Theater archives

Archival and Departure


I was opening a week’s mail—a grim task for a theater critic in August. The current openings, aside from that overstuffed surprise box called the Fringe Festival, were mostly the kind of assignments that make even the interns dig in their heels. And the announcements for the upcoming season were—well, they were no surprise box. There was the usual (small) number of plays by writers whose next work one might look forward to, and the usual (rather smaller) number by unknown quantities whose work might be anything. And there was, of course, the usual large majority of plays by writers, and directors, and composers that nobody in the world cares two pins about, including some who the world (if the theater is a world) had hoped would never be back from that alien, barren planet called sitcom. But they do come back—they like draping a frill of artistic prestige around their piles of money—and some theaters, inexplicably, like having them. The TV hacks gain no real prestige from their return; instead the theater loses credibility. Our larger nonprofit institutions, though, never seem to grasp this point. The whole system gets to look more and more like an agents’ marketplace, and less and less like a theater.

The business of the deal—add the increasingly obsessive casting of young actors being prepped by their managements for the two-dimensional media—replaces the business of knowing what you’re doing. How to be heard and seen onstage, how to make a dramatic point without triple underlining, how to convey the world of the play and the shape of its experience—these matters have been left far behind. The postmodernists, acting on the basis of theory, give us a stage world in which everything is the same and nothing matters; they never seem to ask themselves why anyone would pay to see it. The commercialized theater—the work of nonprofit institutions that wear spiffed-up Broadway attitudes—has more subtlety: Here too everything’s always the same, but the designs are showier. And the life of the theater, not having been supplied, leaches away.

In part, it goes Downtown, to the far-edge scene that’s just beginning to take form. I approach this scene with caution: It tends to express enthusiasm for a certain deadpan absence of action, a distrust of effect. This has its justifications: Certainly the Uptown theater, as it stands, can’t currently be inspiring many young people with a sense of the art form’s great possibilities. Proof, to take something I enjoyed for an example, is an entertaining if conventional play with some first-rate acting and directing. But it’s hard to imagine the youngsters who, taken to see Proof, would fall in love with the greatness of the theater—though they might come away vowing to see every play Mary Louise Parker appears in. But people would hardly remember Duse if all she had played was La Princesse de Baghdad, though she made as big a sensation in the confession scene as Parker does every night when she tells the truth about the theorem. No, one performance doesn’t make an art form, any more than one swallow makes a summer; and the young can’t be compelled to take the theater on trust.

Yet, ironically, they don’t need to: The theater has always been there, waiting for them. But it doesn’t wait up ahead; rather, it lurks just behind the dreary theater they are so understandably anxious to reject. “Grandparents,” wrote Thomas Bernhard, “are our salvation,” and the curious part of Downtown, today, is its lack of more than a highly selective, lip-service interest in its own grandparent, the theater before this one. If Americans in general have always had a deep apathy toward the past, theater people have always been at least a slight exception. The theater runs on memory: You have to remember your lines; playing in repertory, you have to remember which show you’re in at the moment (actors onstage have been known to forget); you have to remember your credits when you’re interviewed, and who to thank when you pick up the award. All of the above would lead to no more than exactly the kind of theater that repels the Downtownites, if memory didn’t have an additional function: By tradition, theater people have to remember their past. Because no one else will. Because no documentation, as such, tells the whole truth. Because they carry it about with them, the way turtles (if there are still turtles) carry their shells. If this seems like the end of Fahrenheit 451—all those people walking around being the great books they love—it may be just where Ray Bradbury, himself theater-smitten, got the idea.

