Theater archives

Our Theatrical Century—II


I do not think there will be very much poetry in the future.

—Maria Irene Fornes, The Danube (1984)

Until World War I, America was a prime receiver of the theater’s changes; after the war it was a primary source of them. Unlike England, where censorship kept key works out of the public eye until very late (Miss Julie wasn’t played complete in London till 1965), the U.S., with its vast touring circuit and booming population of immigrants, was fertile ground.

The first genre America altered substantially, however, was the musical. The new polyglot sound emerging from the U.S. in the ragtime era—a mix of African rhythms, Russian-Jewish chromatics, and Irish lilt—began to transform the musical theater fully during World War I, through major access points like Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step! (1915) and the Jerome Kern-P.G. Wodehouse “Princess Theatre” musicals. Unlike prewar European operetta, with its ponderous style, or the elaborate and random musical spectacles of the turn of the century, new American musicals were fast, taut, breezy in attitude, and rhythmically varied—the latter even more so after the success of Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along (1920) ushered in a new era of admiration for black performers and black dancing styles.

While the American musical entered the great creative flowering that lasted into the mid 1960s, when the desire to be “serious” finally sank the form under its own ponderosity, Americans joined continental Europeans in the effort to redefine what constituted a play in the “modern” world picking its way out of the war’s rubble. Only England, caught between the censor on one hand and the class system on the other, contributed little to this rethinking; its great theatrical achievement of the time was the light comic style embodied in Noël Coward. Expressionism, which dominated the German stage of the 1920s, found sympathetic echoes in American writers like Elmer Rice and John Howard Lawson. The latter subsequently became the dogmatic leader of the blacklisted screenwriters known as the Hollywood Ten; both his Stalinist rigidity and his unjust persecution could stand as emblems for the many bitter disillusionments that struck down the adventurous artists of the interwar years.

In smaller countries, new theater movements were nativist and poetic, as with the Abbey Theatre’s push to develop an Irish drama, which culminated in the boisterous, unsettling works of O’Casey, or the surge toward a renovated Spanish poetic theater, so spectacularly embodied in García Lorca. France, characteristically, evolved its boulevard entertainments, through Giraudoux and Anouilh, into a modern offshoot of 18th-century drame philosophique, questioning each action as it was being taken—an eerie mirror, in the 1930s, of France’s inaction at a time of economic chaos and political upheaval.

In Russia, a generation of rebels against realism was led by Vsevolod Meyerhold, drawing on the outburst of satiric and free-form writing that had followed the 1917 Revolution; even Stanislavsky himself, in later life, began formulating a new theory of acting based less on realism and more on physical being. Ideas not dissimilar were being pondered, in Paris, by Antonin Artaud. The sense of unchannelled violence and helpless, predetermined doom suffuses almost all the most daring theater work of the 1920s and ’30s, and countless artists were fated to suffer what they had instinctively predicted. If Hollywood, as Edmund Wilson wrote, was “one of the dooms of our era” for a writer, it was at any rate the most comfortable of them, far preferable to being shot like Lorca, stabbed like Meyerhold, confined to a lunatic ward like Artaud, gassed to death by Hitler, or reduced to skin and bones in Siberia by Stalin.

The condition of exile as an alternative to state-sponsored murder would become, in the late 20th century, the common condition of non-American artists, while those living here, even when successful, found themselves in a constant state of bitter argument with the culture. When Eugene O’Neill, one of the century’s most celebrated American playwrights, made the cover of Time in 1946, he infuriated its right-wing publisher, Henry Luce, by declaring that America, with its obsessive materialism, was “the greatest failure in the world”; Luce devoted his column in the issue to attacking the hero of his own cover story. Another instance was the gradual shunning of Tennessee Williams as his plays grew more open in their homosexual ambience while employing more daring strategies to extend traditional realism poetically. Williams, whose feverish later works have yet to receive their full due onstage, was the latter half of the century’s answer to Strindberg in his wide-ranging willingness to explore every stylistic mode and device.

