No Holds Barred
America peaked in the 1950’s, burst in the ’60’s, and fizzled out and almost vanished in
I’m beginning to think I’m scribbling gibberish, like Robert in Proof.
Or what was Jack writing in The Shining? “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
I wonder how many middle-aged couples recognized themselves in the tourist scene (which song?) in Hair?
These days rock musicals are mostly tributes to rock stars, with little regard for drama.
by the 1990’s 30 theaters,
Ask Americans today to name a current play on Broadway, and if they know of one at all, it’s Hamilton.
Jean Genet’s The Balcony, 1956;
Discuss Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter with Best of the Rest.
NOTE FOR POSTMODERNISM. Where does theatre fit in? It doesn’t. It’s been on its deathbed since the movies. List statistics from ibdb. Only elite few go to theatre (others see the very few movies)
Except for musicals, the theatrical doldrums that plagued the thirties continued through the war and into post-modern times.
Of nearly 500 non-musical Broadway openings between 1947 and 1960, fewer than 100 played over 100 performances; 140 fewer then 10.
Today, only 35 productions are playing on Broadway—26 of which are musicals, at over $100 a pop. Seven are revivals written after 1960 (no classics); only only five straight plays are new (four dramas and two comedies). Thirteen Broadway theaters stand vacant.
German Theatre of Fact (or Documentary Drama): Peter Weiss’s Marat-Sade, 1964
Final point: Muslims allow no theatre; ergo no humanistic leanings.—from Mohamed’s ban on art depicting animate beings to Islamic terrorism—
Since then (until now) the United States has been the leading super-power, surviving the Korean War, the Cold War, television, Joe McCarthy, rock & roll, JFK, LBJ, LSD, Vietnam and counter-culture, RFK, MLK, the Moon Landing, Women’s Lib, Nixon (Watergate), the oil crisis, Carter Reagan Years, the first Gulf War, blizzards, hurricanes and floods, terrorists, …….Donald Trump
**O’Neill’s Autobiographical Plays (characters based on family, wives)
Ah, Wilderness * Long Day’s Journey (his youth)
The Iceman Cometh; The Straw; early one-acts
After the Fall
Father-Son plays: After the Fall, Death of a Salesman,
The Iceman Cometh as early autobiography,
Update origin of Greek theatre to describe dithyrambic competition among the demes.
What makes a truly great playwright? A substantial body of significant work. (Exception is Chekhov.)
According to most scholars, the Modern Age ended with the atom bomb, and our current “post-Modern” era began with the Cold War, led by the new world super-power that produced it.
Very briefly, among countless other notable incidents and occasions, Americans feared and hated communists, ducked and covered, fought the Korean War, endured McCarthyism, invented rock & roll, passed Civil Rights and forced school busing, fought the war in Vietnam, knew the Beatles and the way to San Jose, burned our bras, assassinated two Kennedys and a King, landed on the moon, ousted Tricky Dick, trickled down the economy, waged war on drugs, meddled in foreign affairs, polluted the planet, invaded Iraq, watched 9/11 on TV, invaded Iraq (again) and Afghanistan, crashed the world economy, elected the first black president, passed Obamacare, browsed the internet, and put an idiot in the White House and Republicans on the Supreme Court. Where does theatre fit in?
It rarely does. Although hundreds of plays were written and produced after the war, all reflecting and reacting to events around them, rarely did they interfere effectively with the popular status quo, the movies, television, ball games, all the other things Americans did back then—and theatre happened on Broadway. People elsewhere rarely saw a play on stage. Most of them, some consciously, some not, avoided plays on moral principle.
The blockbuster hits were filmed for mass consumption, and the public packed the houses nationwide for the movie versions, but movies aren’t live theatre. Theatre was not only out-of-date (and unavailable); it was created for rich, high-class snobs or eggheads, immoral libertines, secular humanists, anarchists, show-offs, girls, and sissies. Real men played baseball.
Which is not to say theatre had no role in what the world became. Thanks to A Streetcar Named Desire (the movie), method-trained Marlon Brando’s “STELLA!” echoed through generations of young rebels; Arthur Miller’s HUAC conviction was a significant factor in curtailing the McCarthy witch hunt. Broadway musicals as films influenced popular culture, their underlying themes affecting social attitudes; in the ‘Sixties, Hair rallied the youth of the world to protest the war in Viet Nam. Other instances abound, the latest being the night the Vice-President-elect attended Hamilton. For the most part, however, the world at large has paid little heed to the wholly human art.
The years following World War II, on one hand, found America on top of the world, while Europe was in shambles. Most white American Protestant heterosexuals were fat and happy, in houses built with VA loans, educated on the GI Bill going to church, driving cars and watching TV—Ozzie and Harriet; Father Knows Best; Leave it to Beaver.
