1907, 1957, and...Now?

Welcome to Off-Off-Broadway's newest theatrical discovery—the past

The phenomenon took me a while to notice, because for me it's always been an integral part of my work. If somebody dredged up a play from 1955, I'd bop over and check it out, partly because 1955 was my childhood, but mostly because a play from then would be a respite in the weekly torrent of plays from right now. I'd have done the same if they'd dredged up a work from 1755 or 1855. The interest comes with the job: Whatever the theater may be doing in the present, those of us who write about it always keep one eye on the past. The driver of the car has to watch the road ahead; we who pontificate in the backseat get to scrutinize the scenery that tells you where you've been. The procedure's so natural that I didn't realize, until very recently, the extent to which our theater had shifted gears: Maybe because the road ahead looks so troubled, the guys and gals at the wheel have slowed down so that they, too, can study the scenes we've passed by. Suddenly, we backseat drivers aren't the only ones taking a strong look back at where we've been, in search of clues to where we might be heading next.

To drop this unwieldy metaphor before it crashes, the last few years of New York theater have seen a widening groundswell of interest in plays of the past. And that groundswell has not come from Broadway, where commercial producers' notion of revivable "properties" has shrunk to a tiny string of names from the standard reading lists. Instead, the newer and smarter antiquarians are at work, of all places, Downtown. Take it from someone who's been covering the theater for 35-plus years: This is not standard Off-Off-Broadway procedure.

Granted, there have always been folks Off-Off with a special love for old plays, just as there have always been, in America at large, obsessives who wanted to re-enact Civil War battles, or nit-pick about the finer points of ancient Tin Pan Alley sheet-music covers. But the Downtown theater, like America at large, has always been preoccupied with the new. After all, we're the cutting edge of artistic expression for the country that prefers anything to the discomfiting task of examining its own history—the nation that Gore Vidal aptly christened "The United States of Amnesia." Even the Off and Off-Off theaters that have, over the decades, dedicated themselves to plays from the past have mainly located that past in Europe: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov. Those familiar nutrients have made up the bulk of Off-Broadway's pre-contemporary diet since Eva Le Gallienne's glory days at the Civic Repertory Theater. OK, add Moliére and Calderón; add Lorca, Pirandello, and Brecht; add a few more modern Frenchmen (Anouilh, Giraudoux, Sartre); then add the now classic Francophone writers whom Off-Broadway adopted when they were still brand-new: Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco. That was Downtown's version of the classic repertoire. American plays need not apply.

Tour de '60s: The Madness of Lady Bright, from West Village Fragments
photo: Stefan Hagen
Tour de '60s: The Madness of Lady Bright, from West Village Fragments

But over the last few years, that's all changed. The Pearl, where European classics held sway for decades, spent some years venturing into less familiar foreign territory (Wycherley, Goldoni, Otway, Marivaux, Scribe) before taking a genuine homegrown risk, in 2003, with George Kelly's 1926 comedy Daisy Mayme. The response was so gratifying that this year the Pearl gave half its season over to American rediscoveries, with Hellman's Toys in the Attic and Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers holding the mood of the 1950s up for comparison with ours, while the company's current production of Behrman's Biography finds the surprising links between Depression-era liberals and their equally beleaguered descendants today. And the Pearl's hardly alone. This striking expansion of their overview comes in the context of half a dozen other burgeoning companies eager to go prospecting in the same long-ignored realm.

First came the Mint, digging up forgotten American plays by the likes of Edith Wharton and Thomas Wolfe before moving on to discover its spiritual home in Edwardian England. Who knew that the big theatrical news of the 21st century's first decade would include the New York premieres of works by Granville Barker and St. John Hankin, along with significant revivals of A.A. Milne, St. John Ervine, D.H. Lawrence, and their Viennese coeval Schnitzler? The Mint even made a brief, eye-opening foray into mid-century American feminism: Susan Glaspell's place in New York theater history was already secure, but you don't hear the names of Rachel Crothers and Rose Franken every day, let alone get a chance to see their works realized onstage.

While the Pearl was building Americana, slowly but steadily, into its repertoire, and the Mint was rooting, erratically but effectively, through the library stacks (Githa Sowerby! Cicely Hamilton!), surprises from the past started cropping up everywhere. The Irish Rep discovered that Dion Boucicault, the Irish-American actor-playwright so dear to Victorian hearts, might play a meaningful part in a modern Celtic consciousness, and smaller companies gleefully joined the rush to re- examine his flavorsome melodramas.

At the same time, the standard-rep catalog came under attack on its 20th-century flank, where Broadway producers were working the warhorses to death: another Death of a Salesman, another Glass Menagerie, another Long Day's Journey or Iceman Cometh. When the Pearl revived J.B. Priestley's barely known We Have Been Here Before, people joked that its title was a comment on the current Broadway season. More substantive comment came from fledgling troupes like Keen Company, Peccadillo Theater, and Transport Group, companies hard to pin down and not always easy to rely on, but feisty and ambitious as all hell. The Peccadillo has stuck to the past, but it's an anything-goes past, with a broad aesthetic range and hordes of actors sweeping across its large-scale vistas: The Shanghai Gesture, The Ladies of the Corridor, Room Service, and the unforgettably epic Counsellor-at-Law. (And they ganged up with the Mint to reclaim a forgotten woman playwright who had also, till recent years, been a forgotten woman novelist, the incisive Dawn Powell.)


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