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Essays by Harold Clurman from
Essays by Harold Clurman
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Theater Life, 1949
by Harold Clurman
IT IS A COMMON PRACTICE in all the arts to arrive at understanding of a particular artist’s work by examining the artist’s environment. Because the theater is thought of chiefly as show business, related to sensationalism rather than to expression, what we usually learn about the life of people in the theatre is the story of their careers in terms of parts played, failures, successes, hobbies and eccentricities. But the environment in which theatre people live is as much part of their quality their specific stage experience and their talent.
It is possible for a healthy theater – a theater that maintains a continuity of work on the basis of a consistent artistic program – to provide its members with a foundation that will in itself serve an educational force. The American Theatre worker is footloose. He is attached to nothing, and therefore obliged to spend most of his time or hers looking for an engagement, worrying about his next one or, when he is associated with a hit, to forge the necessity of considering his future.
Our haphazard, accidental production system creates an atmosphere of haste, restlessness, superficiality in our whole theatrical environment. The American actor – most often a decent, likable, eager fellow – rarely possesses any sense of personal dignity, rarely has that appearance of maturity which makes his more imposing on the stage. Most American actors begin and end as kids.
The American actor before 1919 often seemed stuffy, magniloquently foolish, overawed by the color and glamour of his profession. Yesterday’s thespian offered a target for facile jibes. But the background of the old-time actor helped give him a kind of force that the actor today no longer appears to have. Whether or not he was employed, he felt confident that a theater existed for him to work in.
Since the theater in those days was generally considered special, dangerous, perhaps not altogether respectable, being an actor meant being adventurous, tough, daring, or prove with the boldness of one liberated from society’s narrow conventions. All this gave the actor then a kind of hardy, dashing quality that made his very presence on and off the stage interesting. Because to survive he had to be one, he nearly always was a personality.
Today the actor belongs to a union, is impressed with his duties as a citizen, tries to make careful business deals and is convinced that he is or ought to be like everyone else. But his profession is not at all ordinary and, in the practical sense of steady work, not a profession at all. Frequently this contradiction produces a frightened, self-conscious, wistful, deluded creature who cannot think or behave with craftsman-like accuracy or realism in the theatre or in life. His situation deprives him of that independent sense of his own worth which gives manpower.
If the actor is sufficiently lucky to become efficient and moderately successful in terms of earning his livelihood (through jobs in radio, television, commercial movies and an occasional part on Broadway or in Hollywood), his very commercial maneuverability often renders him as smooth and dull as the “ordinary person” – that rubber- stamp personality that he probably hoped to avoid becoming by going on the stage.
If the actor suffers the common fate of his profession – penury – he becomes a lost little man, feeding on nothing much beside the trivialities of his trade: small chit-chat, small curiosity, small drinking and dallying, small pitiful hopes. Such people are incapable of bringing to the theater anything larger than themselves. An actor who is called on to play a series of fine plays may acquire a certain stature merely through his contact with such plays.
An actor whose theater comprises a group of serious craftsmen (writers, directors, scenic artists, etc.) is by that fact alone subject to influences that may enrich him in his work. The thinness of so much that we see on the stage today is not surprising when we consider the poor human sources from which it must issue.
But the individual as such is not wholly to blame. The theater is itself a life, and if the theater’s life has a meager or corrupt foundation nothing very inspiring can come from it, regardless of the talent that is poured into it. That the defects of our theater as a community institution actually limit even our most superior talents may be seen in the case of many of our stars.
Our best directors, too, freer and more aware in most instances than the actors, rarely mount the heights of creative effort and accomplishment that their innate abilities and ambitions might spur them to. How many of our finest productions are on the level of Vakhtangov’s “The Dybbuk,” Nemirovich-Danchenko’s “Carmencita,” and “The Soldier,” Meyerhold’s “The Inspector General, Reinhardt’s “The Servant of Two Masters”? From the outset our directors are resigned to an excellence sufficient to the standards set by a shackled theater life.
Is the situation hopeless? It is hopeless only if we allow ourselves to settle into a lethargy of indifference, stupid optimism or routine. Present theater circumstances demand that the theater’s adherents abandon their playboy giddiness, their cafe-bar nostalgia and build up within themselves a new consciousness of their craft, its possibilities, its requirements, its perils.◆ 1949
by Harold Clurman
OUR YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS – those I have in mind here – came into view in the late 1950’s. Jack Gelber’s “The Connection” may be said to mark their arrival, as John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” was the signal in England for the emergence of “the angry young men.”
