Unseasonable Reflections


I shouldn’t be tired and irritable. I should be sitting here in exhilaration, gleefully composing my post-season 10-best list, my take on the end-of-year flood of awards, my summer festival roundup, my fall preview. Well, I ain’t. I am on strike against season summaries and all the generalizations that go with them. Sometimes the routine profanations are simply out of place, and this was a year to which lists and awards and roundups just don’t belong.

Maybe my angle on the year is a little different from everyone else’s because, like the theatrical season itself, I wasn’t wholly here. I’d gotten a grant that allowed me three months’ leave; I was looking forward to a peaceful, busy time digging through library stacks. Instead I got, as we all did, September 11. Suddenly delving into the European literary past didn’t seem so important. At the same time, I was away from the journalistic checkpoints that normally structure my theatergoing life; I had no distraction from the news, the nightmares, and the numbing frenzies all around me. After about six weeks, the shock wore off and I got back to work—half a grant is better than none—but I don’t think I’ve fully recovered yet.

Nor do I think the New York theater has, particularly. After the initial trauma ebbed, people began opening plays, and people talked about the theater, mainly about how Broadway’s ticket-buying needed to recover, as a leading edge of the city’s economic and spiritual recovery. I don’t think these declarations were either ill-meant or notably untrue. Commercial theater as manufactured on Broadway is one of Manhattan’s principal commodities, and there’s no reason to deny that just because the same could be said if our island were famous instead for its glass factories, whorehouses, or organic fruit markets. The reality of our theater’s economic effect doesn’t have much to do with the reality of the theater, why we go to it, and why, in a world increasingly dominated by technological media, some of us persist in loving it beyond all bounds. In the aftershocks of 9-11, the gap between what theater is and what New York markets as theater seems to me to have become gigantic. The terrorists did not cause the gap, which has been growing quietly for a decade, but the shock has made it stand out, glaringly, the way the empty space at ground zero has suddenly made the surrounding buildings so visible.

I went to some plays, not many, in the months after 9-11, with a vague hope of justifying my temporarily functionless existence. Having taken a leave of absence from the Obie committee along with my writing post, I spent little theatergoing time downtown, but I noted that, as usual, what was more interesting and more theatrically immediate was to be found there, along with a more desperate and less publicized struggle to survive than the one that sent the daily press and the civic relief organizations moaning over Broadway’s condition. The latter, in fact, bounced back to tolerable fiscal levels with surprising rapidity, while the hardscrabble end of Off-Off is still scrambling for dear life. The disparity in coverage, in the public consciousness of the two struggles, dramatized another gap: between the myth of Broadway and the reality, which is that New York theater is made virtually everywhere except on Broadway and then shipped to midtown. Yes, numerically, more people pay more money to see Broadway shows every night than the rest of New York’s theaters take in in a week. But numbers aren’t everything. And—though this is a deeply shocking and un-American thing to say—money isn’t everything either.

That last thought has an extra hook, of a kind Jane Jacobs explained long ago in The Economy of Cities: In art as elsewhere, the big money dries up when the steady flow of little money is impeded. Broadway is a less organic place today than it has been in my adult recollection, because it has less to do with the lower echelons of both New York theater and the New York audience. The ultra-rich elite that rules the city—the folks who built the World Trade Center when they were supposed to be building a shipping-rail link to New Jersey—decided long ago that small manufacturing had to leave Manhattan. When commercial real estate boomed, they did nothing to protect small retail shops from being displaced by giant chains. Incoming young artists can no longer afford to live in Manhattan, let alone rent rehearsal and performance space here. The thinking apparently is that a few notable artists who’ve hung on long enough will be allowed to remain, kept on display like peacocks in a royal enclosure; the rest of Manhattan will be a costly theme park for the wealthy and the upper-income tourists. This is a lousy prospect for urban life, and even worse for the theater, which gets its energy from the mix of upper and lower.

