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.
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.)
Keen Company and Transport Group have taken a different tack, each keeping one foot planted in the past and one in the present. Keen, which says it believes in “sincere” plays that offer “hope for humanity,” has a sentimental streak to its taste, sliding dangerously toward hokey stuff like The Hasty Heart or Tea and Sympathy; it’s been bold enough, though, to tackle resolutely hardheaded plays like Maugham’s sardonic 1930 study in lost affluence, The Breadwinner, and Heinar Kipphardt’s 1964 docudrama In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a sobersided, prescient look at our Cold War nuclear establishment. And though Keen puts theme, rather than formal innovation, first, the company kicked the lid off one of Downtown’s longest-simmering aesthetic kettles with its powerful production pairing two of Thornton Wilder’s open-form masterpieces, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and Pullman Car Hiawatha. Wilder’s tireless quest for innovation gets little respect these days in the Times Square marketplace, where he’s mainly celebrated for writing the play that became Hello, Dolly! But Downtown, he’s always been, like his good friend Gertrude Stein, a founding father. Plays from the two uncompleted one-act cycles of his old age have cropped up intermittently Off-Off, as have the wilder early Wilder one-acts like
Hiawatha and The Long Christmas Dinner.
Ultimately, though, Wilder’s example may have a longer-lasting effect than even the best of his works. As the writer who, while never wholly jettisoning naturalism, pushed playwriting in every imaginable direction, he sent off reverberations that echoed through this year’s most striking rediscoveries, Transport Group’s productions of Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home (adapted from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family) and William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Both Southern- inflected family plays (Tennessee, Oklahoma) that had first sprouted in the Broadway sensibility of the 1950s, the scripts belong to the genre that always provokes scholarly sneers at our theater’s inability to give up the worn-out conventions of stage realism. But Transport Group, which stretches its vision to include musicals, new and old, as well as plays, had no worn-out conventions to give up. They played both pieces in stripped-down settings that would have made Wilder rejoice, veering freely in and out of the naturalistic context, shifting angles and points of view to reveal, under the Currier & Ives surface reality, memory plays full of expressionist angst, heightened by a kind of child’s-eye-view surrealism. Suddenly, in their bare bones, scripts one links to cozy bourgeois sentiment took on all sorts of new, sharp-edged implications.
This tactic, like the interest in rejuvenating a forgotten repertoire, would have been less surprising half a century ago, when Off-Broadway was young and Off-Off in its infancy. That time, too, mixed into its newness a hearty helping of eye-openers from the past: Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott coming to light in Edwin Justus Mayer’s Children of Darkness; Gene Frankel’s legendary staging of Machinal; Ellis Rabb’s salutary breaches of canonical rigor, like including George M. Cohan’s The Tavern in the APA’s repertory, side by side with Shaw, Sheridan, Pirandello, and Giraudoux. Those dips into the overlooked past existed simultaneously with the headiest ventures into the new: the Ridiculous; Tom O’Horgan building the contemporary equivalent of a medieval strolling players’ troupe at La MaMa; the postmodern dance scene at Judson Church morphing into a loose-jointed new form of musical theater. But the Downtown work of that era, so gay (in both senses), so lighthearted even when angry, so evanescent that Susan Sontag could compare its scripts to Kleenex to be used and thrown away—no one could possibly bring that back, could they?
Don’t be so sure. The single most startling part of Off-Off’s newfound fondness for the past, the news inside the news, is the number of young people who seem to want the early Off-Off days back. It’s not a nostalgia trip I would have invented, or even expected. I’m not the one who sends crowds of youngsters to hear the old-timers reminisce at La MaMa’s bimonthly “Coffeehouse Chronicles,” or who instantly posts on theater chat sites Jerry Tallmer’s Villager articles revisiting the early days. Peculiar Works, a company that began by delving into edgy new-style work, has spent much of the last few years sifting through the scripts and data of early Off-Off-Broadway; their readings and discussions led to last fall’s exhilarating West Village Fragments, a walking tour that juxtaposed plays of the ’60s to sites associated with their original performances—sometimes literally up against the wall where an Off-Off theater had once existed. And the group’s still at it: Stay tuned for East Village Fragments, currently scheduled for June.
The vanished world to which Peculiar Works’ exuberant retrospectives brought this flickering new life also has a more solid existence in our new millennium’s other startling new development, a spate of recent books devoted to this tiny theater movement largely confined to this one minuscule part of New York: David A. Crespy’s Off-Off-Broadway Explosion; Stephen J. Bottoms’s Playing Underground; Wendell C. Stone’s Caffe Cino; and Return to the Caffe Cino, a bulky anthology of scripts and reminiscences edited by Steve Susoyev and George Birimisa, who knew the place firsthand. This is astonishing: Four substantial books, in fewer than four years, about a single strand of theater in a time of nationwide cultural upheaval, published in a world where books on theater, like books on every subject, are widely viewed as a vanishing species. What did Gertrude Stein say? “It does not prove anything, but it may tend to indicate something.” One thing it certainly indicates is that more such books are likely to follow: The Off-Off-Broadway of the past is now, officially, historic—meaning, among other things, that its dramatic literature too stands ready to be rediscovered.
Which brings us to a quip by the first playwright ever to win an Obie Award, Lionel Abel. Close on 60 years ago, when a young couple, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, announced that they would name their newly formed troupe the Living Theatre, Abel joked, “You can’t have a living theater until you’ve had a dead one.” In a sense, it’s taken us till now to discover that he was right. The old theater—every old way of making theater, even the old Off-Off theater—is dead and gone. All that remains is to take the scripts it left behind and make them live again, older than Methuselah and yet brand-new. The Living Theatre itself, living again as of this spring, with a new young company, in a shiny new Lower East Side space, must know exactly what I mean, busy as they are displaying the bleakest truths of 1963, painfully true again today, to the eager young faces lining up nightly to see