Commentary Magazine


We Who Sit in Darkness:
The Broadway Audience at the Play

That the American theater is today in the doldrums few will deny. In their effort to diagnose the sickness of Broadway, critics have turned their stethoscopes on playwrights, producers, and authors. Here Alfred Kazin focuses on the much neglected audience, and turns up some very suggestive clues. 

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To have great poets, you must have great audiences, too.

—Whitman

 

If you love the theater; if you have at least once in the darkness of a theater known what it is to have your mind changed and your senses aroused by that dialogue between man and man on the stage which can be reproduced and enlarged in the inimitable immediate bond between actor and audience, then between members of the audience—the chief impression that a round of Broadway play going leaves on you is the overwhelming, secret, embarrassed apathy of the audience itself. Despite the great crowds jostling each other to get into the latest hits, the social éclat that now belongs to anyone who has managed to see South Pacific or Kiss Me Kate, despite the pure delight of anticipation that will seize any audience as the lights are lowered and the curtain begins slowly to rise, the atmosphere at a Broadway play these days is so inherently dull, distracted, so unrelieved by anything the audience actually expects of the play itself, that if you care for the theater you do not know whether to be outraged more at the theater owners, producers, playwrights, and critics for joining in such a cheat, or at the audience for being such sheep.

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The Broadway audience today does not even know what it is missing. It hopes it will be entertained, it expects at least to be surprised. But if neither entertained nor surprised, it does not know whom or what to complain of; or if it is right to complain at all. For having, on the whole, waited so long and paid so much to sit in a plushly uncomfortable New York theater for the pleasure of watching a “production” whose chief distinction, in the fantastic economic setup of Broadway, is that a great many harried and ingenious people have gone to such limitless expense and trouble actually to get the thing on the boards, the audience is at once too proud of itself for being there at all and too submissive to some living person’s eloquence or fabulous sexual appeal, to complain. It is almost enough for itself that it is there (any experience of the living theater in America today being still rare and “old-fashioned” enough to provide an added social consideration); that it has got in; that it has won some small advantage it can prove in conversation.

Surely not the conversation at intermission time in the lounges, or after the play, or in some last poignant effort to recall to the stage a person or a scene that has just given us so much pleasure, which we identify with all deeply felt experiences in the theater. Nothing, to my mind, so characterizes an evening today in most Broadway theaters as the self-consciousness one sees and hears between the acts; the bewilderment, restless boredom, the nervous satiety of people who have been patient and uncomfortable for a reason they cannot quite justify; the rush, as soon as the curtain is down for the last time, still “to make an evening of it”—and with good reason, since the experience that the tired disenchanted day-time self expected of the theater in the evening has not yet begun.

What is the experience of the Broadway audience today at the play? What is it that happens, or rather doesn’t happen, to that great crowd of tired, hopeful middle-class people in the dark that explains the irritability and over-conscious discomfort that are felt in New York theaters like an emanation of stale warm air?

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To begin with, the audience remains entirely parallel to the life on the stage, the stage to the audience. It is as if they were two vaguely estranged and even possibly hostile entities that must under no circumstances get any nearer each other than they have to. I am not sorrowing over the lack of “audience participation”—that old, cheap, and indeed sinister trick which developed in the agit-prop theater workshops of the Weimar Republic so many totalitarian techniques for the swaying of Hitler’s audiences. It is enough, here, to point to the incredibly bad, neurotic, too often simply inaudible, diction of so many young actors and actresses today.

This would seem to come not so much from bad training, since most of them get no training at all, or only the most shallowly “professional” one; but from the fact that they do not know on what level to pitch their voices, whom it is they are addressing from the stage. They obviously have no picture in their minds of the audience except as a great shapeless mass, and certainly not of the inherent differences within it.

It cannot be said that most American actors now play up to the gallery; they seem hardly to know that a gallery exists. With what relief does the audience at such a trivial piece as The Velvet Glove, or at such claptrap as S. N. Behrman’s I Know My Love, comfortably settle into its seats, knowing that from such dependable old hands as Grace George, Walter Hampden, and the Lunts it will at least hear every word spoken with relish, with grace, and with the old-fashioned actor’s enjoyment in his own presence. This heightened self-enjoyment, something announced to an audience by the very way an actor walks onto a stage and occupies it, can actually be sent back to him by the audience’s delight, and then usually communicates itself to the supporting players. It can now be seen only in the last of the old circus and music-hall stars, like Bobby Clark, just as half the fun of watching the Marx Brothers in the movies lies in their direct unashamed eagerness, learned from how many hilarious evenings in vaudeville, to force themselves on the attention of every last man, woman, and child in the audience. But to do that, you have to believe that the audience is in the theater to get an experience it expects nowhere else. Most performers on Broadway today give one the impression that they are as little interested in the theater as an institution as is the audience itself.

