Theater archives

Tea in Our Harbor


Costumed as a Mohawk brave, my face painted with the traditional battle markings, I crept over to Times Square late one night with a party of handpicked patriots. Our goal was simple: to reclaim Broadway’s theaters for American art, or at least for human entertainment, the kind that might give people some satisfaction beyond their pleasure in how much money they had spent to see it. We had vowed that we would no longer pay the double spiritual tax imposed on Americans by the vast system of money grubbing, media hype, and evasion of reality, which expended giant resources on soul-killing machines disguised as musical theater, and on desiccated things disguised as plays, imported from England, carefully chosen for their sterility and their irrelevance to America. At the same time, enormous efforts, less open and harder to attack, were poured into convincing audiences that this alone was the theater, and that all else— especially anything homegrown— was marginal and trivial. That the truth was almost wholly the other way around, that the theater was elsewhere, while Broadway and its London feeding grounds were a source of pointless triviality comparable only to Chernobyl in its pollutant abilities, did not stop the high and mighty opinion makers who continued to spout this pledge of artistic subservience. Since they had cornered the principal sources of information, open discussion was no use; stronger measures were needed. So there we stood in the muggy predawn air, our little prop tomahawks poised to strike down the sets of all the loathed pseudo-shows, from Cats to Amy’s View, after which we would drag their wreckage to the Hudson and set it adrift, blazing, off the Circle Line pier.

I gave a slight shiver, partly from anticipation and partly from a gust of wind that caught my shoulder through the armhole of my buckskin vest. A cloudy vision sprang up before my eyes, a blurred memory of the aging rows of theaters that once faced each other on 42nd Street, before they were mostly mowed down to be replaced by the monstrous mall-like buildings that, we were puzzlingly told, would encourage tourism by making New York look exactly like every other modernizing city in the world. I wondered, standing in the grayish half-light, how many people had shared my dream of seeing all
the street’s old theaters relit and
productive again.

Huddling under the eaves of the Disney store, I squinted north toward the Broadway theaters that still functioned. I tried to think how the thriving theater of 1910, the frenetically busy theater of 1928, the vivid and daring theater of 1950, had evolved into the mummified thing we have today, ceaselessly rechewing the most obvious icons of its own dead past. Today, even the rechewings were not Broadway’s own— they had to be shipped in from London, with an occasional specimen from L.A. or Chicago. Even worse, new American work of any merit found its path virtually blocked. Side Man had fought its way onto the big street, holding on for dear life and constantly applying Hollywood stars as box-office Band-Aids, but even a work as straightforward as Wit, with a great performance at its center, was not invited to make the leap. The chance then for a Chris Durang or Paul Rudnick— to name only laugh-producing playwrights— was even slimmer, while for a more somber risk-taker, a Neal Bell or Kia Corthron, it was close to nonexistent. Yet what could such playwrights say to shock and offend a Broadway where Patrick Marber and Martin McDonagh came and went quite casually? How could their language puzzles and structural dislocations perplex audiences that had sat quite patiently through Pinter and Mamet, Stoppard and Shepard? Granted, Broadway was all about money. But was it really cheaper to import from London than from 28th or 13th Street? It was about stars who sell tickets. But was it truly impossible to make the networks’ most recently deaccessioned hunk learn a role that did not call for a hopelessly unconvincing accent? As I scratched the back of my neck, where the pigeon feather in my headband was irritating my scalp, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that something was wrong with the producers’ thinking, a collective mental lapse that told them London was the source of all theatrical value. Maybe it was something in the water used to brew coffee at the League of American Theatres?

Or maybe it was simple snobbery. Theatrical producers are the most credulous and least knowledgeable of souls, and will believe anything alleged tastemakers tell them. Yet who could be feeding them such false information? The three real estate cartels that own most of the Broadway theaters, being interested only in money, all preferred a proven success to a risk. Yet why should they think a success more provable at the Donmar Warehouse than at Playwrights Horizons or Manhattan Class Company? New York theatergoers had always had their London favorites, but the two cities’ tastes had always been widely different, and neither had successfully dictated to the other. Who, able to disentangle publicity from reality, would deny that England’s and Ireland’s first-rate artists were surrounded, like any country’s first-raters, by throngs of mediocrities; now it seemed that Broadway actively pursued the latter. What else could motivate a season of still more ineffectuality and ineptitude from David Hare, Pam Gems, and Howard Davies, whose previous New York track records were of unmitigated disaster? What American resident theater, I wondered, would have blazoned on its brochure, “Thrilling new work by the authors of Stanley and Secret Rapture, and the director of Richard Chamberlain in My Fair Lady!”

In a way, I pondered, hefting my styrofoam tomahawk, our battle was as much on behalf of British and Irish artists as for our own. They too would not want to see a degraded and vapid theater dominate New York, much less feel that only their exotic accents allowed them to prevail in it. London’s award-givers might not be able to tell a good play from a cretinous embarrassment, or a real actor from a simpering gibbon, but plenty of London’s artists damn well knew the difference. It wasn’t England we wanted to wipe out, but ineptitude, whatever its accent. And who put English ineptitude first? Why, that strange quasi-elite, people of influence who declined to have any faith in their own country and its culture. For them, there had never been an American Revolution, much less an American theater; we still belonged to England. Our fight was with our own Tories, not with the goods they imported.

I summoned my hardy boys and girls to gather round. “Hardy boys and girls,” I said, “we will burn no scenery today. Let it stand, right down to the last pathetic cardboard helicopter. Broadway is over. Downtown, and the resident theater movement across the country, have drained away its vitality. Children of hope, we have a country, a life, a tradition, and as much talent and training as the world can demand. Let us create the American theater elsewhere, and make it great. It would have been nice to use these lovely old buildings for the purpose, but the realtors who own them want nothing human inside. Soon they will be condos and mall boutiques, and the real Broadway of the past a memory. All we have to do is create new memories to match it, and our place in history will be as secure. This Broadway, that false memory, will vanish from the world’s mind. By 2025, David Hare and Andrew Lloyd Webber will be scholarly footnotes as irrelevant to world theater as Cellier and Stephenson.”

“Who?” said a hardy lad.

“My point exactly, Mark Hardy,” I replied. “They were once the toast of London. Now— they’re toast, and no more likely to be revived than Slag and Aspects of Love.”

“What were those?” murmured an awestruck hardy lass.

“Never mind, Jo Hardy,” I answered, a shade wearily, for I felt cold, standing so thinly clad by the dawn’s early light. “Leave this and come downtown. We have a great deal of creative work to do.” Sharing tissues, we wiped the paint off our faces and
headed south, no longer caring to destroy what was already dead.