Another Bow

I got so much mail about “Bowing Out” (Voice, August 4) that I thought I’d better expand on it. Nothing’s scarier, for a critic, than the realization that people might actually agree with him, and most of my correspondents did: Like me, they see our theater system as weighted against the actor, against substance, and largely against whatever might make theater mean something to an audience. What most of them wanted to know was how they could improve matters without starving themselves to death.

The worst news I have for them is economic: The better the work a theater does, the less likely it is to pay a living wage. The cliché of selling out for a swimming pool no longer really applies; these days actors who escape to Hollywood are ditching a grim situation in which a hit show Off-Broadway still means having to keep your day job. In the absence of sane government support–and we haven’t had a sane government for decades–actors are in effect subsidizing the theater, and there is no computable way to arrange what they really deserve, which Bernard Shaw cogently defined as, “Give me a decent living wage and let me work at my art.”

Shaw’s own solution was simple: He married a very rich woman. When, in due course, his plays made him even richer, his royalties subsidized the Royal Court Theatre and RADA. I’ve heard actors use the phrase “trust-fund babies” about colleagues whose ventures are subsidized by money from home, but where money’s everything, no source of funds should be sneezed at. Shaw, Stanislavsky, and our own Eva le Gallienne are among the many shapers of world theater who couldn’t have done it without money from home. Not that subsidy’s everything, either: In countries with long traditions of subsidized theater, the bravest risks have often been taken outside the official system.

Here, for instance, is how André Antoine, a young gas-company employee, founded the Théâtre Libre, which brought French playwriting and acting into the 20th century: “The expenses for that [first] performance were defrayed almost entirely by Antoine, who had arranged that the production should coincide with his payday… It appeared as if the theatre would fail through lack of funds. He managed to collect enough money, however, and on the next convenient payday made a second attempt.”

Antoine eventually went bankrupt, and was kicked out of the theater he had invented with such effort. Like most stories of the kind, his is at once a shining example to believers and a danger sign to the worldly. Let’s not kid ourselves: It will cost you, and it will hurt, and you may get nothing for it after all. You may even get a bad review, in this column. There are no guarantees. Much of the response to “Bowing Out” was from youngsters who asserted that they were doing just what I’d urged, enclosing press releases for the work they were sure I’d like. I didn’t jump at most of these chances; their press releases were less reassuring. Our outer-directed society doesn’t exactly teach the self-questioning that helps artists weigh what they do. A kind of ironic footnote, arriving in the same mail, was a card from a young group styling itself Change the World Productions. Their current project? Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Now, I bear no dislike for Shanley’s small and touching play. But if it can change the world, I’m Columbus and Shanley is Vasco da Gama. I don’t know if Change the World has the potential to take its name more seriously, but I do know that we don’t need another theater whose mission statement doesn’t match its repertoire; isn’t that what the acronym LORT stands for?

We need a theater where the economics are not against the actor’s survival. This means a theater run, in effect, by actors, not usually thought of as ideally suited to run such things. Richard Burbage was lucky; his brother Cuthbert knew bookkeeping. We need a theater that has an idea of itself, and of what its audience needs. This last, hopefully, should be both wiser and have wider appeal than our relatively closed-off institutions now, which tend to address one segment of one class, artistically-minded affluent liberals. Not that they should be driven away, but that others should be encouraged to come in. I’ve often wondered why no one takes up Piscator’s idea of theater for union members. I don’t mean a theater that wallows in self-consciously “working-class” crudity, nor one where every play has to end in Odetsian shouts of “Strike!” Here Brecht becomes the model, and you don’t have to parrot his ideas or ape his style to share his concern for working people as people, passionate and intelligent enough to deserve more than merely being handed a cheap answer on a cracked plate.

These days there are many cheap answers around, subtly coated with corporate vinyl, or crudely shellacked with religious and racial dogmas, but we can’t afford cheap answers; the world is crumbling too fast. It sounds creepy to say, “Therein lies our hope,” but that may be the case. Giuliani’s heavily policed Manhattan, a plasticized tourist paradise from which the poor and bohemian are steadily being shoved out, doesn’t offer a climate conducive to great theater. But economic booms don’t last, and the corporate mind, always stuck in the profit rut, is famous for running away from downturns as fast as it has run toward the preceding upswings.

Maybe there won’t be a depression–I’m not an economic prophet–but things like the stock market’s recent frenzies may start to make New Yorkers as jumpy as Russians. And people who expect the bottom to drop out of everything are a more restive group than people who think boom times are trickling down on them. They will demand a different kind of theater, organized and presented in a different way than the kinds we offer now. (Maybe it is time for the playwrights to start yelling “Strike!” again.) They will want substance, they will want passion, they will want something that connects to their lives. They may want to reach, rather urgently, for links to the greatness of the past; in desperate times, the notion that someone has been there before, and felt the same desperation, can be eerily comforting.

Who will pay the actors then? As they are hardly paid enough now, their situation won’t seem appreciably worse. The fading away of the comfy, closed-off institutions that now seem to be the theater will bring a new sense of freedom, mixed with a heavy ache of loss. But there will be bigger things to worry about–breathable air, drinkable water, food and shelter–a concern for the public welfare in a sense of the word that our current politicians barely know exists. That includes a concern for the welfare of the spirit, which cannot live on a diet of brain-dead spectacle and fancy imports uptown, offset for the few by a tastier regimen of small sincerities and personal explorations downtown.

Le Gallienne, who was not interested in such things and had the money to do otherwise, walked away from Broadway stardom to found the Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street. In the nine years it lasted, she produced 37 plays, by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Molière, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and living playwrights from Giraudoux to Susan Glaspell. She did not do everything right, but no one ever does. What she did achieve is impossible today, because no one has her combination of knowledge, will, and monetary resources. Today’s world demands a lot more of the last, and has an even more violent apathy toward the first. The odds are strongly against anything good happening. And computer programming is always there as an alternative; no one is forced to pursue a career in the theater. But the theater never goes away; and if it looks like a trivial diversion now, there is always the dark chance looming up ahead that it may become the spiritual necessity it has been for other cultures at other times. Actors who believe, and can walk past their frustration and disappointment, will do well to ponder what greatness is, learn everything they can about their predecessors, and lay their plans. Something is taking its course, and the theater, like the world, may be about to change faster than we think.