Theater Interview: Writing about the American Stage
As a theatrical event, The American Stage anthology would have to be classified as a rousing vaudeville show: there are literary routines for all brows—high, middle, and low.
The American Stage: Writings on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner, edited by Laurence Senelick, Library of America, 867 pages, $40.
By Bill Marx
“There is no place of public amusement of which I am so fond as the theatre,” states Washington Irving, posing as Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent, in the first entry in The American Stage, adding the deadpan kicker that “to enjoy this with greater relish I go but seldom.” In this rich anthology, editor Laurence Senelick contends that writing about the agonies and ecstasies of American theater has, over 200 years, generated its own form of entertainment, lively prose that proffers, in his words, “insight, wit, or strong feeling.”
Thus the collection isn’t an earnest round-up of critical notices of important plays or a by-the-numbers documentary history but a hearty, decidedly eccentric hodgepodge of written responses to the theater —on- and off-stage, experimental and conventional—including reviews, interviews, poems, parodies, manifestos, propaganda, and remembrances.
One of the yardsticks for an anthology is how much first rate unfamiliar material the editor turns up. Even those who know the turf should be surprised and delighted at some of what they find. Yes, The American Stage contains the predictable suspects, including pieces by Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Miller. But there are some meaty meditations from such keen critical minds as James G. Huneker, George Jean Nathan, Stark Young, S. J. Perelman, and Eric Bentley. Even more satisfying are brilliant pieces of writing that Senelick pulls out of thin air, including Langston Hughes’s hilariously cutting satire of The Green Pastures, Willa Cather’s acidic dissection of a production of Anthony and Cleopatra, Gore Vidal’s evaluations of Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Disch’s satisfying version of the perennial “Death of Broadway” notice.
Of course, part of the fun of reading an anthology is wondering why some made the cut and others didn’t. Regarding the missing, I was curious that William Dean Howells, as well as the critics Richard Gilman and Gordon Rogoff, were left out in the cold. Also, some of the winning entries are puzzling, such as Mary McCarthy’s gratuitously nasty demolition of A Streetcar Named Desire. And do we need one of Dorothy Parker’s few positive reviews?
I spoke to Senelick about the selection process, the ways that Americans write about the theater, the decay of theater criticism, and his favorite pieces in the anthology. Senelick is Fletcher Professor of Drama and Oratory at Tufts University and a recipient of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism. His books include The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre and The Chekhov Play: A Century of the Plays in Performance. He is also “a professional actor, director, and translator who has staged a number of American premieres.”
Bill Marx: How did The American Stage come about?
Laurence Senelick: I was struck that the Library of America, which had been founded as a version of the Pléiade series in France and was dedicated to preserving American literature in convenient, inexpensive, and definitive editions, was issuing volumes on given subjects. It had volumes on true crime, baseball, food, sailing, New York, and movie critics. But it didn’t have one on theater. So I spoke to my friend Lloyd Schwartz, who had edited a Library of America edition of the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. He gave me the names of the editors, and I wrote to them with a proposal and sample contents. It was accepted straight away. I have to say it is one of the most efficient books I have ever written in my life because the idea came up two years ago in the summer. The book came out within two years of that. Once we had determined what was going to be in the book, it was rushed into publication. I had a very good time writing the headnotes and the introduction.
Marx: You mention that the Library of America has a volume of film critics. But in the introduction to The American Stage you say that you were not interested in compiling a compendium of critical writing about the theater. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
Senelick: Phillip Lopate, who edited the volume on American movie critics, stated quite straightforwardly that he wanted to create a kind of canon of American film criticism. He felt that film criticism has been overlooked as a school of writing, and he hoped to bring to the fore writers who had been forgotten or whose ideas on film had helped create an aesthetic for American film.
I, on the other hand, was aware of earlier attempts at theater anthologies that focused on critics. One, published in the 1930s, was called The American Theater as seen by its Critics. It is basically made up of snippets, rarely entire reviews, by daily and weekly reviewers of important American plays from the 18th century on. It is a very useful book from a documentary history perspective, but it is tedious reading because the approach of daily and weekly reviewers tends to be consumer reporting to a large extent. There is an obsession with finding the snappy phrase.
