Where Should the Theater Be Now?
by Laurence Luckinbill
published in The Soul Of The American Actor - Winter 2001/2002
It seems fitting, in the pages of this journal, hallowed by its dedication to Harold Clurman, and by the inclusion in its masthead of the magnificent and startling word “Soul,” to dare to suggest that our theatre needs a new dream. It has, for a long time, suffered from a lack of a cohesive spirit of social purpose; political engagement, moral debate and ethical linkage--in short, any sense of ‘What’s it all for?”
Now, the time may have come again to call for a renewal of our lives as theatre workers in those terms. But when was it ever different, someone under 30, or even 40, may ask? Well, in my lifetime, briefly in the 30’s, when the implosion of society demanded new solutions for survival, The Group Theater responded. It’s actors, playwrights, and directors exploded with an amazing array of theatrical bombshells that informed and influenced generations of us. And after World War II, as the upheaval caused by that war back lit the myriad horror scenes of the way we humans treat each other not only individually, but in groups, The Actor’s Studio provided the flickering partial light of redemption via a cleansing expression of the pure depth of individual pain and joy in response to life. Then, for a time in the mid-sixties, there was a collective response to a new sense of responsibility - and of guilt- for what was “happening” in the world, in our country. Many, for the first time, understood that “happenings” had causes, and the prevailing feeling in the theater reflected Pogo’s wisecrack, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Unlike previous responses, however, this one resembled, in retrospect, a “wave” at a football game. A swirl of colorful motion, a rise of sound and emotion, then a subsidence, with really nothing accomplished. No change to anything, except maybe the atmosphere, the ambient life of the theatre, which became simply hipper, but much more polluted with negativity. As Yeats predicted, the center hadn’t held, and we were permanently to the left of it, and as unstable as we now perceived American institutions also to be.
I was a part of this. In 1964, I was lucky enough to be invited to be a member of the old original Lincoln Center Repertory Company. We were downtown in a sort of prefab blue tent of a theatre on Washington Square meant to last only until the grand up-town would rise. No one who worked there will ever forget how great that temporary theater felt, or the sense of seriousness or Purpose we felt. We were engaged in a mission of high daring and artistic singularity. If we succeeded, the foundations for an American National Theatre would be laid. We were both creative vanguard and humble paving bricks. I was paid, as I remember,$135.00 a week, to play Damis in Tartuffe. We were a sort of carpetbagger production mounted by Bill Ball, and brought in from outside the original core group, using actors new to the company (me, Paul Shenar, Michael O’Sullivan, Roy Scheider and others), alongside actors who had been there from the beginning and who had already spent a couple of years going through the entire rigorous training cycle.
We were to join an ongoing repertory which already included among others, After the Fall, .Incident at Vichy, and a production of The Changeling (directed by Elia Kazan and meant to show off‘ the company’s expanded range into Jacobean drama) which was soon to open. The thinking was definitely “out of the box.” Tartuffe rehearsed for months instead of weeks. We did exercises and games for hours every day intended to raise our physical, mental and vocal abilities to cope not only with Richard Wilbur’s rigorous verse adaptation of Moliere’s play, but also with the repertory company we were joining. It was unbelievably exciting, but also unbelievably painful: Bill insisted that the men wear French heels to rehearse very day. But I was so proud and honored to belong to this family of theatre workers who were not just “doing a show,” but who were actually the nucleus of a new creative substance. It was to be a way of approaching our theatre through an American synthesis of the best methods of work that had informed the previous cultural life of the entire world’s theatre.
Robert Whitehead, Harold, Clurman and Elia Kazan were the leaders of this phenomenon; and had visibly and articulately committed their lives and careers to this huge altruistic work. Tartuffe opened and was a huge success, followed by The Changeling which was the opposite, in spades. The critical reception was another “Night of the Long Knives.” Meant to demonstrate that American actors could train to match other great world repertories, to the critics and chatterers the production was an opportunity to be ‘Chicken Littles,’ and point out the impossibility of such hubris. Suddenly, the house which had seemed so strong, came tumbling down, in spades. Followed by jacks, queens and kings. How could the structure have been so vulnerable?
This is a subject for serious analysis at another time. It’s complex and its roots stretch back to the very earliest theatre company in America, the Hallams. But now, simply, all of a sudden, it seemed, the hidden inner tensions of the edifice made it impossible to withstand the onslaught, and it crumbled. The critics,(I think of many of them as terrorists, without meaning to trivialize the term) had so hated and denigrated the abject failure symbolized (to them) by The Changeling production, that they used it to point out the absurdity of the idea that there could ever be an “American Century” of the theatre. This harsh judgment supplied the final demolition of the fragile egos, and the less than perfect social purpose of the enterprise, and it fell. And there arose from it a new smell of fear of “Americanness,” which had already begun to pervade in other areas (it was the mid-sixties; we were the world’s vi1lain!).