On the other hand, beneath the surface, all the rest expected more from all they’d been through since the Crash, and some began to grumble. These attitudes were best expressed in the poetry and prose of Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac (among others), who met as Columbia College freshmen in 1943 and formed a literary cult that rejected standard narrative values for a spiritual quest, explicitly portraying the human condition, renouncing economic materialism, and exploring American and Eastern religions, while experimenting with psychedelic drugs and enjoying free love. Over time these principles coalesced into Ginsberg’s iconic poem, “Howl” (1956) and Kerouac’s novel, On the Road (1957), which quickly spread across the nation as a potentially powerful underground, anti-establishment movement, and therefore were ignored, repressed, and ridiculed—most famously in the person of Maynard G Krebbs, the iconic Beatnik top banana (and butt of all jokes) on the sitcom TV show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
Both sides of the coin are reflected in dramatic art, and both impacted their separate worlds. Although only a small percentage of the population could afford (or were inclined) to go to the theatre, those few who did were witness to the blossoming of the American play—specifically, those of Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, 1945) and Arthur Miller (All My Sons, 1947). These two and O’Neill are the three “greats” of America’s Golden Age.
Other factors were the sudden the efflorescence of musical comedy in the 1940’s (which drew large crowds) and the emergence of the professional stage director.
Add to these the opposition forces—Off Broadway, the Actors Studio, Theatre of the Absurd, and (by the ‘sixties) a virtual barrage of dissident, experimental movements (guerrilla theatre, street theatre, poor theatre, open theatre, “happenings,” etc), both foreign and domestic, all reflecting and affecting their particular moments in time.
Broadway bounced back from the Depression with the 1943 production of (Richard) Rodgers & (Oscar) Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which ran five years (2,212 performances)—twice as long as any previous play or musical (excluding Life with Father and Tobacco Road)—during which time they also launched Carousel (1945-47), then South Pacific (1949-55), The King and I (1951-54), and The Sound of Music(1959-63), among others. They paved the way for the flood of musicals that have been the Broadway’s economic backbone ever since.
The seeds for their success were Hammerstein’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, Show Boat (1928), with music by Jerome Kern—the first to build a musical around a coherent story line. Before this time, musicals were more like minstrel shows, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, the Ziegfeld Follies, Tin Pan Alley songs strung together with flimsy plots designed to titillate and amuse, but not to challenge.
A few others followed Kern’s example. Of Thee I Sing (1931), a political satire by George & Ira Gershwin, was the first musical awarded the Pulitzer Prize; Rodgers & Lorenz Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right (1937) starred George M. Cohan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday depicted New York City’s early history while gently satirizing Roosevelt’s good intentions. But it took Rodgers & Hammerstein to complete the revolution by tightly integrating all the aspects of musical theatre, with a cohesive plot, an underlying serious (sometimes controversial) social theme, and song & dance that furthered the action and developed the characters, rather than using dance as an excuse to parade scantily clad women across the stage.
Their works and the many that followed their lead defined a new dramatic form—the modern Musical Comedy—that has evolved into the overwhelming extravaganza it’s become. They’re far more lucrative than straight plays, which all too often fail. In this regard, dramatic art divided into opposing camps, and theatre itself, according to many, began its ever-since imminent pending demise.
The story of the Broadway musical from Oklahoma! to Hamilton is the subject of a future essay. Simply said, since Oklahoma!, musicals have dominated Broadway and much of the rest of American theatre, while spoken drama—with a respectable number of significant exceptions—has barely managed to survive. What this says about our culture and human nature, and what effect these musicals have had on American life (think West Side Story, Camelot, Hair!—Hamilton), have more to do with music and spectacle than dramatic human interaction and the spoken word.
The Middle Man
Throughout history, traditionally, either the playwright or the leading actor/manager of a theatrical company had instructed actors in their roles. The concept of directing as not only a separate professional entity, but as the leader of the team, the conduit through which the playwright’s words pass to the company of actors and designers and come to life—the coach; the boss—was first proposed and practiced by the German George II, Duke of Saxe-Meinengen, in the late 19th Century. He influenced fellow Germans Erwin Piscator and Max Reinhardt and, most famously, the Russian, Constantin Stanislavsky in the ‘thirties, who influenced Lee Strasberg, who mentored Elia Kazan—the first significant American director of the flood that followed his example.
Before Kazan were two titanic tyrants, George Abbot and Orson Welles, both first actors, then writers, directors, and (most notably) producers, first for stage, then film, through most of the 20th Century. Each in his way approached directing as a necessary adjunct to producing, forcing actors to conform to their aesthetic and commercial visions. They represent the last of the traditional producer-directors. Since then, although some directors still produce and far too many dictate, the professional (and the amateur) director of today is separate from and equal to the playwright and the actors, and good directors recognize the art of acting.
