This is the fifth part of a seven-part series on Todd London’s recently published book An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, published by Theatre Communications Group. My intention is not to “review” the book, but rather to use it as a point of inspiration, a leaping off point for thoughts about the current American theatre. My hope is that others will be inspired to do the same – to find those things in his book, or any other book for that matter, that set off mental fireworks.
My introduction to this series inspired by London’s book is here.
Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
“It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or it could be that his head wasn’t screwed on just right. But I think that the most likely reason of all… may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
– How the Grinch Stole Christmas
I hate to be grumpy, but…
Maybe I’ll make that my permanent tagline for this column, sort of like Andy Rooney’s “Do you ever wonder…?” When I originally chose “Interrobang” as the name for this column, it was after seeing a Facebook post that defined the word as meaning, basically, “WTF?” I’ve never been able to find that post again, which leads me to believe that it was there specially for me. Maybe I should add that in: “I hate to be grumpy, but WTF?”
I was reminded that I convey this overall attitude of frustration when, at the recent holiday party thrown by the drama department where I teach, a group of students performed a skit in which each member of the faculty was portrayed by a student. The young lady who played me, and who also wrote the skit, entered wearing a necktie and carrying a book. When asked what the book was about, she replied, “It’s a book about how Broadway is killing the American theatre.” Which made everybody laugh, including me possibly most of all. Possibly. But the fact is that if such a book was published, I would probably be reading it. And getting grumpy about it. WTF?
Chapter 5 of Todd London’s An Ideal Theater, entitled “Theaters or Institutions?,” didn’t get me into the holiday spirit. Actually, as with previous chapters, the first couple essays raised my hopes and put a spring in my step – indeed, my Grinch-y hearts grew three sizes that day. But when we get to writings of the last fifty years, darkness descends and I am pulled into the vortex of despair (soon to be a major motion picture). If the student who wrote the aforementioned skit had read Chapter 5, I suspect that her punch line would have had a different book title, because it’s pretty clear that the American theatre, or what Zelda Fichandler called the “Regional-Resident-Repertory-Theater Movement” (RRRT for short), was pretty much responsible for killing itself. With a little help from its friends (yes, I’m looking at you, W. McNeil Lowry and your damned Ford Foundation riches).
The chapter begins with wonderful, determined, visionary essays by three of the Founding Mothers of the RRRT who were more focused on the “theaters” side of the equation, and who ought to be getting a lot more attention today than they get: Eva Le Galliene, Margo Jones, and Nina Vance. The next essay, written in 1970 by powerhouse Zelda Fichandler, starts with the pluck of the previous triumvirate and then temporarily explodes in a rant before settling back down into visionary determination. And the last essays – by Tyrone Guthrie, W. McNeil Lowry, Jules Irving, Gordon Davidson, and Andre Gregory (immediately after being fired from Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts) – tip precipitously toward the “institutional” side of the overriding chapter theme, like the Grinch’s dog on the edge of the snowy cliff. Unfortunately, they topple over.
Here’s just one example of a contrast that symbolizes what happened to the RRRT as it was infused with Ford Foundation money: Nina Vance wrote, “The original capital of the [Alley] theater [in 1947] was $2.17 for postcards,” money which was used to buy 217 penny postcards to send to people who might be interested in the venture. That comes to about $23 today. Fast forward a mere 13 years, when Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea, and Peter Zeisler (who later went on to head the Theatre Communications Group, which makes perfect sense) were raising money to found the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. They decided they could probably make do with, oh, say, $1.3 million, which translates to about $10 million today. But then they went out to bid to have the state-of-the-art, 1,400-seat theater built, and damned if they didn’t need another $700 thousand, or about $16 million in 2013 cash. For those of you without calculators, that represents an increase in startup costs of almost 70,000,000%. (Note: in 2006, a new theater was built to replace this one, at a cost of about $125 million.)
Which is why Ms. Fichandler’s essay is so disturbing. Like Harold Clurman before her, Fichandler really has a complete vision for what theater ought to be, and like Clurman she has the writing chops to really communicate it. (And why hasn’t anyone published a collection of her essays and speeches, TCG Publications?) The first part of the essay, whose title London uses for the overall chapter, expresses some niggling apprehension that the “wee beastie” of the RRRT will be able to survive at all, but overall there is a sense of hope, of humor, of resilience, determination. And then, without warning, the whole damn thing falls into the pit of despair. Fichandler starts railing about money, and grants, and the amount of time she spends chasing them, and those meddling board members who think they get to have an opinion, and rejecting the idea that a theater ought to rely on local rather than national money, and the lack of openness amongst her colleagues at other RRRT institutions, and that damned ingrate Howard Sackler who cashed in on all the contributions she and the Arena Stage made to The Great White Hope… It’s almost shocking how quickly it turns – it’s like when the alien bursts out of that astronaut’s chest in Alien, and all of a sudden you see, plain as day and dark as night, what is going to happen and… Well, I turned off Alien at that point, and I wanted to put down Fichandler’s essay as well, but I kept going despite everything in my inner soul shouting “I hate to be grumpy, but WTF???”
From that point in the chapter, things get all corporate. Lowry is talking about money money money and how to justify the contributions the arts make to society; and Jules Irving, who is at the helm of Lincoln Center at the time, is grumbling about negotiations with the ushers union and his $9.5 million dollar building without an endowment for operating expenses; and Gordon Davidson is trying to hold onto an artistic vision in the midst of a “lavish, multi-arts” behemoth… It’s like watching a slow motion train-wreck, a pile-up that continues to this day as terminally institutional theaters build cavernous complexes that have every bell and whistle except a soul.