And those of us in Tartuffe who had previously joked that we had swung on board the mighty vessel as pirates just in time to enjoy the spoils, now realized the ship was burning, the decks canting and collapsing, and the original and purest dream of a national repertory theatre was going down, sinking fast. The night they told us was so unutterably sad (like any undeserved closing, only much more so), so filled with tired bravado, with actor’s japery and unfinished anger, with resignation, shock and a kind of far—seeing wisdom exhibited by some that I’ve never forgotten. We were told to assemble in the house after the show. Actors freshly wiped of make-up, those who hadn’t worked that night, some scruffy as always, some in jackets and ties, as always, sat in the front mezzanine rows, lit by bare house lights (but lit, of course), somberly waiting. I sat next to Joseph Wiseman and David Wayne. Sada Thompson was behind me and Sally Jens in view. Michael Strong, and Hal Holbrook next to each other. Jason Robards the center of friends, Faye Dunaway alone at the end of a row, in a black coat. All around me, the peers and peerless of the realm—realm—the New York Theatre! This was not a group of losers or quitters. I was close to tears and crazy laughter the whole night. I will try to tell you from the best of my faulty recollection, what it was like. Robert Whitehead, formal as always, (Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes in a business suit), spoke first. He was in pain, clearly. He said in effect: “Gadge (Kazan’s nickname), Harold and I are no longer a part of the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. At the end of the season we will shut down here. The company may continue with some of you uptown. We can’t say. It’s been a noble effort and this company is wonderful. First class. I take full responsibility myself for the failure to make it work. I’m sorry.” He couldn’t go on. His voice cracked and he paused a long time before simply bowing his head and stepping back. A great and gentle man.
Kazan perched himself on the mezzanine railing, in sweatshirt and sneakers. He spoke very slowly and still he stumbled over words. He wavered on the rail. I thought he’d fall backwards into the orchestra seats behind him, but he stayed upright. Forcefully, he said only two sentences: “Goddamnit, The Changeling is not a failure!” . . .long pause. . .And I defend to the death my right to fail! ” Some laughed. Softly. The pain was getting to everyone now. Kazan had defended only himself. And everyone waited for something more. Some word of thanks or praise or just good luck. It didn’t come. He untangled himself from the rail and stood down.
Harold walked to the center. Elegant in a black homburg and opera cape, a flower in his dark suit jacket lapel. I believe he even carried a cane. If not, he should have. He said, in effect: “When The Group came to an end, every one said we were finished. Kazan, Strasberg, Clurman. But as you can see, we went on. Lee went on. Gadge... (a pause) ...went on. There was a blacklist, and I went on. Productions failed. The Theatre collapsed. I went on. Now this. Now my good friends, my dear friends, I will go on. I will go on, doing what I do. And I imagine, before long, some of you may be auditioning for me, doing what you do. I hope you get the part. Because we go on. That’s what we do.”
Well, as it turned out, almost none of us were rehired as members of the uptown Lincoln Center Repertory Company. The new management, Herbert Blau and Jules Irving (whom I knew well because I had also been for six months, an apprentice floor—sweeper and bit part player in their Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco), were ideologues of the left, determinedly uncommercial, and with no taint of Broadway success about them. They naturally, brought their main actors with them from San Francisco, and hired new ones they felt comfortable with from Hollywood, and even New York. The actors of the original company who had given up years to the dream of a national repertory theatre, were now put through some humiliating interviews in which they were asked to some how prove themselves worthy of this new phase, this turn of the screw. Some were asked to audition. It was truly awful. Truly a measure of our sixties mentality. It was not business, but politics, as usual. Most of us chose to cut the ties to the old dream cleanly. I will never forget Joe Wiseman walking slowly out of that room at the end of the hall, smiling slightly to himself, a thousand yard stare in his eyes. He would go on. There was no choice, And definitely in the American style, all that training trashed. Wasted. Obsolete. Except of course to us lucky enough to have had it.
The big change to our theatre, in my working lifetime, thus died aborning. The new management failed quickly, and the one after that, too. And got less done than we had. In the tumult of the 60’s and 70’s, none of it was mourned. We were all now conditioned to distrust - even hate - America, so why should we deserve a national theatre? And that fever didn’t break until a commercial production at the Newhouse - David Rabe’s Streamers - forced the beginning of a reluctant change.
But as it turned out, the long—delayed, but always—expected something that we longed for, turned out to be a long day’s journey into the inevitability of The Producers and the $480.00 ticket. The idea of theatre as socially important was scalped repeatedly by the usual suspects, and the creative blue collar workers of the theatre—us—were finally, totally marginalized by commerce. “The Deadly Theatre” (as Peter Brook calls it) was all there was. Is.
Oh, there were, and are, marvelous surprises all the time. Every season, some actor takes the art seriously, and burrows up through the manure to burst into flower before our delighted eyes. Every year a playwright or two is able to cast a net wider or deeper than usual and pull in a load of relevance. But there’s no vessel, no bottom, no ship of state, no trend, no movement, nothing to get lost in, march for, or believe in as greater than career or success on the insignificant personal level. (How lucky those now legendary theatre workers were, streaming downtown to find a theatre to play in!)
