The Fervent Seers (Part 4)


This is the fourth 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

Chapter 4 of An Ideal Theater is entitled “The Genius of the Individual, the Genius of the Group,” a title which attempts to encompass the disparate writings of Harold Clurman (The Group Theatre), John Houseman (The Mercury Theatre), Bernard Sahlins (The Second City), Charles Ludlam (The Ridiculous Theatrical Company), Richard Schechner (The Performance Group), and Gary Sinise (Steppenwolf Theatre Company).

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Clurman Theater
Harold Clurman in 1979
Photo by Jack Mitchell

It may be the effects of tryptophan overload, but I initially found it difficult to cull a connecting theme from these essays. My temptation was to focus entirely on the only one of those listed above that I would consider an honest-to-God genius, individual or otherwise; indeed, I would call him the Walt Whitman of the American theater: Harold Clurman. Like Whitman, his emotion and vision sometimes overflows the bounds of reason to become an expression of religious faith, one that transcends the quotidian and reaches toward Heaven.

His memoir of the Group Theatre, The Fervent Years, from which the essay in London’s book is drawn, should be read, along with Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, annually by each and every U.S. theater student, artist and critic as a reminder of the role theater and the arts could play in our society if we thought of them as arts rather than commerce. To get a full understanding of the nature of Clurman’s vision, this annual reading should be live-streamed as performed by people like Dudley Cocke, Arlene Goldbard, Michael Rohd, and the Double Edge Theatre ensemble led by Carlos Uriona and Matthew Glassman – people whose commitment and faith in the arts seeks to match that of Clurman and Whitman. And for those who haven’t heard Clurman himself speak, a reading of Fervent Years should be preceded by a viewing of the PBS American Masters program Harold Clurman: A Life of Theatre. (Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite.)

Unlike every other theater in this chapter, The Group Theatre was built first and foremost on an idea, an idea that was talked into existence through a weekly series of public lectures by Clurman each Friday night beginning at 11:30 pm from November 1930 until May of 1931.”My approach,” Clurman wrote of these lectures, “emphasized the theater’s reason for being….to establish a theater in which our philosophy of life might be translated into a philosophy of the theater.” Note the order: life first, then theater.

We can’t simply shrug this off as the idealism typical of another, perhaps more innocent (or less cynical), era – even then, Clurman’s ideas were often dismissed as the ravings of an overly enthusiastic dreamer whose theatrical accomplishments prior to his lectures were minor at best. “There were some who were nonplussed by my generalities,” Clurman remembered, “others who were shocked by the arrogant boldness of my expression, still others thought me a theorist, which signifies in theater parlance a practical do-nothing.” (This distrust by artists of theorists continues in full color today.) Katherine Hepburn, who attended a couple of lectures, dismissed the whole thing as “all right for you people, if you want it, but you see, I’m going to be a star.” Then as now – indeed, perhaps more than now given the crash of the American economy only a few months before Clurman began his lectures – Hepburn’s careerism was considered the norm. Indeed, Clurman notes, “One lady flatly stated: ‘The man is crazy,’ for she had never seen anyone so carried away by the expression of ideas.”

Carried away by the expression of ideas. Imagine that. Imagine what it might be like to be part of creating art that served some larger purpose. There are many in the theater today who know what that feels like, and who can communicate it with a level of power – read Arlene Goldbard‘s The Culture of Possibility as a recent example – but The Fervent Years stands as a high water mark.

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orson welles
Orson Welles

Not surprisingly, the other essays in this chapter pale by comparison. Indeed, I’d recommend skipping entirely the excerpt from Richard Schechner’s 1973 book Environmental Theater, which comes across as the egotistical ramblings of a theatrical Jim Jones wannabe. Similarly, watching Orson Welles careening through John Houseman’s description of the early years of the Mercury Theatre is almost painful for his lack of focus. “We prefer not to fix our program rigidly too far ahead,” Welles declared at the time. “New plays, new ideas may turn up any day.” Squirrel! Welles’ monumental ego combined with an almost complete lack of empathy for anyone other than himself – he is baffled, for instance, by the grumblings of the actors in Julius Caesar when they are confronted with having to navigate in pitch blackness a set littered with open traps complete with fifteen foot drops – is not really made up for, in my opinion, by his theatrical “genius.”

