The theater of modern America loves to shock but has overdone the trick so often that our nerves are jaded and immune to further outrage. The New York stage must be allowed to dry up and blow away, creating space for a rebirth…

american theaterTo act out, in concert, before an audience, an interpretation of how men behave—or might behave, or ought not—is the universal disposition of our kind. Sometimes, in some places, this generic human impulse to dramatize develops no further than to provide a framework for the pantomime of the raconteur. At the other end of the spectrum, in other settings, it results in lengthy cycles of plays which are preserved for centuries as a part of a complex tradition and performed, year after year, in a certain sequence and under prescribed theatrical circumstances—as with the Noh plays of Japan. But my subject is not the variety of imitations which men may give to an action. It is rather the social utility of these species of “playacting,” the need fulfilled by (and rationale implicit in) selective images of the human condition performed at various moments in theatrical history; and therefore the normative questions of what the theater should be in an emotionally healthy society, reasonably at peace with itself and in agreement on the large questions that determine the value of life for the individual who is a member: should be and should not.

What follows is thus a composition of a specific rhetorical character and recognizable kind, in a genre as much forensic and admonitory as it is discursive: an exercise in judgment more on the model of Jeremy Collier’s 1698 A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage than of John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy or Aristotle’s Poetics. Like Collier, I focus on the condition of the stage in my own time, on its vulgarity, its encouragement of vice, its hostility to religious truth. But also like Collier (and unlike the Puritan or Platonist) I continue to acknowledge that the drama, when restored to its proper nature and once again in contact with its socially and ontologically pious origins, has its rightful place in the order of civilized life and ought not be discouraged per se. For what we can learn from the long history of the stage, from the drama at its best, is why we should be displeased with the American theater as we have known it in our day: A theater either merely commercial or merely ideological, infected, by turns, with the aesthetic of sentimentality and wishful thinking or the more potent aesthetic of alienation—an anarchic, pseudo-religion destructive of the spirit of social responsibility in any art—especially a performing art; a theater drawing its cultural impetus from the in-many-ways un-American city of New York: The locus of almost everything in our nation’s intellectual life that works against the stability of an inherited regime more or less accepted in the rest of the country.

The Drama of Human Limitations

Thus, before I begin to detail my indictment of the New York (and, generally, the modern) stage, I must speak at some length of old plays, laying a predicate drawn from the dramatic works of an earlier era which, in their power over an audience, still have much to teach contemporary playwrights who hope to produce something more than the merely commercial or fashionable in their art. To begin, we must remember that all theater has its primordial origins in religious feeling, in some sense of the providentially given features of our condition as contingent beings, of human limits—and their source. Greek and Roman drama emerged from the pattern of religious observation, as did the drama of medieval Europe, the drama of India, Japan, Java, and Bali. Another common denominator with these originals of their kind is their rehearsal of the beginnings of things, their preoccupation with demigods and national heroes—and with the connection between character and fate in the lives of those who offend against heaven or the deepest values of their society.

Tragedy, of course, was originally (and necessarily) concerned with “great” men and women, their offenses against the gods, the misestimation of themselves that came from their magnanimity, their sense of their own value and merit. Old or “broad” comedy emerged from the farce comedy of the street and folk mummery which stands behind the commedia dell’arte; and from the treatment of human folly, hypocrisy and pretension (or the rescue given by the gods to undeserving mortals) that always had its place in the ancient theatrical festivals which dealt with more serious matters. Melodrama owes a little to both, to the satyr play and the comedy of no laughter, but a happy ending; and to the medieval tragedy de casibus virorum, the story of the mighty man who falls not out of some flaw but because he has risen too high. Melodrama, according to Professor Robert Heilman, reduces the world to simple conflicts between good and evil, assuming that good men (with the help of a special providence) may “decontaminate” and “restore” the world to its “normal” proportions; and that playgoers will enjoy the spectacle of their victory.[1] In presuming that, no matter how we behave, everything will come right, melodrama points toward tragicomedy and its pattern of unearned conclusion or to “dark” comedy, which strikes a grim note, despite its minimally “happy” conclusion. The former involves an unrealistic, sanguine view of the world—an adult version of the comfortable delusion of childhood. The latter knows better than to assume that the enemy is always outside the self, or to believe that we can dabble with fear and excitement and still be kept safe within the rollercoaster as it rushes downward toward what looks like ruin. Melodrama/tragicomedy has been with us always, though the contemporary variety often turns the formula upside down, to a version of comic tragedy bringing central characters, not survival where it is undeserved, but ruin where it cannot be predicted or even explained.

