Commentary Magazine


The English Invasion

Each year the American theater season becomes less and less a result of native effort and more and more indebted to English ingenuity. Indeed, if our theater were more vital to the country’s economy, embargoes and tariffs would have by now been instituted to slow down the flow of London imports, or if what took place on our stages were a matter of national pride, politicians would deem it unpatriotic to spend native time and money on an English farce when Neil Simon was producing ample opportunities for homespun American laughter. But as the theater means very little, either to the pocket or spirit of the majority of Americans, no protests are made or sanctions threatened, and it is left to the meanest of moral and political forces, the theater critic, to decide if such a one-way flow of trade is good or bad for the country.

Since every question of national importance permits extreme positions, it might be best to state right now that, about English theatrical goods glutting the Broadway marketplace, I am something of a centrist. I am no Anglophile who thinks that the spirit of Shakespeare infuses his country’s present generation with natural genius for all the forms of drama, and that the English therefore, by right of birth, possess theatrical powers which we, out of a petty need for political freedom, lost some two hundred years ago. However, neither can I count myself among those who see in the present wave of English popularity nothing except an example of provincial gullibility, a snobbish readiness to accept superficial polish and glitter in place of the perhaps rougher but more substantial products of our own theatrical soil.

Not being a critical jingoist or a cultural expatriate, I find much to admire and much to deprecate in the examples of English theater that are starting to overwhelm us, and while I have no desire to constrain their right of entry, I do think it necessary to temper some of my colleagues’ enthusiasm about this polite invasion.

To be hospitable, I shall begin positively and admit that we are at present no match for the English at theatrical virtuosity. The results of the great debate of the 40’s and 50’s between the American Method and the English Craft are now evident: we have produced a generation of competent television and movie performers; England, on the other hand, now has dozens of stage actors capable of interpreting the theater’s great roles, past and present, and a seemingly endless supply of yeoman performers who can add skillful authority to the minor details and moments of a play. It is this frontline excellence that has allowed so many directorial strategies to be successful, and permitted John Dexter, Peter Brook, Frank Dunlop, and many more to experiment with ensemble playing in a way denied their American colleagues. One need only recall such unified theatrical efforts as Marat/Sade, Chips with Everything, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and, most recently, Scapino, in order to realize that, so far as total performance goes, the high moments of the last decade have been due to the training and technique inherent in the English tradition of company players. We have, of course, had our own bright moments too, but they have been furtive and isolated, the result of a particular talent or set of circumstances that could not be perpetuated or adapted to different and varied enterprises. Our theater has remained, in Matthew Arnold’s sense of the word, provincial; that is, it has maintained a good opinion of itself by virtue of its idiosyncrasies, its very personal bursts of excellence. But these qualities have provided no broad foundations on which to build standards of theatrical judgment, no principles by which the art of performance can be, as far as possible and to as many as possible, taught as a technique.

The Method was, of course, meant to do this, to supply actors with a common language of instruction. However, the result was generally opposite to the intention. Instead of broadening the individual talent in order that it might encompass wider and wider areas of life, it more often that not contracted life to a size suitable to the talent. This meant that roles were often played within the boundaries of a performer’s personal psychology, a process which can make for an odd moment or two of exciting coincidence but which is both restrictive and unfruitful when the question is that of forging a serviceable and generous acting technique. I have no wish to examine critically the specific differences between the theatrical pedagogy of England and that of America. It is enough for this argument to state that while England in the last decade has produced a National Theater, a Royal Shakespeare Company, and a New Vic, we have produced the well-meaning floundering of Lincoln Center, the sad lunacy of the Living Theater, and the brief but harrowing seasons of the Actors’ Studio’s attempt to practice what it preached.

Now it is, of course, true that the English productions that find their way here generally represent the best of what the London stage is up to, for although our producers have a hard time putting together a play from scratch, they have a good enough eye for the finished product. I would never say that all, or even a majority, of the efforts that fill up a season of theater on the other side of the Atlantic possess as high a degree of general excellence as do those that make a profitable crossing. Anyone who has lived in London and has regularly attended its theater will always carry with him the fetid memories of mannered productions, of stifling self-indulgence, of gimmickry, contrivance, and embarrassing attempts at democratic entertainments for the working class. Nevertheless, it remains true that their best is better than our best, and that they have a second level of theatrical ability which we almost lack entirely.

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So much for tribute. Now I must point out that this professional excellence does tend to mask a basic lack of emotional and intellectual depth in the original works to which it gives theatrical embodiment. The techniques of acting and production have become so refined and adaptable that the English playwright is often credited, by the general audience and undiscriminating critic, with a dramatic coherence and power he in truth does not possess. The vacuity of Pinter, for example, or the disconnected outbursts of an Osborne play—how many times have these creative weaknesses, weaknesses by no means unique in England to these writers, been made to seem virtues by the skillful way in which they are masked by stage effects and an ensemble tour de force? Often it has seemed to me that the virtuosity of English performance is not only a substitute for, but an actual discouragement of, complexity in the text, for where is the need, or indeed the room, for literary depth when the simple or inchoate concept can be fleshed out and made to appear penetrating and complete by actors whose skill at playing an ill-defined something is so interesting in itself that to request a good play to go along with it seems peevish?

