Commentary Magazine

The Decline of the Theater

Another season is beginning on Broadway; shows are racing one another to town; playwrights’ names, actors’ names, producers’ names are being flung about as synonyms for beauty and excitement. The present moment is a delightful one for the press agent, for whom the sky is still the limit; the reviewer, however, if he would remain on solid ground, must look back to last season and bury it with what sighs and oratory it seems worthy of. But funerals, after all, offer excellent opportunities to generalize, to edify the living under pretense of extolling the dead. Or, it may be, of not extolling the dead: the evil that men do is repeated after them.

In any relative sense, the season of 1944-45 was a quite pleasant one. There were two, possibly three, superior musical shows—Carousel, On the Town, Bloomer Girl. There were some likeable comedies—The Late George Apley, I Remember Mama, Harvey. There were some more serious plays that had their good points—The Deep Mrs. Sykes, The Glass Menagerie, A Bell For Adano, Anna Lucasta. There were, finally, some interesting or instructive failures dotting the season, things like Common Ground, Dark of the Moon, Sing Out Sweet Land.

This is a more rewarding record than any for several seasons past, but it is not a very impressive one for all that. It is not one that calls for much analysis or invites much discussion. One admires, for example, the taste and sense of theater that enabled John van Druten to convert the sugar-water sentiment, the idealized and idea-less world of I Remember Mama into a rather engaging evening, but there is nothing at any point in that evening to stop and talk about. One was delighted by the zip and high spirits of On the Town; but the ultimate comment on On the Town is how shockingly seldom Broadway manages to reach that level rather than how noteworthy is the level itself. The virtues of Anna Lucasta are substantially those of a bad novel that one can’t put down. The honest substance of The Glass Menagerie is horribly vitiated by the pointless and pretentious decorations; the best compliment you can pay the play is that, unlike most others in our time, the core is better than the shell. Carousel, it is true, marks something of an advance in its field: whatever its faults, it offers a musical that is genuinely touching and that is really integrated. Richard Rodgers is, of course, one of the few really charming talents we have in the theater; and Oscar Hammerstein has at least planted the hope that we may be getting the right kind of librettist.

By and large, however, what was good about the past season was good merely in the way of entertainment; even what was “interesting” mainly seemed so because Broadway itself is not. In its trappings and devices, the theater of the moment is often lively; but very little of it is alive. In its workmanship, it is often skilful enough, but hardly anything in it passes beyond skill into art. And as we have almost no art on Broadway, so (much more depressingly) we have almost no real seriousness and almost no commerce in ideas.

In a time of crisis, we may partly excuse a lack of art. The issues are too immediate, the writer is too lacking in perspective; it is not only difficult to be poised and objective, in some cases it is conceivably not desirable. At any rate, one tends to make allowances for the present want of artistry on Broadway, even though one knows quite well that it derives from something more than momentary dislocations—from a lack of discipline, of aspiration, of maturity, not to speak of talent. But that a world of crisis should produce so little that is thoughtful or social-minded or intense, so few yearnings, so little yeast—that shocks almost as much as it disappoints us. The past season contributed exactly two plays—three, if you include a ghastly off-Broadway production of Berthold Brecht’s four-year-old Private Life of the Master Race—that come under the head of social theater; and neither Edward Chodorov’s Common Ground nor the stage version of A Bell For Adano can be, said to have very much enriched the medium.

Perhaps the best thing about Adano as a novel—its sense of indignation—has disappeared from the play. What remains of any value, at least of any popular value, is a kind of simple faith in democracy, in the spiritual victory Joppolo achieved, regardless of personal defeat. But, beyond the hopelessly elementary treatment of character, the black-and-white portrayal of issues that makes A Bell For Adano a work of benevolence rather than of insight, the end of the play is in perfect character with Broadway’s general approach to social problems. The loudly pealing bell may offer just the right sort of affirmation; it offers just the wrong sort of reassurance. For it much less incites the audience to emulate Joppolo than it leads it to imagine that by triumphing in Adano, democracy has somehow triumphed everywhere. What was at best one man’s modus operandi is given all the appearance of a universal solution. Broadway somehow must send its audiences home comforted, even in the case of plays that are meant to disconcert. The result is that most people go out of the theater not with more sense of responsibility than they went in, with less.

One of the good things about Edward Chodorov as a pamphleteering playwright is that—whether in Decision or Common Ground—he is really disturbed. Common Ground—the story of a small USO unit captured by Nazis in Italy and forced to choose between trouping as Axis propagandists and being shot—is of special interest to us for having a Jew as its leading character. To pass him by for a moment, it is also of special interest for having (in the person of an American newspaperman who has become an Axis mouthpiece) a psychopathic Jew-hater as its most upsetting element. When, in the first act, the newspaperman suddenly spits out his sick and shocking venom, every Jew in the audience feels as if he has been given a kick in the belly. Broadway rarely goes in for such body blows, which is why its social theater lags so far behind even the newspapers in its ability to rouse or even to reveal. The theater cannot really hope to correct until it is honestly willing to expose.