Now, in the wake of September 11th, in the midst of another, stunningly serious war—-this time for all the marbles—-a war that has crept upon us over decades of neglect and political drift (and yes, error, hopefully correctable), and burst upon us with the fury of “Why do they hate us?” Now, more than ever, we need a theatre engaged with all of American life and truly reflective of it, of broad perspective sympathetic to a variety of points of view, of politics, of human events, and responsibilities. Also now, world events and inescapable global family connections. And the drama of any superpower is, first, tragedy.
But any reformation (that’s what it will have to be) has to be led. So far, way out in the vanguard (like a shadowy special operative dropped into the back country at night) is Tony Kushner, who is laser-targeting universal human issues. But it may be that any movement to reengage us with our own real lives has to be led b a teacher or teachers, The Group Theatre, The Studio, Bread and Puppet, Open Theatre, The Living Theatre, were all run by men and women with the taste for analysis, the appetite for engagement, and talents for organization. (Although all the most recent were swamped by the tsunami of the “protest movement” and subsided noisily but inevitably back into the great ocean of commerce).
Maybe what is needed is a Coalition to focus a kind of wartime energy on globalizing our theatrical concerns. To invent plays and acting techniques that will perform as powerfully to engage us with the real world as have the deployment of 19 year old marines who are sons of recent immigrants from Cambodia and Afghanistan, to carry the flag to a desert outpost near Kandahar, or the march upstairs into the jaws of death of supremely ordinary, heroic firemen and policemen from all of the old boroughs of this town. Maybe if we look, we can come up with our own Berliner Ensemble, or Poor Theatre, to express our new realities. Maybe we need to look above and beyond the voices of our vaginas and the puppetry of our penises now, and respond to a greater cause than the enhancement and entitlement of self, to a greater construct of self -—-the imaginative projection of ourselves outward to where the vanguard work is being done, into the affairs of state of our city, country and world. This is a great moment in history—-teeming with heroes, villains, buffoons, mortal dangers and opportunities. Issues are at clash everywhere with tragic potential. Irony is as alive as common criminality in uncommon crises.
There is ferocious anger sweeping the world as the have-nots (now Islamic) rage against the simple neglect and habitual venality of the haves. The piper is calling in his chits, and fraudulent friends abound. Who will be true? From where will the next blow come? The flawed superpower, like Laocoon, defends itself against the deadly tide. We must have a theatre equal to join in this task.
What an opportunity! Here is, indeed, a superpower moment: the chance, and necessity not simply to crush a horrifying enemy, but also to raise new nations, theirs and ours, in a caring, supremely patient and cautious way, This is the only work worthy of a “superpower,” surely, to change the world for the better—not just to overawe and overpower it with “bunker busters” and “daisy cutters,” but to dare to make the sacrifice-—the inevitable deaths of our young men clad in Kevlar and sent into someone else’s hell fire—to dare to make those sacrifices holy by finding the real Super Power to raise, to lift, to interdict centuries of violence and oppression, to curb it and metamorphose it. To parent Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Columbia, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. And what has stopped us from parenting every miserable ghetto in our own land? 9/11 must make us acknowledge our own hubris and tragic flaws.
And for us? We non-civilians who enlisted long ago in the army of theatre artistes! What stories are here! What stuff of genius exists here to inspire the spirits of all great creators—playwrights, actors, directors, teachers of those arts. 1 don’t mean merely to exhort, but to evangelize. To suggest that we ought to set up a series of workshops to articulate a philosophy and create a center from which a thousand new stories will arise—-to be given away like original Internet material to any who will respond to work on them. A kind of new self-generated WPA theatre may result, where actors, playwrights and directors coalesce to make and present material laden with history, humanity, hard facts and wild fiction (which may, by magic realism, turn to fact as well).
This is a post-post-post modern moment. What is needed now is heart, but not sentimentality, confrontation with our culture and all its leaders, with pieties and lies of every stripe——but confrontation driven by the deeper truth of the inescapable pride and wild love we must feel for this nation, this civilization, this American idea, this crazy, magnificent, embattled place of refuge for Sikhs and saints, for psychos and cynics, for redeemers of men and food stamps, or crazed conservatives and laughable liberals, the visionary, the vain, the visaless, the ideologues and the clueless—-who need to be reminded dramatically new that we are truly and must remain multicultural, but also indivisible, from sea to shining sea.
The only thing not relative anymore--not up for grabs—is the goodness of being an American. How humbling it is, how lucky we are, how astounding, that of us were not born Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi, and so on, and that there exists an America, the sum of which is greater than all its parts: “United We Stand. . . ” and so forth. And we owe this America now. It’s not our task to be ashamed, or to “love it or leave it,” but to do our almighty best as American theatre people to deeply understand, to deeply express our land. To deeply defend ourselves in the world court of theatre, and to insure as best we can, that through our art, by our response to this new world, that we are truly “the home of the brave and the land of the free.” We can still make that a lie, or the truth.
And as Harold Clurman said, at that embattled moment: “I will go on. Doing what I do.” And of course, we know that Harold did nothing but the best, no matter what. Can we now follow his lead?