Aesthetically, “The Connection” was not typical of the plays that were to be written and were going to attract attention as specimens of the “new” vanguard theater which characterized the 1960’s. “The Connection” is historically important because it voiced a felt need for a break away – from the conformities of the businessman’s society.
The drug addicts of “The Connection” were not just sick people; they were the debased prophets of a generation who sought a different connection from those their fathers had made. Spiritually everything was in ruins. The fervid hopes of the 1930’s were dissipated through disillusionment and the capacity for fundamental change in ours remained tighter and more subtly constricting than ever.
Our society, affluent and bland, headless and heedless, left us isolated and lonely. We were without recourse, in a protest which was aimed at everything and, no one thing. The Vietnam war and the civil rights issue provided specific targets for rebelliousness, but they were, like the communist trends of the 1930’s, even more “symbolic” than efficaciously political.
The generation of the 1960’s woke up to a nightmare. Many of its arts were colored and motivated by a sense of nameless horror. It expressed itself in hysterical and ribald laughter or in a fright which at any moment might turn to violence or self-immolation. The result was often something like a tantrum.
What I have described is the atmosphere in which our “new,” and very young theater, has developed. It is widespread; it is chaotic; and perhaps most original when it is uncouth and malformed. Ours is a country with little cultural tradition.
We are moved by emotion, sentiments, reactions of our own, but in articulating them we simply whoop it up (and these are often our most interesting manifestations) or we imitate foreign examples. There can be no question that much of what has been produced in the past ten or fifteen years in our cellar, loft, obscure church, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway haunts has been inspired by Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter.
There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that the diversity in quality and nature of the writing is so great that no formulation will suffice to cover all the talents and non-talents with any possible accuracy or justice.
Writers as different as Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard cannot be placed in the same category. Nor can such productions as “The Serpent,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Frankenstein” or “Dionysus ‘69,” be discussed along with the writing of Terrence McNally, Israel Horovitz or Rochelle Owens, as if they all belonged to one “school.”
One of their virtues is that they write for the theaterin a special sense. In most instances, their work is much more rewarding to see than to read. In 1917, Apollinaire, anticipating a theatre of “mixed media,” wrote apropos of a new spirit in theatre “often commenting in unseen ways as in life – sounds, gestures, colors, instrumental music, dancing, acrobatics, painting, choruses and multiple sets.”
These plays are not written for our contemplation of judgement; they intend to burst upon us in explosive and startling metaphors of action projected through one or more striking devices, frequently accompanied by mocking or strident sounds.
They are epithets – often outrageous and insulting. They rarely depict characters. The figures thrust on our attention are generalizations, masks designed to embody readily identified modes of our behavior, cognate with our benumbed, crazy and corrupt society. They hark back to expressionism, although in the past such creatures were endowed with the afflatus of significant ideas and eloquent language.
They eschew logic, sometimes, as in Adrienne Kennedy, events and personages flow together in deliquescent dreamlike fragments. They are emanations or wild-cries bespeaking derision, anger, agony. They write hurriedly. They want to lift the burden of their disgust through the ejaculation of terrible oaths.
Through the annihilation of all social propriety they hope to bring down the Establishment, to open the way to the truth. Their chaotic coarseness sullied and submerged lyricism, semi-literate protestation and outright anarchy are precise reflections of what is going on all about us today.
As Jean-Luc Godard is reputed to have said, “To compensate for the horror of bourgeois life we must exceed it in horror.” This at once explains the strong attraction these plays exercise and their essential flaw: they resemble their subject matter too clearly.
It should be constantly reasserted that to produce worthwhile plays it is not enough to avoid writing like Odets, Hellman, Miller, Williams. It is also not enough to spit in Albee’s eye; his best work is in some respects the immediate precursor of some of the younger men’s.
It is an evasion to laud or explain the new playwrights in terms of “categories” and what has become a routine and half-baked aesthetics with allusions to anti-realism, the tradition of old comics, the theatre of participation, Artaud, Grotowski, or anti-capitalist ideology. Plays willy-nilly mean something – and our job is to define what they mean and to judge whether what they express is humanly valuable.
The sound artist always dwells close to his society; by his insight, superior vision, and tireless effort of self-examination in relation to that society, he supercedes it. While living as a participant he serves it, unconsciously, as its “teacher” and leader. The artist, though he may revile the prevalent morality of his day and on occasion seem to deny all morality, is always in quest of one: an unabashed, unambiguous morality.