In contrast to his vicious anti-Semite, Mr. Chodorov has not portrayed an exemplary Jew. His Jew, a Hollywood actor who has partly joined the USO to further his reputation, has a good deal about him of the show-off and the wisecracker; is, indeed, a type that his more sensitive, or at least more genteel, co-religionists are given to blush over. Moreover, being Jewish, he—unlike the others in the troupe—is not allowed to make a choice, but is immediately condemned to a concentration camp. In his isolated role, he achieves certain realizations, but is mainly converted into an unconsciously self-dramatized figure of gallantry. Such an attitude has much to be said for it psychologically—it has turned up very often in real life, as with the “Guggenheim knows how to die” on the deck of the Titanic. But in Common Ground it tends to displace tragedy with pathos; and in view of the rest of the play, one suspects that the gallantry has partly been seized upon for its popular and sentimental appeal. For the play itself, after a rather electrical first act, loses its bearings as both document and drama, to become one more of those death-vs.-dishonor contraptions where the dilemma, though it continues to exist in real life, has been so degraded on the stage that only first-rate talent can redeem it. Unfortunately Mr. Chodorov is not very talented, and as a result his play is not very effective, even as pamphleteering. But as citizen if not as artist, he is a serious man, prepared to impose his own ideas on the stage rather than succumb to its timid compromises.

These compromises operate almost as rigorously outside the social drama as in it; indeed, the only other play of the season that impressed one for any independent-mindedness—a play that most reviewers brutally tossed aside—was George Kelly’s The Deep Mrs. Sykes. This small drama, concerned with exposure rather than action, simply used the repercussions of a seemingly trivial incident as a way of revealing a half dozen people’s tangled relationships and thwarted lives. It employed, as I said when I reviewed it, a pebble-thrown-into-a-pool technique, the ripples slowly widening until the whole pool has been disturbed. The serious, possibly the insuperable, fault of the play was that Mr. Kelly allowed his characters to explain one another rather than expose themselves; the whole thing was more of a pat psychological blueprint than a flesh-and-blood picture. That said, however, the play began to have virtues unique in their season; and not simply the virtues of dialogue and characterization to be expected of the author of The Show-Off, Craig’s Wife and Behold the Bridegroom. What impressed you most if only by its rarity was Mr. Kelly’s refusal to play safe as a dramatist, his indifference to what will “go” on the stage—a refusal and indifference all the more honorable because Mr. Kelly, who obviously possesses the skill to please others, had the courage to please himself. If he allowed a drunken woman to go on babbling, if he left the stage bare for whole moments, it was in a conscious defiance of the risks. The result was a play that for all its shortcomings proved generally engrossing and adult. It was also something of a retort upon the cowed, unadventurous, opportunistic methods of the current Broadway stage.



For there is no use pretending any longer that the Broadway stage in recent seasons has been a really adventurous or responsible or grown-up medium. It continues, quite often, to give pleasure as entertainment; to provide excitement for its acting or directing; even to offer at times that special vividness and lure that belong to the theater and cannot be exactly duplicated outside it. But there, barring a very rare play, its value stops. The trouble is not simply that Broadway is so “commercial,” but that it is so backward and banal in its commercialism. That hankering after culture, that materialistic idealism that is so cardinal a part of American life—that has made classical music or The Modem Library the possession of millions—is not in evidence in the theater. Even Hollywood, however vulgar and flatulent its aspirations, really aspires. But the theater does not aspire.

You will find that the theater is the only one of the arts in America that does nothing to keep its classics in circulation; in contrast to last season’s record in music, art, books, opera, ballet, even cinema, exactly one classic—The Tempest—was revived on Broadway; and the season before there were exactly two—Othello and The Cherry Orchard. The need for real and continuous repertory, on a sound production level, is a very great one; the more so, surely, in a disordered era when there is little new drama of value, and some excuse for there not being. As a result, there is more than a lack of substance, there is a lack of standards; with a lack of standards there must pretty plainly come a lack of discipline; from a lack of discipline there comes the squandering, even the butchering of talent.

An Odets or a Saroyan is hardly hailed for his promise before he is attacked for his failure to live up to it. You may, in view of what is wayward, flamboyant and self-indulgent in both these men, suspect that in any circumstances they would be incapable of sustained achievement. Possibly; but the atmosphere in which they and certain other not untalented playwrights have worked has all the same been a terribly harmful one. These unformed playwrights were actually setting the standards instead of struggling to meet existing ones; for there virtually were no existing ones. Aside from Lillian Hellman, Odets and Saroyan are the only striking talents to have emerged on Broadway during the past dozen years, and none of the older practising talents have really exerted an influence.