One other important distinction must be made concerning the historic theater. It is difficult to overemphasize the fact that it was a public art which sought to appeal to all levels of a given society, though not necessarily to each in the same way. Further, it was an occasion of the social cohesion which it presupposed—in this like the act of worship. Members of a community examined their image of human sorrow or felicity, their heroes and villains, together, and knew their unity as one people in the exercise—their agreement concerning social norms, the reasons for shame, the value of honor, the cost of love, and the deeper questions of “heaven’s will thusward.” It is, perhaps, unwise to speak of this traditional theater as being democratic. Aristotle was correct and the Marxist critics are mistaken about the idea of an “ordinary” tragic hero. Even Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman makes an extraordinary sacrifice—of his life—for love and what he wrongly perceives as the well-being of his family. And there is no traditional without the realities of place and station. Even so, the great play does not exclude from involvement with its unfolding anyone in the inclusive audience for which it was designed or neglect to inform them why that action is a rehearsal of how things are, from their point of view: according to their experience of being not a series of disparate integers but “we.” In other words, the role of the early dramatist was like that of the epic poet in that his job presupposed the necessity for society and a social definition—not the necessity of distance and hostility between artist and audience.

As examples of medieval comedy which illustrate what that form achieves in communicating a sense of human limitations and the meaning of choice within those limits, of the gentle correction and rustic magic of the morality and mystery plays that grew out of the Mass, I suggest Everyman, the most famous work in its kind, and the Secunda Pastorum—called popularly The Second Shepherd’s Play.[2] The mortal truth of Everyman is the almost comic thought that most of us behave as if we had forever, and are inevitably surprised by the proximity of death—such obliviousness being part of our nature. The play also reminds us of the connection between the grave and loneliness, another truth that we are reluctant to confront because it threatens us with isolation: that our failure to make provision for the care of souls is unaccountably foolish if we believe that we know how it might be done. It is a homely account of universal incapacity to recognize our own fate, sure and certain, in a summary representation of our collective vanity. The Second Shepherd’s Play, as it retells the story of the Nativity, is a related parable/narration of that ultimate expression of freedom which is the birth of the Son of God—and of the obligations imposed upon us by our reverence for that example, interspersed with low comic complaints against petty abuse and slender means: “the ills the flesh is heir to.” In linking the story of Mak the thief and his wife, Gill, who hide a stolen lamb in their cradle and pretend it is their child, with the visit of plain English shepherds to the Manger of the Christ Child, the Wakefield Master makes the doctrine of charity concrete—visible—and brings home to his countrymen the routine applications of that measure of all charity which is summarized in the Cross.

As an illustration of satiric comedy, I recommend Aristophanes’ Clouds, a play concerned with the effects of deracination on traditional society. Comedy as satire always has a target chosen on the assumption that, though most of us can endure the charge of wickedness all too well, we cannot abide the prospect of being laughable or absurd. Satire creates a target for laughter—a target which precludes emulation. In the central section of satiric comedy there is a place for reversal, embarrassment, and retreat from the folly which set the action in motion. Professor Northrop Frye speaks of this moment of inversion as “saturnalia”—after the “upside-down day” of the Roman social calendar, a time when slaves and servants were released from the restraints of rightful authority, allowed to be saucy, neglect work, and drink drams.[3] I know from the inside how this process of comic transformation works in Clouds—both because I have a son who is yet in school and because I was asked by the students of my university to play the role of Strepsiades (the angry rural conservative) in a public reading of that work. When the personality of that old farmer who wants “modern” training in dialectics and casuistry for his boy, Pheidippides, so that the young man can help him deal with creditors is seen for what it is, it is not difficult to understand why I was assigned the part. But the role is not peculiar among men in their middle years. Rather it is archetypal that they should be over-impressed by local Sophists and send their children to institutions of doublethink and arrogance like the one kept by Socrates and his apprentice debunkers. However, once the children of these men learn in this “reflectory” not just how to manipulate law and politics but also how to ignore their fathers, and do as they please, their education takes on a different meaning; and the enlightenment of their parents, a turning like that of Everyman and the Shepherds from what they originally intend, is complete. Seeing how speculative thinkers have ruined his son, Strepsiades declares, “Alas for my delusion! Mad indeed I was when for Socrates’ sake I cast out the gods.” Then, renouncing his daydreams, he burns down the “nest” of philosophers (a literal, physical structure with bizarre dimensions) in order to restore the inherited social and intellectual norms which have made Athens a great city and to punish those who have “insulted” the power of the gods. Almost all satiric comedy follows after this prescription in which the error satirized produces its own corrective.

