Remembrance of Obies Past

Judges from the last five decades pay homage to the productions and artists they'll never forget

Signal breakthroughs

I inherited responsibility for the Obies from Jerry Tallmer in 1962, when a handful of professional Off-Broadway producers were presenting a rather literary alternative to Broadway. Two or three years later I enlisted Gordon Rogoff and Richard Gilman as fellow judges, and we broadened the awards to embrace Off-Off-Broadway, which after a modest start in a few downtown coffeehouses and churches was exploding into dozens of lively scenes. It was a revolutionary moment, as artists in Greenwich Village and in Europe proposed a radically new theater, hands-on and do-it- yourself, more immediate and frank than the polished displays behind the fourth walls of commercial practice.

Plays live not just in the moment but in a particular place, and I count myself lucky to have been there, charged with paying attention and reporting on my experience. A theater critic's perspective is crazily distorted, of course: I absorbed four or five plays a week year after year, as many as I could cram in. The domain of the Obies was limited but I traveled the world seeing theater, and much of the world came to New York. What lingers in my mind, the context of my continuing work as playwright and director, goes far beyond the purview of the Obies. The sizzle of Seth Allen and Marilyn Roberts in Futz, directed by Tom O'Horgan at La MaMa, jostles with Joan Littlewood's The Hostage and Oh What a Lovely War on Broadway and The Threepenny Opera at Brecht's theater in East Berlin. Olivier in The Entertainer, Merman in Gypsy, Albee's breakthrough Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Sam Shepard's first plays at Theatre Genesis, Neil Flanagan in Lanford Wilson's The Madness of Lady Bright at the Cino, everything at the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre, The Serpent, van Itallie's Motel, the Ridiculous, my own plays The Next Thing, Country Music, Prussian Suite . . . As time went on I wanted to participate, to be responsible for my own work, not other people's, and in 1974 I walked away from being a critic, moved away, did other things for a while, then gradually returned to theater, presently in Oregon.

Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)
photo: Amnon Ben Nomis courtesy of the Ellen Stewart private collection
Refugees of convention (above): Andrei Serban's Trojan Women (1974)

It is against the nature of theater to be fixed in memory, but theater is food, the choicest of impressions, and everything I saw became part of my substance. Go often to the theater, it is always rewarding. MICHAEL SMITH


Destructive honors

Serving as an Obie judge was never more pleasing, never more fun, than the two years in which the judges—Michael Smith, Richard Gilman, and I—decided that orchids alone could scarcely be understood without some form of equal time given to raspberries. And so, to crown the seasons ending in 1964 and 1965, we awarded "Anti-Obies for outstanding disservice to the American theater," the first to the Kazan-Whitehead Lincoln Center Theater, then producing scandalously rotten productions of Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling and O'Neill's Marco Millions, and the next to the drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr. If there were competing contenders, I've long since forgotten them, just as I'd still like to forget the early death throes of what was meant to be a model for an American National Theater and Mr. Kerr's abstention as an Obie judge in 1962 from the award given to Samuel Beckett's Happy Days as Best Foreign Play.

The three of us met many times over each season, setting the rules as we went along, trying to distinguish in all categories between the transcendent and the merely good. Never far from our thoughts, however, were the cross-over upstarts at the time playing both sides of the Broadway/Off-Broadway divide, Kazan suddenly bereft of a play he could rewrite and Kerr bereft of a play he could understand. Gilman was the "elder" among us, already the author in 1962 of an essay commissioned by me (then editing Theatre Arts Magazine) about what he called "the necessity for destructive criticism." Surely the Obies had to be a cut above the slap-happy standards of the Oscars and Tonys. Gilman, especially, was famous in a small circle for his despair about crimes against the English language perpetuated by reviewers sounding barbaric hype across the rooftops of Broadway's anti-intellectual world, and for his astonishment that Kerr, for one, could take a pass on Beckett while hollering about the latest musical hit, "Mama, Mama, Mama, what a helluva good show!" Hindsight tells me that we were simply ripe for mischief after suffering so many hapless nights in theaters on and off Broadway. But more than that, we were unwilling to let the awards escape that necessity for a little destruction, if only to set the "Pro-Obies" in more startling relief.

Sadly, the Anti-Obies expired in our subsequent absence, and even as I served on larger (and therefore unwieldy) committees in later years, I was never able to make the case I should have made for their revival. It's always the same: older, maybe wiser, but far too reasonable for our own good. It shouldn't have surprised me—but it did—that most official Obie accounts have quietly omitted those Anti-Obies as if they had never happened. So if I'm complaining about this minor instance of doctored history, it's because we surely have learned in the past four years that a reasonable opposition is the enemy of the good. Those Anti-Obies were our version of speaking truth to power, and surely that is never out-of-date. GORDON ROGOFF

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Memorable Obie Moment: Ellen Stewart and Joe Cino receive the first Obie given for Off-Off Broadway work, 1965. Left, Gloria Foster. Right, Michael Smith. Photo, Fred MacDarrah, collection Robert Patrick. 

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