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June 11, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 24
A series of little bastions
By Arthur Sainer
The recent Obie award ceremonies, besides seeming to this writer more than faintly anachronistic, opened the door to a moment of considerable ugliness. The discourtesy to Jules Irving, of Lincoln Center, and to Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright for whom Irving was accepting an award, was inexcusable. A handful of the audience hooted at Irving, drunkenly demanded that he get off the stage, that he shut up, interrupting his plea for some statement of support for Havel, who is in trouble with the authorities back home, by shouting that they couldn’t care less about foreign playwrights. The stupidity of the remarks are self-evident to anyone with any sensitivity who happens to be living in the 20th century.
But the discourtesy seems to me symptomatic of a more general insensitivity that I’ve felt among many many people working off-off Broadway. That there isn’t a great deal of concern or respect for or interest in one another’s work.
I mean the kind of concern one senses among the underground film-makers who go to each other’s screenings, who discuss one another’s work, who give each other advice and encouragement. I know of nothing remotely equivalent in the theatre — no serious dialogue, as far as I can gather, among the off-off playwrights (do they even bother to see each other’s work?), no serious dialogue among the directors, perhaps some among the actors.
It appears to these eyes that off-off, with some rare, beautiful exceptions, is suffering from the malaise that we all recognize as afflicting this country — it’s provincial, stupidly competitive, nervous to keep up with the fashion, and generally unthinking and insensitive except to its own needs. It’s not a community, it’s a series of little bastions, each waving its own flag and generally puffing itself up. Sure, it’s more vital than Off-Broadway and Broadway (the latter are almost indistinguishable from each other), and is, over the long haul, the most vital theatre in the West, but for all that it’s still, also over the long haul, both encrusted with age and infantile. It’s not only our most important theatre, it’s essentially our only theatre, but it hasn’t the passion of the young film-maker nor has it demonstrated in its work the moral concern of the average university student. It has taken to sprinkling radically political catch-phrases but employs capitalist success levers in furthering itself.
The best impulse of off-off Broadway (like the Open Theatre, involved in Panther benefits, like its Joe Chaikin, involved in the peace movement, like the Bread & Puppets, involved over the years in political demonstrations and making social concern an integral part of its work, like Ellen Stewart, involved in human beings) concerns itself with both the broadening of the aesthetic and a responsibility towards other people. But the self-serving element, judging by results, not intentions, is far too prevalent.
The little uproar over Havel, trivial in itself, is nevertheless instructive. In Cannes in ’68, the Film Festival is broken up because the political militants accuse the film sponsors of elitism. They cry that the cinema belongs to the people. But at the Obies, our friends cry that the theatre belongs to — themselves.
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