First (actually) a playwright, first in college, at the University of Rochester (close to home, then at Harvard under George Pierce Baker, but his Broadway debut, at 26, was as an actor in The Misleading Lady (1913), and he followed that career for a dozen years. His first successful script was The Fall Guy (1925), followed the next year by his first directing gig, called upon to “re-jigger” (re-write and direct) both the (portentous) Broadway—a gritty crime drama that used contemporary street slang and a hard-boiled, realistic atmosphere to depict the New York City underworld during Prohibition–and Chicago (the gritty true crime drama that inspired the 1975 musical).
These were the first big hits on his way to becoming “the most famous play doctor of all time,” and there were very few years over the next 70 (Count ‘Em) 70 without at least one Broadway opening of a play or musical directed, often written and produced by George Abbot—many of them among the best of their genres: On Your Toes (1936), Pal Joey (1940), On the Town, Call Me Madam (1950) Wonderful Town (1953), The Pajama Game (1954), Damn Yankees (1955), Once Upon a Mattress and Fiorello (1959), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962).
He also wrote and/or directed a movie a year, from the silents (The Imposter, 1918) to Damn Yankees (1958), mostly adaptations of his musicals, but also Manslaughter, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Sea God (all in 1930), Three Men on a Horse (1936), and his stage play, Broadway (1938).
In 1995—13 days before his 107th birthday—he appeared on stage at the 48th Tony Awards to celebrate the nomination of his revival of Damn Yankees, and in the following months before his death he worked on a planned revival of The Pajama Game.
His nine decade “life in the theatre” defines the commercial theatre of the 20th Century.
Coincidence: In 1951 he wrote, produced a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, influenced by Kazan’s 1945 adaptation of Betty Smith’s growing of age novel.
What Abbot was to Broadway musicals, Orson Welles was to serious drama, and for nearly as long. On stage in 1918 at the age of three, both as Trouble in The Mikado and an extra in Samson and Delilah. At ten, at Todd School for Boys inn Woodstock, IL, he wrote, directed, and played the lead role in his adaptation of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde—the first of ten productions through his teens. Offered a scholarship to Harvard in 1931, he elected instead to tour the continent, winding up in Dublin, where he launched his professional career, playing twenty-six roles and directing five in two short years.
In 1933, he returned to Todd School to develop Everybody’s Shakespeare, a writing project that evolved into a series of educational books that remained in print for decades; also to direct Twelfth Night, which he took to the Chicago World’s Fair, and the following summer, to . Stage a four-play drama festival with New York and Irish professionals.
Meanwhile, he chanced to meet Thornton Wilder at a party in Chicago, who introduced him Alexander Woollcott, who introduced him to Katherine Cornell, who offered him three roles in her touring repertory company. His American debut was in Buffalo, New York, as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. After the 36-week tour, Ms Cornell took Romeo and Juliet to New York, with Welles now playing Tybalt in his Broadway debut.
All this, and he was just nineteen.
That same year (1934) he started supplementing his theatrical earnings with radio work, performing with actors who, three years later, formed the core of his Mercury Theatre. In between, in ’35, he played the lead in John Houseman’s original production of Panic, by Archibald MacLeish, and he and Houseman (among others) helped to launch the Federal Theatre Project, beginning with his sensational “voodoo” adaptation of Macbeth, set in the Caribbean with an all-black cast, and followed in succession by the smash hit, Horse Eats Hat (a zany, surrealistic version of The Italian Straw Hat, by Eugene Labiche), Christopher Marlowe’s classic, Doctor Faustus, The Last Hurricane (a new Aaron Copland opera), and The Cradle Will Rock, the left-wing musical that closed the project down in 1937—all directed by and often starring Orson Welles.
That year he and Houseman founded the revolutionary Mercury Theatre project, secured the Comedy Theatre on Broadway, renamed it The Mercury, and opened on Armistice Day with an anti-fascist interpretation of Julius Caesar, the actors in modern dress on a stark, bare stage, that took New York by storm. Critic John Mason Brown declared it “by all odds the most exciting, the most imaginative, the most topical, the most awesome and the most absorbing of the season.”
Late that year he staged a revival of The Cradle Will Rock and (on Christmas Day) added Thomas Decker’s Elizabethan comedy, The Shoemaker’s Holiday for a four-month run, during which, on Sundays nights, actors sang and played the musical from the audience. Next came Shaw’s brilliant Heartbreak House—which put Welles, in old age makeup, on the cover of Time—and Büchner’s expressionist Danton’s Death, after which Houseman withdrew and Welles leased the theatre to an upstart troupe while he embarked on an out-of-town preview tour of his own Five Kings. Adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts I and II) and V, it was his first disastrous flop. A summer tour of William Archer’s 1921 melodrama, The Green Goddess, led to the company’s first of only two Broadway productions, Native Son, by Paul Green and African-American novelist Richard Wright, that addressed racial conditions in post-WWI Chicago.