** Before any of them, though, a self-exiled American had made a world-altering contribution to dramatic literature. Early in the century, Gertrude Stein had settled in Paris, where neither her small inherited income nor her lesbianism could severely inconvenience her life as they would have here. Starting to write what she designated as plays in the years just before World War I, she created a series of texts, fluid in form and accessible to an infinity of approaches, that made up one of the century’s most fruitful fields for interpreters: What other artist has appealed to Virgil Thomson, Frederick Ashton, the Living Theater, and the Wooster Group? When American theater, heated by growing frustration with the complacent commercial entertainments of the 1950s, created the underground explosion of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, Stein was the mother of it all, as Jarry was its wicked absentee father; the Al Carmines-Lawrence Kornfeld productions of Stein works ran through Off-Off’s first two decades like a bright ribbon of otherworldly joy.

It was not, of course, the first such explosion: In the 1920s, Susan Glaspell, George Cram Cook, and O’Neill had animated the Provincetown Playhouse as an alternative; in the 1930s, the Group Theatre had jolted Broadway’s escapist monotony with urban life and politics. The Federal Theatre, America’s first experiment with government-subsidized performance, had tried to broaden the theater’s audience base while widening its scope as a public forum. The time was ripe for a new resurgence.

As it was elsewhere. Except in Russia and Eastern Europe, where all the notable theater productions after World War II were in essence elaborately encoded messages from prison, there was a pressure to move the art as far as possible from business as usual. Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, establishing postwar theaters on opposite sides of divided Berlin, expanded their old games of provocation with a new richness. The ethical debates encased in prewar French drama fed into a brilliant theatricalist reembodiment deployed by aliens who had adopted France as their new home: the Irishman Beckett, the Romanian Ionesco, the Catalan Arrabal, plus that French-born but perpetually alien force, the convict Genet. Lumped together as “absurdists” on the basis of their dubiety about the value of human endeavor, they struggled to meet the challenge of holding audiences with a purely negative vision.

In England, the explosion was held off till 1956, when the noise made by Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, obscuring the script’s triviality, encouraged a broad spectrum of new writing. Like the resident-theater movement in America, the innovations of directors’ theater in France and Germany, and the theater of slowly transforming images exemplified by Robert Wilson, the profusion of new English dramatists slowly hardened into a routine, co-opted by a mixed system of commercialism and public funding, that tended to discourage excitement and risk, leaving in each realm only one or two stubbornly individual artists to find their own way. Directors who tried to buck the mechanistic production-factory system, like Jerzy Grotowski, tended to veer off onto soul-searching pathways almost irrelevant to theater; those who tried to bring it in tune with some larger collective spirit, as Peter Brook did with The Mahabharata, found only that even communal aspirations could be commodified. There was still always room for the director whose fierce integrity could burn a vision into the public mind—Kantor, Mnouchkine, Bergman, Wajda—or, equally, for the writer who could order contemporary experience with a new cogency: Fornes, Shepard, Mamet, Vogel. But the tendency of the century’s last 20 years has been one of drift, of flat affect and disaffection, with little that’s new to offer a sign of hope, and the clutter of technology to move everything further and further from the human. Our world is one in which the ordinary plus and minus signs of theater, a living event shared and witnessed by a group of people in a single place, seem to have no more meaning.

Except that they do. As long as there are people in a place, the theater will exist. The more the Internet locks people into their computer cubicles, the more the urge for three-dimensional contact with others will strike them. No one can tell what form it will take—maybe a return to simple narratives, medieval style, such as the French director Jacques Copeau already felt the need for 75 years ago. We know that we are all unhappy with the way society currently exists, and theater is a microcosm of what we imagine society to be; we know that we are all unhappy with our relation to nature, and the first definition of theater is “a natural formation of land.” Stein, again, is informative: “A landscape is such a natural setting for a battlefield or a play that one must write plays.” What they will be, who will write them and who attend them, it is too early to say. On the edge of the new century, we wait.