I wanted to go back to the notion that the Library of America is about preserving great writing, or if not great writing, at least very interesting and entertaining writing. I also wanted to encapsulate, as much as possible, the various aspects of the American theater through various kinds of American writing. I wanted to find writing that gives a sense of how the audience, the viewer, the observer responds to what is going on the stage.
So, rather than sticking to criticism or reviewing, which an awful lot of criticism boils down to, I include essays, think pieces, memoirs, parodies, all kinds of writing that reflects—mainly from the audience’s standpoint—the experience of the theater. There are not a lot of pieces by actors or directors or designers in this book: the few included were penned by theater artists who also distinguished themselves as writers. Director Elia Kazan, for instance, who was a very successful novelist, and actor William Gillette, who was a very successful playwright.
Marx: How would you compare American responses to the stage with how writers looked at the theater in other countries? Is there a distinctive American vision of the stage?
Senelick: American theater is more demotic, if you like. It is a popular theater—that is to say whenever our theater was a lively and well attended art form it appealed to a large portion of the population. Whereas historically, in Russia for example, the theater had a very tiny audience. One of the hard things about creating theater in Russia was finding enough literate people to go to it. In America, almost from the beginning, the populace went, and this egalitarian appeal bothered a lot of European commentators like Alexis de Tocqueville or Fanny Trollope, who were disturbed by the fact that what went on in the theater was determined not by the best minds in the society but, to some degree, by the rabble.
This is why you get, over time, a need on the part of the American intelligentsia to cultivate playwrights who might somehow make the theater amount to more, make it more adult, such as the attempt in the late 19th century to establish James Herne as the American Ibsen. Or when Eugene O’Neill begins to establish himself, suddenly the thinkers rush in to exclaim, “Oh! We have a playwright of European appeal. Somebody who is actually experimenting in a way that Europeans experiment.” There is a kind of inferiority complex involved. It is as if it is not enough that the theater is a place of diversion and entertainment; it also has to be high art. You get an interesting tension throughout American writing about the theater, a conflict between the people who are delighted to celebrate it as a demotic form (Edmund Wilson on burlesque, for example, or Fred Allen and George Jean Nathan on vaudeville) and the people who are really trying to put it in long pants, so to speak, to make it classy.
Marx: Some of the early selections in The American Stage reflect that conflict vividly. Edgar Allan Poe, Willa Cather, and Walt Whitman want the theater to grow up. Were there any serious writers at the time who liked what they saw?
Senelick: The anthology illustrates a very interesting dichotomy. Young writers in the early 19th century think very differently about the theater once they grow older. That is one of the reasons I included several pieces by some of our classic authors. Whitman, Mark Twain, even Henry James look at the theater of their time, and they are highly critical. James considers it to be contemptible, Twain is amused by it, and, believe it or not, Whitman thinks it needs to be civilized.
Then you get them in their elder days, looking back with nostalgia on that same theater, and suddenly they are praising the very things that had bothered them earlier. They are much more willing to accept the popular side of it or what we might call the amusement side of it. So you get somebody like James waxing absolutely rhapsodic over an acrobatic troupe or Twain chuckling over the old glory days of the minstrel shows, and Whitman praising the performances at the Bowery Theatre. The notion that intellectuals could feel comfortable praising the popular side of the theater came later after the writers felt themselves and society sufficiently sophisticated to accept the rougher aspects of things.
A wonderful example of this is George Jean Nathan. As a young critic, Nathan is eager to advance American theatrical civilization by praising foreign writers and championing Eugene O’Neill. But the older Nathan gets the more he sits back in his chair and says, “Ah, burlesque is great fun, and the clowns are wonderful to watch.” So with time comes an ability to balance one side and the other.
Marx: Does the critical balance between sophistication and entertainment hold for writing about the American stage in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s? Doesn’t the notion of theater as an instrument for social change undercut this kind of modulated judgment?
Senelick: In the early part of the 20th century, writers approach ethnic theater, immigrant theater, and fringe theater as outsiders. They treat readers as if they are taking them on a safari, telling them that this is valuable theater because it reflects the customs and attitudes of people who are becoming part of our melting pot civilization.