Those forebodings seemed closer than usual this year. A lot of talent was on display, as always, but it offered me little theatrical excitement, in any venue. The devotion of Downtown audiences and artists was always palpable but was mostly more meaningful than the specific event at hand. Uptown, with rare exceptions, was frippery as usual, and the circumstances made the frippery seem more maddeningly irrelevant than ever. (Note to knee-jerk defenders of commercial entertainment: I don’t mean escapist, I mean irrelevant.) The only shock in all this was the pervasive sense of absence: Every element of theater was on hand, but the theater itself was missing. The quintessence of the year was The Graduate, the emptiness of which apparently gave vast audiences the joy of experiencing absolutely nothing.

There were brighter spots in the wasteland, of course. Urinetown, revisited after the disaster, seemed stronger in substance. Its gritty, smiling nihilism, ridiculing both agitprop earnestness on the one hand and affluent optimism on the other, came across as a viable style for living onstage in a world where terror can strike at any moment. And the targets of its contempt had a cutting relevance. Not that contempt was a necessary precondition for fun: The Producers, after its flurry of cast changes, still drew laughs from targets that Aristophanes relished 1600 years ago. Giving them 20th-century labels doesn’t alter their archetypal antiquity, just as the elaborate contortions that Thoroughly Modern Millie‘s book goes through to make its thoroughly old-fashioned stereotypes socially acceptable doesn’t change their cornball nature. Which is OK, when they’re embodied by such appealing people: Millie‘s cheerful inanity causes no pain; the constant effort to correct its social mores is what makes reviewers’ jaws ache from repeated dropping. It imposes the same additional distance from reality that Broadway revivals of nonmusicals increasingly enforce by casting Hollywood nonstars who can’t act in lieu of actors trained and experienced at stage work.

I call them nonstars because, though the media give them celebrity status, nobody would buy a movie ticket just to see them; the dementia of producers who think their names sell pricier Broadway tickets, which swelled to plague proportions this year, is a mystery. I don’t mean that all of these people lack all talent, but they aren’t actors. Acting is done on the stage, in three dimensions; it requires constant practice there, before live, watchful audiences. The company of Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, which played BAM last week, could walk onstage and in five seconds make our media folk look like a pile of pasteboard props.

And yet we have plenty of real actors, some of whom were visible this year in real plays: The Swedes would have been as happy as I was to watch Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright, Robin Bartlett and Bebe Neuwirth (another mystery: the critical dismissal of Everett Beekin), Peter Frechette and Reg Rogers, Estelle Parsons and Frances Sternhagen. The scripts and productions these people animated weren’t exactly shabby, either. And that’s only the iceberg’s tip.

No, I shouldn’t be tired and irritable; I have a lot to be glad about. Unlike 100,000 New Yorkers whose specially extended unemployment benefits are about to run out, I still have my job—at least until Graduate fans start e-mailing my editor. But I don’t even mind The Graduate that much. What I mind is the absence of a living theater to counterbalance it. I am tired of living-corpse revivals, whether imported from London or cast from Hollywood. I’m tired of plays with no play to them, and experiments that try nothing. I’m tired of overpriced empty theater for the rich and of scraped-together self-conscious grunge for the artsy kids. I’m tired of last year’s borrowings presented as stunning innovations. I want a theater for people who live in the world and respond to it—scary as that is these days.

Instead, I live in a city where one set of producers sees artistic success as an occasion to invent new categories of high-priced tickets, while another sees it as a chance to fob off non-union touring replicas on the nationwide public. Again, there’s nothing new in this; what’s new is the absence of the countervailing force at the center, speaking for the theatrical sense as a basic human impulse. It used to be something theater people all shared. Today, I’d say, it reposes in individual artists—lots of them—but the sense of sharing is almost gone, leaving a gap like the one at ground zero, to cause a permanent ache in hearts that, like mine, are given wholly to the theater. No one’s discussed, in real terms, ways of filling that gap. Can I be the only one who’s noticed it?

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