The drama of the English Renaissance, the greatest theatrical explosion the world has ever seen, drew some of its impetus from the classical example, but more from the native theater performed on feast days, in the streets of such towns as Coventry, where as a boy Shakespeare saw the Herod referred to in Hamlet and the Vice, who was the original of Falstaff. The play from the era which I find to be most immediately useful in the context of this discussion is Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe, a tragedy full of the new sense of human possibility and of the heroic reach of will and intellect which was the hallmark of the Renaissance. This new spirit, in that it redefined the gift of life and the scope of man’s stewardship over the earth in a fashion that quite properly affirmed the goodness of creation (and not just its purgatorial function as a “moral proving ground”), also encouraged the error of what Harry Levin calls, with graphic accuracy, the “overreacher,” the man self-deified by his mastery of these many opportunities.[4] Such a one is the protagonist of Marlowe’s classic play. But Doctor Faustus is not only an exploration of the experimental temper in what was, for Oswald Spengler, the representative modern figure; it is also (and primarily) a warning against that disposition and of its direful consequences, if not checked by some awareness of the moral order of the universe, the parameters of human freedom in things given and not subject to revision.[5] The audience of Marlowe’s play is offered, for its time, a complete vision of the tragic experience in the image of a great scholar caught up in the pride of a mind which “is its own place.” We share with Faustus the boredom of mere knowledge, the exhilaration of power made more exciting by its infernal source, and his final terror when the time of reckoning (a prospect he has almost ignored) has come. But though he offers to “burn his books” and fears damnation, Faustus has with contempt destroyed in himself the ability to repent fully of his sins, and goes, therefore, screaming toward judgment—thus completing in us the Renaissance version of what Aristotle calls “catharsis.” From the author of Everyman, the Wakefield Master, Aristophanes, and Marlowe, we can recall what social purpose the theater once served. That purpose informed the majority of the plays preserved in the dramatic tradition of the English-speaking stage (of which the American theater is largely a derivative), and is well remarked in the many-volume history of Allardyce Nicoll.[6]

After the Restoration of 1660, when the theaters closed by the Puritans were reopened, reflecting lesser hopes and reduced moral certainties, mocking bourgeois respectability, pretension and absence of high style (or decorating the stage with the weighty and static spectacles of heroic drama, such as Dryden’s All for Love), the inclusive and spontaneous connection between English playwrights and the larger audience known to Marlowe and Shakespeare was never restored. Instead, low melodrama and low farce held the stage—an echo of classic theater, set off here and there by good foreign plays, anomalies with the virtues of the past, and “revivals.” There were, of course, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fine satiric comedies, often modeled on the achievements of the French master, Moliere, with their rich and detailed affirmations of the established “way” of French society, and also a few plays such as Joseph Addison’s Cato which managed to treat seriously (almost as in epic) of the responsibilities of public life—with honor—even though not precisely tragic in their effect: plays that recall the dramas of Corneille. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, along with the Victorian musical plays of Gilbert and Sullivan, look toward South Pacific and Annie. They laugh a little at official postures and other foolishness, then end on a happy note, in some union—with more grace and less distortion of reality in the prototypes than in the contemporary incarnations of this theatrical subspecies. But sentimental musical drama is not what is wrong with the modern stage—to which subject I am now ready to turn.

The Legacy of Alienation

What there is about contemporary American theater that, with reference to the long history of the drama and its social role, must be changed and/or restored is easily identified by a comparison of a few modern plays with the paradigms explored in my abstract of that record. The ancient healing, achieved communally under the watchful eye of the gods, in comic reversal or catharsis (or in the more complicated emotions generated by tragicomedy), cannot be the result of such stark inactivity and lack of communication as we discover in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953).[7] In this model of all subsequent absurdist moralities man is the victim of a cosmic joke and the general connection between character and fate is denied. Moreover, as in so much modern drama, nothing happens in Waiting for Godot—no one comes, though Vladimir and Estragon, a pair of nondescripts, open the scene expecting a significant visitor. In this irrational universe, bleak but tinged with grim, grotesque laughter, self-pity finds its apotheosis, as Estragon declares, “Nothing to be done.” The two derelicts talk and try to kill time. For they have been led to expect something. But the curtain drops, leaving their expectation unfulfilled. The point is obvious, that no one is out there; only the mind is real, consciousness, as Beckett learned from his master, James Joyce. In erecting the congenital anticlericalism of Irish intellectuals into an abstract principle, Beckett probes the limits marked by social consensus, pious ontology and religious orthodoxy with his Cartesian exemplum. And, as I said, legions of dramatists have followed after him. The trouble with their adopted formula is that, even though it is natural for the good playwright to probe the boundaries within which he grew to manhood and learned his art, for him to discover what is essence and what is accident in his world, it is also necessary that there be (by general agreement) something there for him to probe—some standing arrangement of things.