By the 1930s, you are getting the children of those immigrants, now finding their place in the theater and wanting to use it for social protest, wanting to use it to change society. One of the most important aspects of this transformation is the Federal Theatre Project, and that is why in the anthology I include a very moving piece from Hallie Flanagan about how Congress quite deliberately destroyed the Federal Theatre Project. At the end of the anthology, I have an excerpt from John Houseman’s memoir (Run-Through: A Memoir) that deals with the production of the musical The Cradle Will Rock. Houseman’s piece not only dramatizes artistic triumph in the face of political oppression, but it also shows how you can create an exuberant art that is also a social statement that brings the audience along with you.
Marx: But doesn’t the rise of political energies in the theater change how it is written about? As the anthology progresses, the writing becomes more earnest and less descriptive.
Senelick: As long as your audience is limited, it is the job of the writer to create a graphic image of what happens on stage for the people who haven’t had a chance to see it. It is not just about selling tickets, but conveying, as best as you can, an experience. Even as late as the 1950s, when I was growing up, every single city had lots of newspapers, and there were a large number of magazines, some of which still exist such as The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, as well as some that are defunct like The Saturday Review. These publications devoted a lot of space to the theater. If you read a number of these publications, you would be exposed to vast amounts of different attitudes and viewpoints about the same performance. And that was very invigorating. Besides a brief notice you would get in the daily paper, you could wait a couple of months and there would be a considered commentary that would show up in the Partisan Review by somebody like Eric Bentley. And there were magazines such as Theater Arts Monthly.
The interesting thing about so many of these publications was that they were intended for a middlebrow audience. They were aimed at an audience that wasn’t specifically focused on the theater, but went to the theater on a regular basis because it was part of its cultural diet. What’s more, it was an audience that liked to read.
Marx: But we have lost that now?
Senelick: By the time I got to the last quarter of the book, I was hard pressed to find that kind of compelling writing. For one thing, our public intellectuals do not choose to write about the theater very much, not even the way Elizabeth Hardwick did in the 1960s and ’70s. One of the few is Henry Louis Gates, and I include a 1997 New Yorker essay of of his. Daniel Mendelson is another exception, but he tends to write about film and opera as much as he writes about live theater.
What’s replaced it? The interview. I have two examples in the book. I have a piece by Alan Dale, one of the earliest purveyors of the form, writing about the aging star Clara Morris. But he has worked an interview into an entertaining essay. It is not just “he said/she said.” His own critical comments and his attitude, which is rather snarky, are nimbly embedded in the piece. The same thing is true of Alexander Woollcott’s coverage of Mrs. Fiske’s opinions of Ibsen. It is not just an article; it is a kind of conversation piece he has invented around their session together.
When I was working on this book, I realized that the American Theatre Magazine, which is an organ of the Theater Communications Group, had just issued its own anthology of 25 years of things that had appeared in the magazine. I had been through American Theatre‘s files and hadn’t found anything I particularly wanted for my book. But I was curious to see what they had chosen. And half the book is interviews. And the other half, some of the best pieces, are from before the magazine was invented, things such as Harold Clurman’s Russian Diaries of the 1930s.
So, to get back to choosing representative pieces of our theater for the anthology, I was very hard pressed. Nobody really wants to sit down and write a really considered essay on the theater. And partly that is because the theater is not taken as seriously anymore as an expression of what is going on in our society. And also it is because readers don’t want extended commentary—they would rather get the sound byte.
Marx: Yet some would argue that you have overlooked valuable writings about the contemporary theater. There are few post-war critics represented—for example, there’s nothing by Richard Gilman, Robert Brustein, Gordon Rogoff, or Michael Feingold. And the off-Broadway revolution of the 1950s and 1960s is somewhat neglected.
Senelick: One of the problems has to do with length. The Library of America has an editorial policy that every piece included must be included in its entirety. It cannot be cut or excised or excerpted. I had a book originally twice the length of this. Rogoff, Brustein, Gilman, Theodore Hoffman, Richard Schechter, Don Shewey, and others appeared in it. But many of the pieces were too long. And when they weren’t the right size, my editor, Geoffrey O’Brien, didn’t care for them. He found that they were, when compared to the other things in the anthology, a little too uninteresting, even dull. Or too scattered in their approach, too journalistic in some ways. So we had fights over what to put in. Thus what appears is a good selection, but it may not be the most representative selection, particularly of the modern period.