To find a soul, you have to go back to Margo Jones – read this, and wonder what might have been had the Ghost of Theaters Past visited W. McNeil Lowry at the Ford Foundation:
I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through¬≠out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.
Too many people are saying, “I’ll do a new play if I can find a good one.” Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio¬≠lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis¬≠covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un¬≠earthed.
Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen-all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O’Casey; the Provincetown had O’Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play¬≠wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays.
(I added all that emphasis for those of you who are just skimming and wondering when this long-winded whinge is going to end.)
But Guthrie, with his damned British snobbery, killed this attitude. London judiciously edits the section of Guthrie’s 1964 self-congratulatory book about the founding of the his eponymous theater, A New Theatre, so that this snootiness is less evident, but in a gap represented by […], Guthrie describes the play selection criteria that they would adopt at the Guthrie:
It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice…..
Now the American theatre has not been long enough in existence to have developed its own classics. A distinctively American, as opposed to merely English-speaking, theatre only began to develop around the end of the First World War, at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties. Before that there certainly had been plays, written by American authors for American audiences, such as the works of Clyde Fitch. These, however, were heavily derivative from European and, naturally enough, especially from English-speaking sources….
If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic, then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.
All the same, many excellent dramatists have developed between 1920 and the present time. Several of these, it is reasonable to suppose, may be of potential classical status. In planning a theatre which we hoped to establish in an American city, and hoped might have a perceptible cultural influence in a particular region of America, it seemed neither sensible nor tactful to take such a doctrinaire view of classical status that American plays would have — for at least another ten years — to be omitted from the programme.
(Yes, yes, this emphasis is mine again. I just don’t trust you at all.)
I hate to be grumpy, but WTF??? Can you feel Guthrie patting the heads of our little American playwrights and, with a benevolent smile, allowing us to do a few of our own plays if we must? What is infuriating about this is, because the theater in Minneapolis had sprung from Guthrie’s forehead wielding such an enormous bank account, the national media made it a model of what regional theaters might be. Suddenly, theaters were imitating this classical orientation, to the point that today contemporary playwrights rarely manage to get much more than a Monday-night staged reading. And not only did the Guthrie have an British accent, a classical orientation, and a shiny new behemoth, but Guthrie brought in stars from New York and Hollywood (Hume Cronyn, George Grizzard) to perform. The die was cast.
And speaking of die, I have my own personal Don McLean moment, The Day the RRRT Died. Like all great stories of betrayal, it starts with an testament to idealism: Herbert Blau’s 1964 classic The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto. Writing from the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop with a blast-furnace intensity that singes your eyebrows when you read it, Blau was John the Baptist preaching the Gospel of Decentralization. A year later – a single year later! — he and Jules Irving (he of the curmudgeonly essay in this chapter – Blau had already resigned/been fired/ left) abandoned the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop they had founded to move to Manhattan to take over the floundering Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center.
I hate to be grumpy, but WTF??? Have these people no shame? I hope they got their thirty pieces of silver, because that level of betrayal of a movement, like Guthrie’s rejection of contemporary American playwrights, cast the die. In 1967, Fichandler and the Arena Stage transferred their production of The Great White Hope to Broadway, where it won a Pulitzer and destroyed their acting company. Not to be outdone, the next year Guthrie’s successor, Douglas Campbell, brought Guthrie’s production of The House of Atreus to New York as well. And in 1970, the Arena transferred Arthur Kopit‘s Indians… And the leaders of the RRRT were pulled into the Death Star.
Taken by themselves and read without historical knowledge, all of these essays – even W. McNeil Lowry’s — are actually inspiring (although you couldn’t tell from my writing about them). Yes, you get a sense of the struggles involved, but the sheer determination of these pioneers can bolster one’s soul. But apparently not mine, because I know that the Red Wedding is coming.
So I read these essays in a elegiac mood, like Krapp going over his last tapes and grumbling about what might have been. And my brow knits, and my head gets screwed on in a way not quite right, and grumpiness invades my soul, and my shoes get too tight. It’s as if the Who’s down in Whoville, instead of gathering around the evergreen in the center of town to sing their celebratory song, put all their efforts into building a Super Wal-Mart surrounded by armed guards (as all Super Wal-Marts are) to protect themselves from the Grinch’s machinations.
But ultimately, ultimately, no matter what business leaders and foundations say,
It’s not about money, or budgets, or boards.
It’s not about buildings or Tony Awards.
It’s the soul of our culture, the core of our art,
It’s the way that we make things to bolster the heart.
It’s the playwrights, the actors, designers, and more,
It’s the reason we do what we do – the why-for
That counts in the end, when the columns are tallied,
Around which the Who’s down in Whoville are rallied.
And so I keep reading in Todd London’s book
In search of a vision, a dream, an outlook.
Perhaps I will find it in his Chapter 6.
Until then I’ll just to have count on St. Nick’s
To just keep me going – I think I can do it –
To the end of the book without saying, “well, screw it.”
I have faith in Todd London – he won’t do me wrong.
Although the Clyde Fitch readers may bid me so long.
I’m really not grumpy, not jaded, nor mad,
I just want a theater that isn’t so bad
For the artists, the people, the students, the folk,
And that isn’t the regarded as an artistic joke.
Well, we’ll see how it turns out – two chapters remain.
Hang in there, dear reader, till we meet again.