anything too complex or troubling; even a Tennessee Williams was obliged to publish his original text (for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as an alternative to the "Broadway version." Bolder imaginative strokes were more likely to sneak by in musicals than in "straight" plays. That word seems particularly ironic, since many of the key plays of the 1950s were specifically about not being straight: Then, as now, gay was a big topic of media discussion: slightly scandalous, slightly titillating, always useful for mild comic relief or the manipulative half-gestures of Broadway melodrama. Gay as a phenomenon playwrights could observe seriously, like any other human phenomenon, was almost wholly a downtown matter; gay as a sensibility, outside the then clandestine signals of camp, didn't exist onstage till Off-Off-Broadway was born.

Still, no one would deny that things were easier then. Today we face bad news on every front, to a far worse extent than in the '50s. The big money, and the pressure it brings to exclude everything but commercialism, was merely national then; now it's global, far bigger and harder to resist, especially in an era when everything costs more. A relish for simple homemade pleasures used to exist in America on a parallel track to the pursuit of monetary success; nowadays it has gotten tangled up with the money system, so that the pursuit of synthetic pleasures has supplanted the homegrown ones: Every pleasure now comes with a brand name and a price sticker attached. (In the same way, the pleasure of knowing the people next door has been supplanted by the globalized celebrity culture: Folks in Kansas never dreamed that the president of their church could be a serial killer; but everybody knows all about Michael Jackson's peccadilloes.) The '50s were tainted with anti-intellectualism: People who read books were assumed to be leftist, queer, or possibly both. Today that willed ignorance has merged with religious extremism to become an anti-art, anti-science obscurantism that presages a new Dark Age. And nature is warning us that the depletion of natural resources means it may be dark in more than intellectual ways.

With so many forces arrayed against it, what chance does our theater have in the next 50 years? The answer, I suspect, is: pretty much the same chance it had 50 years ago. We know what the human spirit does when forced into a corner. It fights back. The history of all tyrannies is a history of rebellions; the history of art is a history of building alternatives to the received idea. The fat corporate cats who have hopes of reducing middle-class Americans (artists included) to unpensioned wage slaves with no governmental safety net are fools, living at the end of their empire, not at its beginning. I'm not proposing that every artist become a political rebel; art has more complex purposes and tactics than that. But so little good currently exists in our society that it seems natural to expect artists to reject it more strongly, to move toward the good. This may entail moving away from a lot of its manufactured goods. Technology is a wonderful thing, one of the great achievements of what used to be called "the American century." But that century is over, and now, as we watch the American Empire bloat to its inevitable explosion, like the frog in Aesop's fable, we might do wisely to start preparing for the barren time that will surely follow. Technology has enhanced the theater in many spectacular ways, but going back to the bareness of the human body and voice, on a bare platform, in "found" costumes—theater as it was before the Industrial Revolution—might even prove pleasurable as well as practical. Off-Broadway itself was born twice (the Provincetown Playhouse, the Living Theatre) out of such tactics; Off-Off-Broadway lived off them for decades.

This doesn't mean repudiating technology in our daily lives: We can hardly communicate now without computers, and how much music would any of us know without recordings? But the value of the theater lies far from its electronic gadgetry and spectacle, all the flying cars on Broadway notwithstanding. Our "virtual," illusionized society longs for reality—so much so that they now manufacture a special brand of it just for TV. The theater's superiority to all the mechanical arts lies in its obstinately non-virtual three-dimensionality: It is made by humans for humans, with the one group in the same room as the other. Let this be our motto: all human all the time. No movie can ever claim as much.

With working and shopping by computer, music downloads, and movies on demand, Americans live in increasing isolation from each other. Not by coincidence, movies are facing a decline in attendance, as they did when TV came in in the '50s. Yet theater, a craft limited in the numbers it can reach, shows no signs of shrinkage. Why? Because it is a lifeline, an unexampled method for bringing people together—an act that is political in itself, even when the substance involved is unpolitical. The theater is a civilizing force, and ours is a time that increasingly lacks civility, let alone civilization.

We could go further: For the theater to civilize others, it has to be civilized itself. By which I emphatically don't mean that it should strike the elitist attitude of "Art is good for you." Waving Culture around like a castor-oil spoon is the worst way to bring people together. That a piece of theater appeals to a limited audience may be a fact, but should not in itself be a point of pride, and there is no lack of downtown theater today that prides itself on its "edge" and its off-putting distance from audience comprehension and feeling. Civilization, on the contrary, is a welcoming and egalitarian place, never attempting to compel admiration for its loftiness nor to pander for the sake of easy praise. The dignity of the profession is, or should be, part of its sacred mystery. The religious extremists who would ban all but anodyne art aren't the only Americans who think our society should be in closer touch with the sacred.

Some of downtown's elitist streak comes from its confusion—the understandable confusion of a media-bred generation—between the mass and the main-stream. But mass taste is not any kind of mainstream: It's the hot air that fouls the water when a main stream is dammed. Salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest have been learning what grim results that can bring. For the theater to survive the next half-century, it needs to rediscover its own mainstream, its simple gift for telling stories, for displaying characters in action. Pushed to society's margins, it is all the better positioned to be observant, instantly alert to what goes on in the world around it. In the coming persecutions, the coming collapse, it needs to travel light. Which is exactly what it did in the late 1950s, when people began doing coffeehouse theater Off-Off-Broadway. Space is tighter in New York; the coffeehouses have been supplanted by Starbucks, but the theater will not die. The big corporate chains that have squeezed us out of so many spaces are likely to vanish first. Around the corner from my apartment, there is a big empty store, unrented since one such chain went bust around five years ago. I keep thinking what a good Off-Off theater it would make.

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