The quality of speech on the stage is, of course, the surest indication of what relations actually exist between the performers and the audience. Whether or not the fine edge and always slightly patronizing clarity of British “educated” speech would seem to have been developed, as I think it was, from long centuries of practice in giving orders to servants and the lower orders generally, the British actors in T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party have the peculiar effect on the audience of surprising it that people so “affected” in their speech can be interested in religion or ideas generally. Hence the incoherent resentment one sees and hears in the audience against the play, from a fear of being taken in; which is quite apart from all serious criticism of it. But the peculiar inaudibility of so many new American performers would seem to come not only from the lack of continuous theater practice which most European actors have, or from the lack of a common standard of American speech; but even more, from their obvious unrelation to the audience. And this begins, I believe, in the fact that the audience does not make enough claims on the actor, that its polite bewilderment, its passivity, keeps him tense and unprepared, but without the final tension (something that escapes even seasoned European actors on Broadway) that is always so marvelous on the stage when everything in your sight and hearing is on the same dramatic pitch.

Properly, the audience is either the third element present to the actor’s mind in every dialogue, or it is a great crowd of strangers looking on—it does not matter how friendly, enthusiastic, or indifferent; they will still be strangers. But to overcome that strangeness, the audience must be at home with itself in the theater, something I have not felt in a New York theater for years. The members of the audience must have some bond with each other greater than the social chic and sexual provocativeness of the new Empire fashions. And there must be some outspoken enjoyment of a beautiful line, if and when it comes, for its own sake alone. Though here, however, the audience is perhaps not entirely to blame, since it is usually straining so hard to hear what is being said at all.

Perhaps the deepest reason for the inaudibility of the performers in such new “serious” American items as The Member of the Wedding or Come Back, Little Sheba, is the fact that the characters are solitary people who do not expect to be overheard by anyone. In the last few years the American drama, like the American novel of the 40′s, has turned sharply against the very language of social protest. The only vague, wistful vapors left of it are now in the movies (Pinky and Lost Boundaries have shown that it is possible to make successful films about Negroes, so long as they are mostly white and look entirely so), and in those large, abundantly relaxed “musical plays,” like South Pacific and Lost in the Stars, which redeem the social guilt the American middle class discovered during the war about its racism. But through the unexpected success of Tennessee Williams, young American playwrights have discovered, just as young novelists have discovered in Truman Capote, that their authentic subject is American loneliness—which is dramatized in the neurotic, the child, the Negro, both man and wife in Come Back, Little Sheba, and in every last character in The Member of the Wedding.

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The extraordinary number of children now on the New York stage is itself an indication that Broadway has at last fallen back on the introspectiveness that has dominated highbrow American fiction in the last decade. And of course children on the stage do not speak too clearly, to a whole audience, in the old-fashioned actor’s way, without appearing unnatural, unbearably cute, or even intentionally monstrous. The latter is precisely the point intended in The Innocents, that bad movie they have made of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, for the ironic title underscores the remarkable wickedness and homosexual insolence of the young Miles, as played by David Cole.

This characterization, as it is written into the play and as it is performed, bears no resemblance whatever to the extraordinary, shy, and pitifully confused young boy in James’s story. But obviously it is meant to be a parody of some British homosexual avant-garde poet, and to sting the audience into having a satisfying moral reflex of dislike. But where the child’s speech is largely indistinct, for the excellent reason that he is truly a child (like the little boy in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding), one realizes that the pressure on the stage of our familiar American loneliness has made impossible the old, ideally dramatic relations between actor and audience. For here the dialogue on the stage itself is not so much heard between the actors as it is overheard. The child speaks to the Negro, the adolescent heroine to the child, the Negro to the poor, the father to his daughter, as if each were always alone, and had no confidence that he can understand the other or be understood. So that something blurred, always touching, yet inherently elusive—human solitude as a fact in itself alone—is shown on the stage before which the audience feels like an amazed onlooker. It may catch memories or echoes of each human being’s private ordeal, but nothing that is in any dramatic sense its own. It responds by pity, not by recognition. There is no situation to enter into. The life of the theater is action, reciprocality. Here there is no action—there is only character, and in the characters themselves nothing but their passive suffering—that element which Matthew Arnold said was not a subject for poetry, and is even less so for the stage.