Astute critics often find the epitome of Beckett’s theater in his skit, Breath. In this short play without words the curtain rises on an almost empty stage, decorated only by a pile of trash. After ten seconds of silence we hear heavy breathing for the same length of time. This “event” is followed by another silence of equivalent duration and by the cry of a baby. Thus the play is ended, no sooner than it begins. Others find their representative Beckett in the longer Acte sans paroles (1958), in which a mute is tortured by sticks and water bottles. Both of these “creations” are relatives of a hypothetical naturalistic drama with which I have often set out to explain that variety of fatalism to my students—an action which begins with the meanderings of a little girl across a stage covered with flowers, representing a bright spring day in a meadow. After a little picking of posies, there is an unexplained blinding flash of lightning and the curtain falls.

To a portion of the American audience for serious theater these plays are a challenge to reply with “no” in thunder—that such fables distort reality and insult the powers. For another group they are part of the artist’s proper business in making complaints for us all against the outrage of our existence—and the related outrage of pretending that our mortal condition is circumscribed by genuine authorities and animated by a liberty we might well use. These find in the modern theater a plea for liberation, coupled with an indifference to the freedom which they claim. A final component of this audience will say with Hamlet that such works inspire us to face the truth in the spirit of existentialism, representing as does little else “the form and pressure of our time”: will say that to expect catharsis, reversal or the process of healing by resolution from dramatists of our time is to ask them for an untruth. To the last two groups, content with the theater as it has become, I have nothing to say. But speaking for the rest of my countrymen who are concerned about the future of the dramatic arts among us (and who doubt that modern drama is ironic at its own expense), I have a few suggestions—prescriptions which I will play off against the handiwork of Sam Shepard, a native heir of the European absurdists, and master of (in the language of his interpreter, Richard Gilman) “fragments, chunks of various sizes thrown out from the mother lode of urgent and heterogeneous imagination in which he has scrabbled with pick, shovel, gun butt, and hands.”[8] One of Shepard’s lesser plays, Killer’s Head, is the monologue of a criminal as he sits in the electric chair, waiting for a flow of current. Naturally he is “cut off” in the midst of rumination—and his words are (again quoting Gilman) more of an “announcement” than part of an action.[9]

Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child does (unlike Beckett’s silent plays) contain dialogue.[10] But this talk does very little good in advancing an action—except as blows may serve that purpose. Grandfather, grandmother, sons and grandson talk. But no one listens to what is said—not even so much as in Waiting for Godot—except for the girlfriend of Vince, the grandson who has returned after an absence of six years. All of the family manage to whine a little and to abuse one another. There is a secret, long kept, of grandmother’s illegitimate child, killed by grandfather years before. As the grandfather dies, his disturbed son Tilden, Vince’s father, returns the long-buried remains of the child to the house. Vince has decided to stay and “see to it that things keep rolling,” and his girlfriend, Shelley, leaves. There is more of a plot here than in most Shepard plays, but not really. Vince, in following his grandfather, will preserve only a familiar chaos of souls in isolation, a family bound in a moving but unchanging present by a “fixity of objectless rage.” He might as well have written, “We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys. They kill us for their sport.” There are surprises here and arbitrary acts, also much relation by blood, but no mimesis. Instead, Shepard and his generation almost return to choral song—except that he is not worried about a general audience, only a coterie of adepts.

The theater of modern America loves to shock but has overdone the trick so often that our nerves are jaded and immune to further outrage. The analogy to the professional stage of our time is that theater which St. Augustine, cultured man that he was, rejoiced to see in ruins. In New York, it is informed by a mesh of radical taboos so inclusive that only Marxist, Freudian, homosexual, or Feminist subjects have a reasonable chance of being treated: plays derivative of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Moreover, the New York stage is so strangled by union demands and fixed costs that very few elaborate productions can be attempted, most of them musicals. And even their ideology has become a factor in the equation—as when the staunchly conservative Daddy Warbucks of the comic strip is subjected, by Broadway’s Annie, to the corrective influence of F.D.R. The economics of the New York stage are such that only private lives can be easily represented on it, two to four characters at the most, a few stereotypes, but no historical ambiance or spectacle—a more narrow focus than was encouraged in 1925 by the intellectual climate of Dayton, Tennessee.