During the war, he conceived, produced, directed, and played Orson the Magnificent The Mercury Wonder Show, a spectacular magic show with music played in a Hollywood tent and broadcast to in servicemen around the world; but by then the prodigy as moving on. The next and last Mercury Theatre production, in 1946, was Around the World, an extravagant, multi-media (stage and film), Broadway musical adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, written, directed, and personally financed by Welles, with music by Cole Porter, that packed the 1,500-seat Adelpi Theatre for seventy-five performances, but cost so much more than he could possibly recover that he was forced to close it, leaving him $320,000 ($4,200,000 today) in debt, which took many years to repay. As a consequence, he looked for richer ways to make a living, staging only seven plays (and two ballets), all but one (including his controversial London Othello) in Europe, before before his last (Ionesco’s The Lesson) in 1960. His one New York production was King Lear, at Lincoln Center in 1956, directed by and starring himself, at 40—a magnificent flop that closed after 21 performances and marked his last performance on stage.
Meanwhile, since 1935, as much time and energy as he spent in theatre, he matched with his work in one- and two-dimensional media (radio and film). His radio career is legendary, from a regular player on The March of Time (at $2,000 a week) and the Announcer in Fall of the City, by Archibald MacLeish—which made him an overnight star—to writer, actor, and director of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, producing 23 weekly hour-long adaptations of great books in 1938, including H. H. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which caused a national panic and made him a world-wide celebrity.
In 1939, he signed a contract without precedent or antecedent with RKO to produce, direct, and star in two motion pictures, giving him—a first-time movie-maker—complete creative control. The result, after two years wasted on an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was Citizen Cane, the greatest movie of all time.
Elias Kazantzoglou, born in Istanbul to Greek parents, immigrated to the US in 1913, and studied acting at both Yale and Julliard before joining The Group Theatre (and the Communist Party) in 1932, where he played major roles a number of significant productions (Men in White, Waiting for Lefty, Johnny Johnson, Golden Boy) and then, inspired by Strasberg, abandoned acting for directing, first for The Group (Thunder Rock, 1939), then (meteorically) the original Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy on the history of humankind, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942); then the first (and most of the rest) of the works of both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller (including both A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), and an unforgettable revival of O’Neill’s 9-hour (2-night) Strange Interlude (1963), among his more than several dozen credits though the years.
Meanwhile, in 1945, he directed his first film, an adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which received rave reviews and won Oscars for two of its actors. Two years later, Gentleman’s Agreement won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and (his first) Best Director, and two years after that he recreated his production of A Streetcar Named Desire—the film that made him famous beyond Broadway and inspired a generation of disciples.
In 1947, he spearheaded the creation of The Actors Studio and appointed Strasberg as its artistic director, leaving it in the great one’s hand in ’51 while he continued to direct, in both New York and Hollywood for the next thirty years.
The one significant blot on his career was his decision in 1952 to name eight members of The Group as communists at the McCarthy hearings. Although he had resigned from the American Communist Party for political reasons in 1934, he remained a social activist, supporting leftist (liberal) causes throughout his life, and his testimony startled and infuriated his fellow travellers—especially Arthur Milller, whose play The Crucible had stirred the wrath of the committee, and whose film, On the Waterfront (1954) disparaged stool pigeons—who was tried and sentenced for his refusal. It kept Kazan off the blacklist, which allowed him to continue his spectacular career, but for over a decade he was shunned by his former friends.
Joshua Logan, Julian Beck, Joseph Chaiken, Orson Wells, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Hal Prince, Harold Clurman, Bob Fosse, Jose Quintero,
In 1963 he returned to direct the marathon Strange Interlude—the first Actors Studio Theatre production ever.
The Actors Studio
The Actors Studio was designed to permit selected actors to work and develop using the Stanislavsky Method, as taught by the great guru Lee Strasberg and demonstrated by Kazan in the original productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, the second Broadway play for both Williams and Miller, respectively; both plays awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the latter his second Best Play Tony. (The first was for All My Sons in 1947—the first year of the awards; Williams’s one and only was The Rose Tattoo in 1951.)
The Studio’s work was epitomized, however, in the portrayal of Stanley Kowalski, on stage and silver screen, by young Marlon Brando, whose “mumbled” style was both mocked and mimicked by actors and critics (and emulated by James Dean and a generation of juvenile delinquents), and remains today the stereotype of “Method Acting.” Nonetheless, in collusion with its opposite equal emphasis on Technique, it’s how all actors since have learned to act.
Today the Studio remains the foremost school for actors in the United States, its method taught world-wide, its members celebrated on both stage and screen.
The Big Three
Several pre-war playwrights (e.g., Odets, Saroyan, Hellman, Behrman, Wilder) wrote new plays in its wake, along with William Inge (Come Back, Little Sheba, 1950), Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy, 1953), and Paddy Chayevsky (The Tenth Man, (1959), all influenced by O’Neill and his two most prominent disciples, all with moderate to great success, but the flowering of American drama lies (typically) with these three great ones.