Now it must be understood that I’m not accusing English actors of anything except being what they should be: namely, a positive addition to a play’s inception, an element not simply of transmission but of improvement. What I object to is that too often they improve so much around the hollow center of a play that audiences and critics end up mistaking technique for substance and, instead of chiding those companies of directors and actors for frittering away their talents on trifles, they consider plays and players all of a piece and call him a dramatist who has really written nothing more than a few disjointed sketches or a bit of incoherent fustian. Since I believe in the primary importance of the playwright in the theater, I would prefer not to see him allowed to get away with a two-act banality simply because it wears its theatrical finery well. This brings me to Equus, a play by Peter Shaffer, which last year was put on by the National Theater of Great Britain and which is currently the success of Broadway. Now Shaffer is a playwright of very modest talents that, when put to a use commensurate with their scope, can produce a thin but pleasant amusement like Black Comedy or a competent family melodrama like Five Finger Exercise. However, when he attempted a heavier task in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, he turned the conquest of Peru into a public-school history pageant and made a conflict of cultures an exercise in English badinage. In Equus he has scaled down his scene of action but not his ambitions, for although the play is about a young man’s undergoing the agony of mental therapy, much more is at stake in this drama than the rehabilitation of an individual psyche. The whole question of cultural vitality, of the Apollonian and Dionysian tension in civilization, is Shaffer’s theme. How this grand subject rises out of such humble origins requires, I’m afraid, a good deal of plot synopsis.

A young boy named Alan has been arrested, and found guilty of the bizarre and vicious crime of willfully blinding several horses belonging to a stable in which he worked. Although this is, indeed, a heinous act in a country with the equestrian traditions of England, the court agrees to place him in a psychiatric clinic instead of jail, and the play begins with his doctor, Martin Dysart, a wryly bitter fellow burdened by a bad marriage and a growing doubt about the worth of his profession, who begins narrating Alan’s clinical history for us.

Gradually, during the course of Alan’s treatment, it transpires that he had come to think of horses in a singular way. To him they were manifestations of deity, embodiments of strength and submission which in his mind replaced the framed image of Christ that his father, a modern-day Benthamite, had removed from his room on the grounds that it was too sanguinary a picture for a healthy boy to look at before going to sleep at night. Deprived of this spiritual image, Alan, who’d had as a child a traumatic experience involving a horse, gradually substituted Equus, the horse-god, for Christ, and began praying each night in front of the picture of a stallion’s head.

Such creative theology has, of course, its difficulties in our pragmatic age, and Alan, who has gradually increased the area and intensity of his worship, so that it includes naked midnight rides on the back of his favorite stable horse, has neither church nor friend from whom he can learn the proper hippotheistic dogma. Soon sexuality begins to creep into his liturgy, and he must make the inevitable choice between his god and the more ordinary pleasures of the flesh. When, one night in the stable, he fails to respond in a manly way to a willing young lady, he feels that his impotence is a punishment for his betrayal of Equus. In panic, he begs the horse’s forgiveness, and when he receives no articulate absolution, he is driven out of terror to blind all the animals in the stable.

Now as Doctor Dysart draws this information out of Alan, he comes to discover, mirabile dictu, that he envies his patient’s faith, not particularly in horses but in something that requires a greater spiritual energy than modern society generally permits its citizens. Trapped as he is in a sterile marriage and profession, he dreams of the world of ancient Greece, the Greece not of Plato and Pericles, of course, but the Greece of bacchic mysteries, pagan sensuality, and anthropomorphic landscapes. Since he will never attain his dream, he is reluctant to “cure” the patient who has. Only after much rhetoric on the boredom and hollowness of our age does he finally decide that he must remove Alan’s divine passion and reduce him to a state acceptable to those around him, a state, as Shaffer puts it, in which the genitals all turn to plastic.

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I have outlined this plot in some detail because it seems to me to be a perfect case-study in the mediocrity of insight necessary nowadays for a play to enjoy a popular reputation for profundity. From the schematic psychology to the simpleminded cultural criticisms, there is nothing in this play that either informs us what life is or what it ought to be. It is all contrivance, all middle-class whines and whimpers that generally belong to the fantasies of afternoon television. One sits through Equus and wonders how it could be possible that so much effort was spent trying to make this poor example of a young boy’s derangement into a symbol of human vitality. The dark, irrational exhilarations of human life are made by Shaffer to seem so neat and precise a part of our psychology that Equus ends by making pure reason appear the real human adventure; and if one should embark on it during one of the play’s many longueurs it comes to mind that the good doctor, and all those critics who agree with him, would not see Alan as such a romantic figure if he’d found his notion of deity in titmice or in a piece of very rare roast beef. The thesis that madness, if not outrightly divine, is at best preferable to the 20th century’s ruthless and uninspired sanity, is in this play, as it is in so much fashionable philosophizing, totally dependent on a pleasant, aesthetically rational form of derangement for the credibility of its argument. Great foam-covered stallions in the moonlight are fine, but for titmice cults and roast-beef sects there is no public.

And yet, as a critic of the theater, I have to say that the presentation of this nonsense has a galling merit to it. The performance by Anthony Hopkins as the divided doctor turns very ordinary English into a forceful, atonal aria—words sputter out of him as though he meant to drop them as permanent markings to point the way of his personal agony and to warn others not to follow the vain route of intelligence he has taken. Peter Firth plays the possessed young Alan with a mixture of coarseness and sensitivity that makes the pain of madness seem indeed almost a noble gift. Throughout the course of the play his face remains fixed in an expression of horror, as though he were wearing one of the Mycenaean masks his doctor dreams about, and yet through this single facial attitude he manages to transmit a range and intensity of feeling that forces one almost to believe in the character he portrays. What is essentially a duet between these two actors, John Dexter, the director, has somehow orchestrated so that it becomes rich, resonant theatrical music. Yes, one must admire the presentation, but again I question the use to which the English are putting their abundant talent, and in my next article I will discuss further this tendency on their part to use plays that need the performers’ technique and embellishment in order to mean anything at all.

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