But I don’t just want to put the blame on the Library of America or on Geoffrey because some of it is my own decision. One of the most curious aspects of the development of the American Theater in the 20th century, now even more in the 21st, is what might be called the academization of the theater. Virtually everybody in the theater in the 19th century and even into the early 20th century learned what he or she was doing on the spot, in the theater. At the beginning of the 20th century, you get the famous 47 Workshop at Harvard University in playwriting. Suddenly you begin to get people going to college to learn about theater. The people who go into the theater are people with college educations, and so they understand academics writing about the theater. Sometimes these writers can be brilliant, but much of the time they write at a distance from the genuine article.
There’s a kind of disconnect, though that disconnect occurs less when the people who are staging the theater are also college graduates who are performing for college graduates. But sometimes the American inferiority complex comes into play again. You must (this is a buzzword in the theater, you hear all the time) “problematize” it. We must raise it to a higher level—Brustein is very big on that. Somehow we must make the audience more sophisticated. Since I grew up in the theater, I have always distrusted this attitude. And, obviously, I have a foot in both camps because I was in the professional theater for a very long time but I am also an academic. But I do believe that you have to trust your audiences to some extent. Not cater to them or pander to them, but the minute you want to say, ‘You have got to eat this because it is good for you, not because it tastes good,’ then there is something strange going on that is not organic to the way theater develops.
Marx: So academic and political concerns have elbowed aside exciting writing about the theater?
Senelick: One of the favorite pieces I have in the latter part of the book is Gates’ “The Chitlin Circuit.” He writes about the huge gap between the Chitlin Circuit and someone like the playwright August Wilson, who not only is arguing for separatism of the African-American theater from the rest of the American theater, but also claiming that what he is doing is glorifying aspects of African-American culture; The Chitlin Circuit is made up of very loud, funny, cliché-ridden, moralistic plays African-American audiences flock to see but that nobody reviews. The scripts don’t get published, yet in some ways they answer the needs of that portion of the public hungering for a live theater experience.
I do, at the risk of sounding anti-intellectual, have to ask what is one of the biggest phenomenons at the moment? High school theater—high school musicals, along with musical theater camps. Now you may not consider musical theater to be the highest form, and I don’t necessarily, though I love various aspects of it. I am writing a book about Jacques Offenbach right now.
But being prescriptive is always very dangerous. My point is that American audiences want the live theater experience, but they want it on their terms; they want something that will give them what they used to get in the live, popular theater. This doesn’t mean that we stop staging experimental theater, stop having fringe theater; I am reluctant to use the term avant-garde because it means in the forefront, and theater tends to be derivative. But those kinds of theater appeal to a coterie of loyalists. The theater is popular by definition.
Marx: What first-rate pieces have you found for the anthology that will surprise readers?
Senelick: I pat myself on the back for having rescued from obscurity a number of what I think are particularly wonderful pieces. Langston Hughes wrote a terrific commentary for a leftist journal called New Theatre. It has never been reprinted and doesn’t appear online—you have to sit down and go through the issues. The musical The Green Pastures was something of a theatrical phenomenon in its time. It had an all-black cast based on a book by a white man about how the Bible might be seen through the eyes of a backwoods, Southern preacher. It is a cartoon version, mainly of the Old Testament, with the Lawd God and the angels having fish fries in heaven and so on. Audiences adored it; it ran on tour for years and was made into a Hollywood movie.
A couple of black intellectuals approved of it, but not the very left-wing Langston Hughes. In his essay on The Green Pastures, he describes what happens when the show was scheduled to play in Washington D. C. in a theater that did not admit blacks. Other theaters in the South had what they called “Nigger Heavens,” but not Washington DC. A young man who plays one of the angels tries to organize a strike over the issue, and it works for a little while. But once the company gets to Washington the protest is quashed. He is carried off in handcuffs, and the actor playing the Lawd God, who was on the side of the whites all the time, goes on for his entrance.
My friend Lloyd said after he read it—“My blood is boiling.” It is a satiric piece, yes, but it is also a propaganda piece. It is one most vivid statements of the level of racism going on in America in the 1930s, the period of the Scottsboro Boys, the Klan is still around . . . In this essay Hughes takes on an American hit play and skewers it with aplomb.
Marx: Other pieces you are proud to have rescued?