The commitment of the New York stage to the values of that city—attitudes roundly rejected by most of the country—gives us a cultural capital that is happy with absurdist or protest drama and therefore alien to the civilization it is supposed to reflect in its art. The patrons of that aberrant theater allowed the deracinated clerisy of aestheticism to dictate to them in questions of taste: to insist that the pseudo-religion of alienation (a problem in all modern literature), of reaction against family, nation and church, have a canonical authority over men and women of sensibility or soul. The old New York theater of 1840-1945 was a more hopeful matter, was never dominated by one simple-minded aesthetic or psychology or politics and reflected respect for a consensus beneath the sectarian variety of this Republic: a distilled abstract of social and religious agreement embodied in civility and public orthodoxy. This regard for limits, their origin and the importance of moral freedom as exercised within the framework they create must be restored to the American drama if it is to be of any value to its ostensible audience. The aesthetic implicit in Hamlet’s speech to the players, alluded to in my title, can still be the basis for that artistic counterrevolution—that is, if we give the process a little push.[11]

An important part of this work is, to be sure, a careful analysis of the discredited aesthetic of modernist drama. Independence of the example of the New York (and usually Hollywood) theater for the American theater outside New York is part of such cultural politics—as insisted upon by the patrons who sponsor it but based on more than simple moralism or political reaction. A calculated program of revivals from within the tradition could also further the process, and the conscious sponsorship (with wide publicity directed to our men and women of letters) of a drama which does not take the limiting realities of the human condition as only a source of anger or resentment at the insult to self-experience in the acts of honorable men or the commands of God. New York must be allowed to dry up and blow away, theatrically speaking. An alternative coterie must be assembled, creating space for a rebirth like the miracle of what occurred in Ireland with the Abbey Theater. Good modern plays from Europe should be given close attention—plays such as The Firebugs by Max Frisch, containing laughter at the expense of our myopic meliorism, our refusal to see the worst coming, or to admit that civilization is being destroyed merely for the pleasure some derive from destruction: a myopia which recalls the decision of the townsmen in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, that it is easier to join the beasts than it is to drive them out. For there is a positive example in any comedies that assume the reality of the society they expect to correct, and their stake in it.

But most of all we must do what Dionysius does in The Frogs of Aristophanes—send for Aeschylus, the great playwright who can save the city from its foolish passion for ingenuity. Not Euripides, who would take from the chance to advise his countrymen an opportunity to display his intellect; neither Harold Pinter nor Edward Albee. But rather, old-fashioned, eloquent, though somewhat stuffy Aeschylus, who will efface himself to preserve Athens—even if that means telling the citizens unwelcome truths about what made their nation a power and a model to free men.

At the time of the play (405 B.C.), Euripides has just died; the Athenians are a divided people—about to lose (to Sparta) the Peloponnesian War; the conservative leaders of the polis have been ostracized; and Dionysius is fearful for the future of the people who do him honor with their annual theatrical contests. Mocked by Pluto, his servants, and a chorus of literal “croakers” (who serenade his crossing of the river Styx), he is then taken as a slave and beaten. Dionysius knows to make this choice (though earlier he had planned to bring up clever Euripides, the mocker), because he had just experimented with cunning and ingenuity in getting into Hades—in what turns out to be a painful trip. He chooses well, as one who has learned his lesson, and laughed at his own mistake. After what we have allowed the American theater to become—almost by default—we should be able to do the same.

Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Winter 1985-86). 

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[1] See Robert B. Heilman, The Ghost on the Ramparts and Other Essays in the Humanities (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1973), 141.

[2] On the earliest English drama the classic account is Sir E. Chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1903).

[3] Northrop Frye’s discussion of the pattern of comedy appears on 58-73 of English Institute Essays, 1948 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), in an essay entitled “The Argument of Comedy.”

[4] Harry Levin, The Overreacher: A Study of Christopher Marlowe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952).

[5] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Charles F. Atkinson (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1932).

[6] Allardyce Nicoll wrote the history of English drama from 1660-1900 in five volumes; two books dealing with the masque; and a general history, British Drama (New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1925).

[7] The special, sobering force of tragicomedy comes out of a sense of the peril and great seriousness of certain decisions, even though they are without tragic consequences.

[8] See Richard Gilman’s “Introduction” to Sam Shepard’s Seven Plays (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), xv.

[9] Ibid., xvii.

[10] Sam Shepard, Seven Plays, 61-132.

[11] Hamlet, Act Ill, Scene ii: Hamlet’s speech to the players.


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