Among his many physical and mental ailments, O’Neill developed Parkinson’s disease in 1942, which left him unable to write, but four of his finest plays composed before (and during) World War II were produced when it was over—two after his death in 1953—that furthered his preeminence. The Iceman Cometh (1946; written in 1939), is a naturalistic tragedy modeled on Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Presented by the Theatre Guild, it opened to mixed reviews, but is recognized today as second only to A Long Day’s Journey among his several masterworks.
The play is set near the end of the Depression in the back room of Harry Hope’s rundown saloon, where a diverse assortment of derelict anarchists and socialists, soldiers, failed businessmen, reporters, a Harvard lawyer, down on their luck, bemoan their fates as they await the arrival of Hickey, their hero, a traveling salesman (Willie Loman reincarnate, but successful, like his actor father James O’Neill/Tyrone), who always comes for Harry’s birthday bash. When he finally appears, however—on the wagon!—he rails at their self-deceptive pipe dreams and urges them to face the world—which they attempt to do, and fail. The underlying mystery is the reason for his pitch—his own pretentious pipe dream of a happy home, and the gruesome way he rejected it. The central theme of the play is the human need for self-deceptions in order to carry on with life—to see them for the lies that they are can be lethal. Along with this are persuasive arguments for anarchy and socialism before the McCarthy era.
The next year, the Guild produced A Moon for the Misbegotten (written in 1942)—the last to be produced in his lifetime. A sequel to Long Day’s Journey (written in 1941, but not produced until 1956), it imagines a moonlit night in the later life of Jamie (now Jim) Tyrone/O’Neill, his older brother. His last two plays, A Touch of the Poet and (copious notes for) More Stately Mansions (1936-42) were the first of what was to have been a 9-play cycle covering several generations of an American family (probably his own). He abandoned the project, leaving the latter in rough draft, forbidding publication or production—an injunction that his widow gratefully defied with posthumous productions of both (the latter dramatized by a Swedish laureate), in 1958 and 1967, respectively.
She also authorized the 1956 production of A Long Day’s Journey, his undisputed masterpiece, universally acclaimed as the greatest of all American plays and one of the best in the world.
Tennessee Williams was a troubled southern homosexual soul from a dysfunctional family with a lobotomized sister who wrote poetic plays about southern people with deep, dark, psychological, usually sexual secrets, in desperate, often violent situations, that titillated and disturbed his audiences and made him easily the most popular mid-century American playwright. His first eleven plays (of more than thirty) were all blockbuster hits—particularly The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947, for which he won his first Pulitzer Prize) and its prequel, Summer and Smoke (1948), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955, his second), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), and Night of the Iguana (1961).
All of his plays are deeply personal, but only the first is autobiographical, a “memory play,” narrated by young Tom Wingfield (himself), a poet living at home and working as a shoe salesman ten years earlier, when his delusional mother persuaded him to invite a colleague to dinner to meet his physically and mentally crippled sister—the night before he, like his telephone lineman father long before, “fell in love with long distance,” and flew the coop forever. Beginning with Streetcar, his persona was disguised, either as a woman or bisexual man, and the plots overtly perverted.
While his sensational plots and characters (and underlying homosexual themes) aroused considerable controversy at the time and opened the gate for other writers to explore the human psyche, sadly, by the early 1960’s, Williams was played out, and the rest of his works were dismal flops. His effect on western civilization is subliminal, almost marginal, significant only in the sudden subtle shift in cultural attitudes regarding sex and Freudian neuroses, based on movies of his plays, that culminated in the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. (Food for thought.)
Nonetheless, his early plays remain extremely popular (especially with Method actors), and are frequently performed as classics from the Golden Age.
Arthur Miller was a New York Jew who wrote 35 stage plays with psycho-social-moral themes, in a variety of quasi-realistic styles, seven of which are American classics. All My Sons is a realistic post-war tragedy about the wages of industrial sin; Death of a Salesman (1949, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), drifts from reality to flashbacks taking place in Willie Loman’s mind. The Crucible (1953) dramatically compares the Salem witch trials to McCarthyism; A View from the Bridge (1955) employs a narrator and a tragic Greek chorus to fathom an immigrant longshoreman’s unnatural feelings for his daughter. After the Fall (1964) is a brutally autobiographical, semi-surrealist exploration of his personal relationship with Marilyn Monroe, his communist youth (and socialist leanings), and his share of the global guilt for allowing the Holocaust; Incident at Vichy (1964) has expressionist overtones as ten diverse Jewish refugees, suspiciously detained by Nazis, await their fate. Finally, in The Price (1968), he returns to Ibsenian realism with a play about the choices people make in life remembered with regret or guilt.