Hence the grateful emphasis that the audience puts, amid all these human silences and obscurities, on the individual performer rather than on the character played; on the performer divorced from the play—which is the most familiar response of the audience in a Broadway theater. For if there is no action and not even the hope of action; if the performer, in what is finally his own solitude on the stage (in a play that does not move), must try by any means to elicit some response from the audience, then ironically the inherent sensitivity of such a play as The Member of the Wedding, far from transmitting to the audience an experience of human despair, will simply become the occasion for an actor’s personal triumph. The tremendous effect that Ethel Waters has on the audience at The Member of the Wedding—and very justly, for she is the one fully rounded human being on the stage—is nevertheless due to the freedom she enjoys from the play. And we respond so gratefully to her own abundant humanity precisely because we, too, have not been taken up by the play, have not been absorbed. So that in some unexpected release from our unadmitted perplexity or boredom, we fix on her. Alas, on her only as the Negro, the great Negro mother, as if even the performer whom we love for herself alone, especially when we cannot love the play, were, still, only the embodiment of a race or class or type.

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It is perhaps in some such terms that we may understand the Broadway audience’s wistful, over-susceptible, yet coldly self-conscious submission to the performer rather than the play—perhaps even against the play. I am not speaking here of what hap pens at such obvious “vehicles” as Detective Story, which is an offensive piece of trash held together by loud screams and yells from Ralph Bellamy; or I Know My Love, which would be inexcusable if the Lunts were not there to play that happy married couple, the Lunts. But rather, of what happens to the audience at South Pacific looking on at the now celebrated love affair between Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. This is a love affair which seems to take place between races or generations rather than between individuals, and it is conducted in so tumultuous an atmosphere of American largesse, know-how, sex appeal, and achingly liberal good-will toward all those darker and older races which are not so rich, happy, and beautifully careless as ourselves, that I have not in years heard from the stage so ringing an indication of what Americans think of themselves in relation to the world they have just learned is more than half theirs.

The audience at South Pacific never forgets that it is present at a fabulous occasion. Everyone in the theater feels this. It is the only really joyous, or at least deeply excited, audience I saw this season. Fabulous because of the planetary American success of the play, which everyone wants to see, which wins all the prizes, which is an obviously complicated American industrial product of the highest ingenuity, but is also extremely liberal—not cheap, but benevolent toward everything and everyone in the creation. Fabulous because we are there, and so feel ourselves, along with the charming people on the stage, fortune’s darlings from the first. Fabulous because there arises from the sex-starved Navy men in the Pacific, like the blast from a steel mill, such a riproaring, hungry, idolatrously adoring hymn to the American woman that if we ever had any doubts about American power in the world, we lose them at South Pacific. If we ever had doubts about what we were fighting for, we lose them here, and can instantly answer Pinza’s weary “European” question—I know what you Americans are fighting against, but what are you fighting for?

We were fighting for love. We were fighting for Mary Martin. In sight of that enchanting girl, so sophisticated, yet so natural; so independent and obdurate in her search for the real thing, yet so kindly and dignified a comrade to every American mother’s son three thousand miles from home—she who is every GI’s ideal girl friend, but reserved in her American naturalness and good sense for the older, graver, deeper European soul of Ezio Pinza—we rejoice in ourselves, in the immediate human advantages our power can give us, and see in that love affair on the stage the meeting of the continents, of the races, of the traditions. For if Mary Martin represents American goodness and naturalness, Pinza embodies that maturity we Americans know we still need to complete us, to round out the shock of our power with a song straight from the heart, a hymn to the human affections.

Curiously, this was the great theme in Henry James—the meeting between America and Europe, between the power of innocence and the depth of wisdom. And it is more true at South Pacific than at The Innocents, or at The Heiress some seasons back, that Broadway no longer lags culturally behind the world of Henry James; that it, too, has taken our American perplexity, and virtuousness, and inner liberalism, out into the world. But Henry James was too pessimistic, perhaps too morbidly conscious of what the world did to Americans, rather than of what Americans could do for the world. Whereas when Nurse Mary Martin, our fabulous American miss, truly fortune’s darling, “the heiress of all the ages,” skips round and round in her delight, singing “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love,” the audience knows that with no other people could war be such an occasion for the discovery of human sweetness, of love, of the most radiant happiness. And is itself in a perfect frenzy of delight, and, for once, can go home fulfilled.

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