It is bad enough for gifted young playwrights to run wild when they should be putting themselves to school; what is worse is that, at the most formative period of their careers, they too often gain no more freedom than they do discipline. Hollywood reaches out for them and ties them up to learn its trade, just when, if they ever shall, they should be learning their own. That Hollywood commandeers young writers’ time seems to me more destructive than that it possibly corrupts established writers’ talent. And so long as such artistic cradle-snatching continues, we have one more reason for not looking forward to a renascence in the theater.

In men like Odets and Saroyan there is at least some measure of nonconformity. With most other playwrights the capitulation to Broadway standards seems painfully complete. So terribly little gets said, let alone said right. Those of us in the audience who happen to be Jews, liberals, intellectuals—who are strongly concerned with the world around us, but who care too for art—are seldom even forced to decide whether the substance of our topical drama compensates for the lack of form. Even the substance is thinned out and watered down, even the “message” is made consoling or ambiguous or respectable.

Our playwrights, with a few exceptions, pose knotty problems only to offer flabby answers; the theater seems to me most irresponsible today not for what it ignores but for what it renders innocuous; not for failing to arouse us but for arousing us only to lull us back to sleep. At least half the plays I see on such subjects as Fascism, anti-Semitism, the war, the peace, strike me as having been written as much because they were “timely” as because they were troubling.

The social drama of the thirties—which failed, but failed with passion—is almost extinct. As for what seems in retrospect like the living drama of the twenties, even its ghost is vanishing. We may overrate that drama today, that body of work created by the Shaws and O’Caseys, the Abbey and the Moscow Art, the Werfels and Pirandellos, and in this country by the Sidney Howards and George Kellys and Elmer Rices and Eugene O’Neills, but this much, at the very least, can be said of it: one was not constantly asking just how good the plays of that era might be, so many of them were interesting.



All these comments constitute a harsh indictment, but I don’t mean for it to be a glib one. Any critic who approaches the theater as a moralist ought also to approach it as a realist and confess that, however glaring its sins, the theater is a very difficult and in certain respects a very thankless medium. There are not only many things that it cannot do at all—things, for example, that must be left to the novel—but there are equally many things that it seems unable to do with impunity. Almost every serious play, it would sometimes seem, must steer between the Scylla of ineffectiveness (which is apt to be the penalty of simply telling the plain unvarnished truth) and the Charybdis of over-contrivance (which is apt to be the penalty of making the truth dramatic). After all, it is the theater’s first obligation to be dramatic—to deal with conflicts and crises and climaxes, to create suspense and contrive situations; and usually the more “interesting” your situation, the harder it becomes to resolve. Again, the more that plot and situation count—and in the highest classical sense as well as the lowest popular one, they count more than anything else on the stage—the more must character and probability tend to be sacrificed.

Well! so far as all this is true, the playwright is a bedevilled creature and many of his “compromises” are hardly to be labeled crimes. For a long time, indeed, it has seemed to me that our theater is doomed if it persists in going in for realism, the realism in which the playwright’s prime object is to impress us by his fidelity to life as we recognize it. Realism in that sense is not only too much lacking in color for the stage; it also demands a degree of background and a sense of passing time that the theater can’t provide. In novels people can slowly grow and change, and complicated situations have time to be plausibly worked out. In novels men can repent or “get religion” or come to know themselves or see into others; but on the stage a predicament that seems hopelessly entangled at 10:45 p.m. cannot be convincingly resolved by 10:58. For that reason alone, the realistic theater must always be a welter of highly unsatisfactory third acts.

Not reality but intensity seems to me the great concern, the great contribution of the stage; whether the intensity of Othello, that makes the “reality” of it ultimately unimportant; or the intensity of the topical play that brings home with passion the general truth, whether or not it slurs the specific fact. And for that matter, there is an intensity of farce and comedy that Broadway seems never to have heard of; another reason for reviving our classics, an Aristophanes or a Ben Jonson.

But having noted the playwright’s difficulties, one still winds up condemning his present faults. Indeed, there is no helping it but to descend to the outright didactic and quote once more, “Not failure but low aim is crime.” Broadway today depresses one most of all by the lowness of its aims. Sheer entertainment apart, there aren’t eight Americans now writing plays who either in their failures or their successes are really worth our most serious attention. The answer, I think, isn’t so much a lack of real talent—though there is not very much real talent—as a want of adultness, of audacity, of integrity.

In the work of some of our most skilful comedy-writers one gets the feeling that the author kept saying to himself, not “Is this funny?” but “Will this get a laugh?” The point involved becomes ten times more disquieting in the case of so-called serious plays. There you find often quite reputable playwrights with third-act trouble concocting new endings by the carload—happy endings, unhappy endings, semi-happy endings; throwing characters out, at the very last moment, or writing new ones in; destroying half the point of the play for the sake of a curtain line. (And I’m not speaking of technical considerations.) It was all very well for Dr. Johnson to say of actors that “we must live to please who please to live”; he would hardly have agreed that authors should garble to get produced. Their deference to what they think the public likes has debased a good deal of genuine wit and skill; so that the virtues of present-day Broadway seem at times almost more distressing than the faults.

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