Unlike Williams, Miller was a moral activist whose plays, in addition to creating well-made plots and memorable characters, addressed political and social issues, from war crimes and the Holocaust to political corruption and the pros and cons of socialism. Most famously (aside from his marriage to Monroe), he wrote The Crucible in reaction to the the assault on the intellectual elite and artists by the then-Senator Joe McCarthy, Chairman of the US House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The fact-based drama, set in 17th Century Massachusetts, is about a man accused by his deranged young maid of witchcraft, tried by a Puritan tribunal strongly resembling HUAC, and hanged in 1692. Soon after the opening, Miller was subpoenaed by the Committee and, when he failed to name names, tried for contempt of Congress, convicted, and sentenced to prison in 1957. He filed an appeal and his conviction was overturned, and President Truman blasted the witch-hunting crowd as “the most un-American thing in the country today.”
Since the 1920’s, any actor, playwright, or director in America with a dream and courage, confidence, ambition, talent, and will to ply their trades had left homes for the Big Apple—there was no other option. (Well, there was Hollywood.) Waiting tables, washing dishes, taking classes, going to cattle-call auditions, getting nowhere—New York was a tinderbox of talent, and those who were good and lucky got their start Off Broadway, doing controversial plays that collectively challenged the status quo, albeit in vastly different, often radical ways. The pay was lousy, but the work was often as good as it gets.
During the 1950’s, Broadway was not only the epicenter of American theatre; it was, for all intents and purposes, the only place in the country where professional theatre existed—movies (and by now TV) had decimated the demand. Academics staged plays at colleges and universities, and amateurs put on plays in the provinces, but only on Broadway were new plays produced and played by trained, experienced, professionals; ergo, only New York residents and tourists saw them.
By the same token, since the 1920’s, any actor, playwright, or director in America with a dream and courage, confidence, ambition, talent, and will to ply their trades had left homes for the Big Apple—there was no other option. (Well, there was Hollywood.) Thousands of young hopefuls waiting tables, washing dishes, taking classes, going to cattle-call auditions, getting nowhere—New York was a tinderbox of talent waiting for that big break.
Meanwhile, ticket prices doubled as production costs for Broadway musicals skyrocketed, and attendance dropped; in 1949-50, only fifty-nine new works were staged, all chosen for their popular appeal. In response, in 1952, Jose Quintero directed Geraldine Page in Tennessee’s Summer and Smoke at the new Circle in the Square (a former nightclub) to launch the Off Broadway movement. By 1956, more than ninety groups were staging high quality, low budget works in small, unlikely venues throughout the city, at affordable prices—a workable alternative to Broadway’s commercialism—and those young drama majors who were good and lucky got their start Off Broadway, doing controversial plays that collectively challenged the status quo, albeit in vastly different, often radical ways. The pay was lousy, but the work was often as good as it gets.
Significantly, the repertoire favored risky, more experimental,”artsy” works (more likely to flop financially) than Broadway could afford—initially the mission was more about a passion for the art than money. Nearly all the plays in the early days were imports, from the Ancient Greeks to Ibsen and, from the mid-‘fifties, the European avant-garde, although some groups encouraged new, experimental works that generally tended toward the absurd.
The first Off Broadway theater—two decades before its followers—was the Cherry Lane Playhouse, on Commerce Street in Greenwich Village, the site of a silo on the Gomez farm in 1817, in a structure built as a brewery in 1836, later a tobacco warehouse, then a box factory until, in 1923, it was converted into a theatre by Evelyn Waugh and Edna St Vincent Millay (among others). Since then, to this day, it has presented an eclectic potpourri of modern and contemporary plays and theatrical events, sometimes a dozen or more a year, all staged by independent producers.
The first inkling of the future appeared in 1951, when the fledgling Living Theatre leased Cherry Lane exclusively for two seasons, but its Off Broadway heyday was the ’60’s, when it housed most frequently the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter and, beginning with Edward Albee, the early works of a rush of new young “hip” American writers. Among the most notorious were Megan Terry (Ex-Miss Copper; Queen on a Set of Pillows, 1963), Terence McNally (This Side of the Door, 1963), Lanford Wilson (Home Free, 1964), LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka), (Dutchman, 1964), A R Gurney (The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, 1965), and Sam Shepard (Up to Thursday, 1965), all with their personal grievances and takes on the world’s absurdity.
The venue flourished through the seventies, floundered through the eighties and nineties, and resurged triumphantly, refurbished and tightly scheduled, at the turn of the century to become again one of the most highly regarded venues in New York.
The Living Theatre
Founded in 1946 by actress Judith Melina and poet/painter Joseph Beck—both pacifists and anarchists—The Living Theatre was the first and purest Off Broadway experiment, a theater of poetry and politics, diametrically opposed to Broadway and commercialism. They staged plays in their living room until 1951, when they rented the Cherry Lane and produced two seasons of avant garde poetic drama, including works by Gertrude Stein, Alfred Jarry, and Picasso. The end came three days into the run of Jarry’s devastating Ubu Roi, when the New York Fire Department closed it down—ostensibly for using flammable scenery—and their contract was not renewed. In 1954 they rented a loft on the upper west side for a year, where they presented plays by Strindberg, Pirandello, Jean Cocteau, Racine, W. H. Auden, and others before the Fire Department condemned the space. After that they appeared in a number of all-the-wall locations in and around until 1959, when they (and friends) created their own space in an old department store in Greenwich Village.