Similarly, Bernard Sahlins makes the founding of Second City seem almost random – charming, but random. Says Sahlins about the birth of The Second City, “We three [founders] had not come together to build a theater. We had been burned enough times doing that. This was still the time of the Beat generation, and we started out to found a coffeehouse where we idlers…could loll around and put the world in its proper place.”

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Gary Sinise

On one level, Sinise’s memory of the founding of Steppenwolf seems equally random, if more intense, which makes sense considering the youthfulness of the founding members who were barely out of high school. “We were kids starting a theater,” Sinise begins, comparing himself, Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney, John Malkovich and the others to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. There wasn’t much of a vision involved, at least beyond a simple love of theater, and there didn’t seem to be much of a guiding principle to their choice of plays. We “chose plays with as many good roles as we could because, primarily, we were an acting company,” and while they were primarily interested in “contemporary realism and naturalistic plays,” they also did Ionesco and Stoppard. Because why not?

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To those thinking of going deeply into debt in order to have the opportunity to “focus full-time on my art,” I would especially recommend a careful reading of Sinise’s essay. The Steppenwolf founders were performing far, far from Chicago’s theater district, thus avoiding the crippling rents charged for performance and rehearsal space, and giving themselves an opportunity to constantly practice their art. But this distance had its advantages: they were charged one dollar a year rent in their Highland Park church basement, and they got their eighty-eight theater seats from the burned down McCormick Place. They often played to audiences whose numbers you could count on one hand, but they were learning by constantly rehearsing, performing, experimenting, and chipping away at the 10,000 hours of practice necessary, according to Malcolm Gladwell, to achieve mastery.

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Thus, at the center of Sinise’s recounting is an important message, one that I carries over a theme from London’s previous chapter, “Amateurs or Professionals?”, which I described in my previous post, “The Heart of an Amateur.” Says Sinise:

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It was not about money and fame to us. It was about having our own thing. We could decide what we wanted to do. The sacrifice is, you don’t make any money. That’s the trade-off. The important thing to us was to be able to grow as actors and to have control over the work….The thing about being trapped in a suburban basement isolated from theater life is that we were alone without any distractions, i.e., movies to audition for, other theaters to audition for. It was our private club to do whatever we wanted.

They were creating an artistic community of practice which, judging from the quality of the work of the original ensemble members throughout their careers, as well as their continued devotion to Steppenwolf Theatre, paid off mightily. It was a value shared by, of all people, Charles Ludlam.

Charles Ludlam
Charles Ludlam

While Ludlam’s almost casual interweaving of high and low art in the work of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, juxtaposing major thinkers like John Cage and Antonin Artaud with plays with titles like When Queens Collide and Turds in Hell may at first seem very different from The Group Theatre’s devotion to social and political engagement, or Steppenwolf’s commitment to raw naturalism, they nevertheless shared a commitment to a theater “founded on life values” based on continuity, community.

“I was building something by discovering people and creating a continuity for them,” Ludlam writes. “Most actors don’t get continuity. They get a job here and a job there. Their only continuity is in acting classes.” Compare Clurman: “we believed in a permanent company which would guarantee [the actors] continuity of work and, consequently, security of livelihood, that we believed in developing the actor – not merely in hiring him…” And Sinise: “It was about having our own thing. We could decide what we wanted to do.”

Perhaps this, then, in addition to simply a pure love of the theater itself, is the connecting thread that draws many of the people in this chapter together: that the genius of theater doesn’t rest in the individual or in the group, but rather in the continuity of time and a sense of purpose.