No one, fortunately for us, has yet taken to destroying the archives the way Bradbury’s firemen destroy books. Books—playscripts, theater histories, almanacs like Theater World, picture books—retain some of the truth. So do old recordings, of which more and more are available on CD—discs by stars past, cast albums increasingly enhanced by scraps of rediscovered material. Old movies, also more widely available, are a trickier guide: You have to take stage actors in the roles they were handed, and plays with the modifications visited on them by the Production Code. The recent tendency to stage, in revivals, the movie version instead of the original script is another sign of the artistically spineless time we live in. Looking back over the movie versions of American plays—theater critics need some summer alternative to outdoor Shakespeare—makes one realize that our majority culture lived, for decades, in a fool’s paradise, sheltered from all but the briefest glimpses of reality by the Hays Office, Louis B. Mayer’s mother, and the network departments of Standards & Practices. No wonder the awakening of the past few decades has been so endlessly raucous and rude; no wonder our theater now tends to veer between false gentility and a willed boorishness, both equally tiresome.

All of which explains why I was pleased, not to say startled, to find in that grim pile of mail a press release from something called, which purported to offer a vast number of plays, recouped from televised versions of stage productions since the 1960s, on commercial videocassette. The offer turned out to be legitimate; the tapes don’t answer every need, but they mean that we turtles can take some of the weight off our shells. For those disillusioned with the theater of the present, a fair number of revelations are available in this catalog of the past. I acquired four tapes, from a list that seems to lengthen every time I go back to the company’s Web site: Ronald Ribman’s Journey of the Fifth Horse, with Dustin Hoffman still enrapturing in the role that made him famous back in 1966; William Alfred’s Hogan’s Goat, with Faye Dunaway and George Rose cutting a swath of acid truth through the script’s juicy 1890s ornateness (abetted by young, blazing actors like Philip Bosco and Rue McClanahan); David Storey’s Home, a stupid play humanized by the masterful presence of Gielgud and Richardson; and for dessert, William Gillette’s deliciously cunning Civil War melodrama, Secret Service, with another batch of unknown young actors—Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Mary Beth Hurt, and Don Scardino as the boy too young to enlist.

There’s no point in pretending that the tapes stand on their own as entertainment today; “Archive” is the operative word in the company’s name. Once that’s established, they’re as riveting as the best museum show: Here is the American theater of 1965, ’75, ’85; here is how it dealt with a classic, an obscure old play, a new work. Here, modified for video, is its design, its staging, most of all its acting. The latter, along with the range and daring of the playwrights, is the real excitement. An uneven excitement, granted: Omitting Home as sui generis, each of these tapes contains one or two performances that go overboard, one or two painfully under par. But they are all large-cast, wide-ranging pieces, the Ribman a visionary nightmare, the Alfred a sprawling tale of political intrigue (in verse, no less), the Gillette a tightly wound but elaborately plotted thriller.

Apart from the joy of seeing known actors young and fresh, the series offers the triumphs of the overlooked or underrated: Michael Tolan, Dee Victor, Alice Drummond. It memorializes those who died unfairly young: Lenny Baker in Secret Service; Margaret Linn in Hogan’s Goat. It does not solve the whole problem of memory: The catalog doesn’t have all the plays you want, or the best productions they received; public television only stretched its embrace so far. But it is our technological family vault; it holds what remains: You can view Jason Robards’s performance in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 telefilm of The Iceman Cometh—the complete text, originally broadcast over two evenings—and say, “I don’t need a second-rate English production with a movie star to teach me how to do this play.” You can watch Eva le Gallienne in Ellis Rabb’s 1977 revival of The Royal Family and think, “There is an American tradition of great acting.”

The Archive is just beginning to broach the kinescope stockpiles of the 1950s; its packaging, which tends to follow the TV credits, doesn’t convey much of the theatrical context out of which these tape events rose. Its very name is a misnomer, since its catalog covers the great era in which American theatrical energy was not focused on Broadway; almost all its tapes are of Off-Broadway or resident theater productions. But these are small quibbles. The big point, for the young, is that they have a grandparent who doesn’t lie, offering videotaped memories of a theatrical life richer, livelier, and more authentically our own than the one currently on view. With that as a springboard, a young theater can easily leap over the mire in which our middling stage institutions seem to be stuck.