In those days the Village was a cheap and friendly place to live for all sorts of starving artists, who formed a virtual colony of Beat poets and their cohorts (painters and sculptors, novelists and playwrights, composers, and performers) bound by poverty and common belief. The Becks shared their values, entertaining them with “theatre in a room”in the early days and later in their theater, which many of whom (Kerouac, William Carlos Williams, and composer John Cage among them) had voluntarily helped to renovate.
By this time the Becks had stumbled onto Artaud’s treatise on The Theatre and Its Double—a violent protest against the whole concept of civilized culture—and begun to search for ways to implement it. They turned away from literary drama to explore more radical forms and produced Jack Gelber’s disturbing non-play, The Connection, a naturalistic mix of jazz music and the meandering mumblings of a dozen junkies waiting for their supplier (and mixing with the audience during intermission, begging for spare change). The experience stunned complacent spectators, played over 1,000 performances, and won the 1960 Obie for Best Play.
Over the next five years they produced ten plays, most notably the American premiere of Brecht’s anti-Nazi saga In the Jungle of Cities. Unfortunately, their revolutionary ideas alienated the “square” establishment, too lofty (or offensive) for the common human (and the theatre too small) to make ends meet, and they struggled to survive. Their big break came in 1963, with The Brig, by Kenneth Brown, about life in a Marine Corps prison.
A war vet who had himself been imprisoned 30 days for going AWOL, Brown knew first-hand the brutal physical and verbal treatment inmates suffered, and he brought it to the stage in all its graphic horror, the spoken text all orders and demeaning insults barked at top volume. The production was a smash hit, running for five months and winning the troupe’s second Best Play Obie, and aroused such controversy that local Democratic politicians (later mayors) John Lindsay and Ed Koch called for Congress to investigate. Unfortunately, it also drew the attention of the IRS, who seized the theater for tax evasion and closed the show. During the ensuing trial, the court dismissed the tax charges but sentenced the Becks to jail for contempt of court for insulting the judge. Judith served one month and Julian two, after which, in 1964 the company left the continent for a three-year tour of Europe to return, reshaped and re-imagined, just in time for the Summer of Love.
Josef Yossil Papirofsky, born of Russian Jewish immigrants, grew up in the slums of Brooklyn during the Depression, speaking only Yiddish—which makes his obsession with spoke English worth exploring. His early life was busy with odd jobs for low pay. A high school teacher introduced him to the Bard and inspired his commitment to bring Shakespeare to the public free of charge. In 1942, he joined the Navy in Special Services, writing and staging vaudeville sketches for the sailors on board an aircraft carrier—then used the GI Bill to study acting and directing at Hollywood’s experimental Actors Laboratory Theatre before returning to New York in the early ‘fifties, where he produced and directed several flops outside the City and Off Broadway—and fulfilled his dream.
In 1954, he organized the Elizabethan Workshop, dedicated to giving actors classical training. He held classes (and rehearsals) in the small basement meeting hall of a church. In 1956, on a budget of $250, he invited the public to attend his first free Shakespeare in the Park (the East River Park Amphitheater in Lower Manhattan), and 2,000 New Yorkers came to watch his unpaid but well-trained actors perform Julius Caesar. The next production that fateful summer was The Taming of the Shrew (with Colleen Dewhurst), and when it was highly acclaimed by New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson, the City not only sanctioned its use of Central Park, but built and fitted the open-air Delacorte Theater in 1961, where every summer since the company has presented not only Shakespeare, but a comprehensive repertoire of classics, new plays, and musicals to millions of satisfied spectators.
Among the most successful of the growing number of Off Broadway playhouses were the Circle in the Square, from 1951, most famous for revivals—and posthumous premieres—of the works of Eugene O’Neill with famous Broadway actors; The Phoenix Theatre, from 1953, presenting the classics and modern European plays; the Sullivan Street Playhouse, where The Fantasticks! Played for 42 years; and Saint Mark’s Playhouse, in a church on the lower East Side, whose 1961 production of Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show played 1,408 performances (the longest Off Broadway run at the time) with a stellar all-black cast that included James Earl Jones, Louis Gosset, Jr, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St Jacques, Maya Angelou, and (later playwright) Charles Gordone, whose No Place to Be Somebody won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970—the first African American to achieve that honor.
Most successful shows Off Broadway were low-budget musicals—two in particular. In 1954, Brecht’s burlesque travesty, The Threepenny Opera, opened at the Theatre de Lys and ran for seven years—2,707 performances—the longest-running New York musical in history until that record was eclipsed by The Fantasticks!, an allegorical romance that played six times as long, from 1960 to 2002—17,162 shows in 42 years—a record that still stands.