We have three reviews by Gore Vidal. In these pieces we do not just see the waspish, vitriolic, and aristocratic side of the critic, but we see somebody who can really appreciate. What’s more, when Vidal likes something he says why he likes it, and he explains in some detail. One of the reviews is of a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and it states in a memorably elegant and succinct way what works in Shaw and what doesn’t.
Marx: Do you have any favorites in the anthology?
Senelick: The old trouper— I have always been a big fan of Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel poems, the cockroach who is banging these things out lowercase on a typewriter in a press room after midnight and his alley cat friend. It is a wonderful poem about a vanishing breed of tragedian, “an old theatre cat/ he has given his life/ to the theatre.” In one production the cat played the owl in the Scottish play; he was the beard in King Lear in another. He stood in for a bloodhound in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is done in an absolutely charming poker face way.
Marx: Where do you see writing about the stage going in the future? Are its best days behind it?
Senelick: There are a number of reasons that writing about the theater has become etiolated. One of the reasons is that you don’t have to describe an actor if that actor can be seen on tape or video or film. There is the common assumption that it is not the job of the writer to describe what was seen because that would either be redundant or it might take away from the experience for the person who is about to see it. Critic John Mason Brown said that “writing about acting has become a last paragraph exercise.” Then I have a think piece by Susan Sontag about the Peter Brook production of the Marat/Sade. She wrote about theater in detail about three times in her entire career because she considered theater reviewing to be consumer reporting, which is what a lot of it is, it is just a question if it is for the high end or low end of the market.
But the main reason why you aren’t getting as much entertaining and brilliant writing about the theater is because people do not feel free to be effervescent about a form that is vibrant and alive and thriving. You can feel free to write snide reviews and snipe at something because you know it isn’t going to change anyway. You can parody it, have fun the way that some of the pieces in the anthology do, because you know that material will survive—you can punch it, knead it, and mold it anyway you like. And it will still bounce back.
That’s why George Jean Nathan has no qualms in his review of O’Neill’s oeuvre saying that sometimes the dramatist blew it, he wasn’t so good that time out, but he was great on that one. And think about a career like O’Neill’s, where you have several decades of him creating experimental theater, striking out in different directions. Today, playwrights can’t get their plays on anymore.
I was shocked to read the other day that the Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama August: Osage County didn’t play out its two weeks in Boston. It closed because it couldn’t get an audience. I don’t think it is a great play; in fact, I think it is the kind of play that could be done better on television, that there are better written domestic dramas on television now. I am of the school that believes that the things that work best on stage can only go on stage and wouldn’t work as well in another medium.
Nonetheless, what does the fact that an essentially old style, conventional play can’t play two weeks in a major city tell you? The theater no longer speaks to what made a mass audience, what made a general public. Do we use the term general public anymore? We have coterie publics, so that the kinds of theater that some of the academics are writing about and that the academics are promoting may be fascinating work, but it is only going to appeal to a specific kind of audience. We are so fragmented now that even writing is fashioned to appeal to a particular readership.
Marx: In what ways does the web, which can reach a worldwide readership, shape writing about the theater?
Senelick: What we call criticism is rapidly being replaced by opinion. If, on the Internet, every kibitzer can post an opinion, who is to say that one opinion isn’t as valid as anybody else’s opinion. Who is to say that one opinion is more substantial than another? But where does that leave informed criticism? William Winter was a critic for 50 years, so he was able to see many performances over and over again. Sure, he is overly moralistic, but he is also highly analytic. Or you get somebody as elegant in his writing as Stark Young, who can see John Barrymore in Hamlet and compare his performance to all the other Hamlets he has seen. And he saw a lot of them. Young points out how a particular passage worked really well, talk about how Barrymore did this there, which nobody had really seen before, and it makes sense.
Marx: So critics are turning their backs on writing with depth about the theater?
Senelick: It is invidious to name names and I won’t, but you have a colleague who has written dramatic criticism for 40 years, 30 certainly, and yet at no point has this writer ever written an extended piece to say “these are my principles, this is my artistic stand, my aesthetic ideas, this is what I believe theater constitutes.” It is all immediate response couched in fortune cookie cleverness. That is one of the reasons so much of this kind of criticism isn’t collected into books and therefore isn’t really available or eligible to appear in an anthology.
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