Theatre of the Absurd
Post-War Europe found its voice in Jean-Paul Sartre (No Exit, 1944), whose existentialism denied the existence of God and defied conventional standards of social and moral conduct. He asserted that human beings are “condemned to be free,” “become what they choose to be,” and that “hell is other people,” but his plays conformed to the well-made format. His books and plays were the philosophical truths derived from Darwin, Marx, and Freud, and although no definable movement followed, the concept influenced all who followed.
The only other notable, strictly existential playwright was Albert Camus, whose dramatic works are minor, but whose essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1943) inspired the works of Romanian Eugene Ionesco (The Bald Soprano, 1949), Frenchman Jean Genet (The Maids, 1947), Russian Arthur Adamov (The Invasion, 1950), and others, all in Paris, writing mostly in French—including Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, whose first play was destined to become (arguably) the most important play of the 20th Century.
Sisyphus was the ancient Greek condemned by Zeus for twice cheating death to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill in Hades, inch by inch, only to have it roll back down. Camus recognized the moment at the summit that the poor soul saw the world, a panoramic vista, before descending to repeat the endless task. This mythic metaphor portrayed the history and destiny of humankind as painful, pointless, and redundant, and the works of each of these new playwrights, despite vastly different, radical styles and themes, derived from and expressed this post-existential philosophy. This was the only thing they had in common, but it was enough for Martin Esslin to conglomerate them into a movement in his theatrical canon as The Theatre of the Absurd (1961).
The early absurdists went unnoticed until 1953, when controversy over Waiting for Godot brought them all to the forefront of the world, competing with the Boulevard and critically acclaimed well into the ‘sixties—Ionesco’s plays, The Lesson and The Bald Soprano, alternately, with rotating casts, opened in 1957 and continue to this day, the second-longest running plays in history. (Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap opened in 1952).
Waiting for Godot is a 2-act comedy about the pointlessness of human existence. Two old friends, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), exist in a virtual void (with a single tree), perpetually waiting for Godot, who never comes. There is no plot; just conversation, idle play, as they pass the time; Didi curious, cerebral; Gogo his subjective foil. Midway through each act two travellers, Pozzo (master) and Lucky (tethered slave) provide relief. Pozzo’s final exit line proclaims the Sisyphean theme: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” At various points throughout, Gogo says, “Let’s go,” and Didi responds, “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot.” “Ah!” Gogo sighs. At the end of both acts, one says to the other, “Well, shall we go?” and the other says, “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move. The play ignited instant and explosive controversy world-wide.
French critics praised the work as provocative—Anouilh called it a masterpiece—but most people were bewildered and disturbed; English critics recommended it for the first-ever Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Play, but the editors refused; instead, they created an award for Most Controversial Play, which only Beckett ever received. The Broadway production, directed by Herbert Berghof in 1956, with Strasberg-trained E. G. Marshall and veteran vaudeville comedian Bert Lahr, so bored, confused, and bothered its too few (59) audiences that most of them left at intermission. Those who recognized its universal tragic humor stayed and carried the conversation to the public, prompting countless productions over the years, that few people saw, but most knew by title and apparent theme (The Myth of Sisyphus). “Waiting for Godot” has become an iconic cultural expression of the absurdity of human life.
Best of the Rest
The 1969 revision of Esslin’s book lists twenty absurdist playwrights from nine different nations, and a few are well worth remembering. The early plays of England’s Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party, 1958) rank with Ionesco and Genet as uniquely absurd, the “fathers” of the “movement,” with lots of sinister pauses that remained a feature of his later, subtler works (e. g., Betrayal, 1978); in 2005 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Vlakav Havel (Memorandum, 1963), a Czechoslovakian, wrote plays that ridiculed bureaucracy in Soviet Czechoslovakia and played a role in the resistance during Prague Spring (1968), for which he was forbidden to publish or leave the country. Two decades later, he played a major role in the Velvet Revolution and became the nation’s last elected president (the only dramatist ever to lead a sovereign state), resigning in 1992 (after the fall of communism) to serve two five-year terms as the first president of the new Czech Republic. Five years after leaving office he wrote Leaving (2008)—his first play in two decades—a preposterous tragic parody (think Monte Python) about a deposed ruler’s troubles coping with his loss of power, inspired by and evoking Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Others notables include Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1966), Swiss Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Physicists, 1962), Spanish Fernando Arrabel (The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, 1967), and two Americans—Edward Albee (The American Dream, 1960) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, (the same).
All these luminaries later grew beyond the absurd to experiment with other styles and forms, some to develop their own, for which they became famous and won awards, while the movement itself—like the German Sturm und Drang—disintegrated, splintered off into the dozens of radical movements that followed, all of which were absorbed into the multitudes of theatrical shapes and forms that exist today.