What is truly good in the new theater and its playwrights – to which the free-for-all of Joe Cino, Ellen Stewart at Café La Mama, Joe Papp in his Public Theatre, the American Place Theatre and others have contributed – is the adventuresome-ness of their material, the devil-may-care of their manners, the open house they have provided to original methods and personalities. They have made the theatre world at large receptive to further departures from the low road of custom.
As I conclude, I think back to the comedian in Saul Bellow’s The Last Analysisand echo his innocent emotion and desperation when he says, “Sophistication is putting me out of business. Everybody is happy. Every lie looks like philosophy. Destruction looks like horseplay. Chaos is turned into farce because evil is clever. It knows you can get away with murder if you laugh. Sadism makes fun. Extermination is a riot…
Now I want insight. Value. I’ll die without value…I am ready for the sublime.” It’s not easy to come by. ◆ 1972
“THE FERVENT YEARS
by Harold Clurman
(Excerpts from “The Fervent Years” First published by E.P. Dutton & Co. in 1945
A TECHNIQUE OF THE THEATER had to be founded on life values. The whole bent of our theater, I reiterated time and again, would be to combine a study of theater craft with a creative content which that craft was to express.
To put it another way, our interest in the life of our times must lead us to the discovery of those methods that would most truly convey this life with the theatre. If man was to be the measure of all things in our theater, if life was the starting point, and an effect on life the aim of our effort, then one had to have a point of view in relation to it, one had to define an approach that might be common to all members of The Group. Since we were theater people, the proper action for us was establish a theater in which our philosophy might be translated into a philosophy of the theater. Here the individual actor would be strengthened so he might better serve the uses of the play in which our common belief was to be expressed. There would be no stars in our theater, not for the negative purpose of avoiding distinction, but because all distinction – and we would strive to attain the highest – was to be embodied in the production as a whole.
The writer himself was to be no star either, for his play, the focus of our attention, was simply the instrument for capturing an idea that was always greater than that instrument itself. The playwright too could be worked with, the power of his play could be enhanced by the joint creativity of the theatrical group as a whole, which saw in the play a vehicle to convey a motif fundamental to the theatre's main interest.
The director was the leader of the theatrical group, unifying its various efforts, enunciating its basic aims, tied to it not as a master to his slave, but as a head to a body. In a sense the group produced its own director, just as the director in turn helped form and guide the group.
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Talent is accident; craft, in the use of talent, is a matter of some consciousness, of training. Talent might be sufficient for the individual actor; it didn't lead to the solution of the problem of the whole production, which is the relating of a number of talents to a single meaning.
“For the elements of the theatrical production to be shaped into a true artistic organism,” I had written, “it is not sufficient for them merely to be ‘good.’ They must be homogeneous, they must belong together, they must form an organic body.”
That day in June 1931, Lee Strasberg, began to make of the twenty-eight actors an “artistic organism” with its own special characters in aims.
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Our actors follow their directors because they felt their true selves were being considered and coped with – something that had rarely occurred in the theater before. But they by no means took everything on faith.
One of my earliest memories with an actor of this company was of Morris Carnovsky asking me: “What is this hocus pocus?” when he was first introduced to the procedure of our acting method.
About our rehearsal method, and the famous Stanislavsky or Moscow Art Theatre system from which it derived, a great mystery was made in those days, and much nonsense was written and spoken. The reason for this was that while we considered the System vital as a method of training, a way of organizing the study of parts, and above all as a means of achieving concrete results in the interpretation of plays, there was no way of demonstrating its value except to actors at rehearsals, rather than through lectures, commentaries or critical debate.
The truth of the matter is that the System should never been made a subject of conversation, a matter of publicity or Sunday articles for it does not concern the audience or, for that matter, the critic. The System is not a theory, but a way of doing something with the actor.
The aim of the System is to enable the actor to use himself more consciously as an instrument for the attainment of truth on the stage. If we had not been satisfied that such truth was achieved in most productions, there would have been little purpose in troubling ourselves over the System, for it was not something taught novices, but rather a method employed in all our productions with experienced actors.
We were not satisfied with most of even the best previous productions, which seemed to show us more competent stagecraft than humanity or authenticity of feeling. With few exceptions, what we saw in most shows were specific “performance,” fabrication artifice.
Theatrical experience was, for the greater part, the antithesis of human experience; it bespoke a familiarity with the clichés of stage deportment rather than experience with direct roots in life. It seemed to us that without such true experience plays in the theater were lacking in all creative justification. In short, the System was not an end in itself, but a means employed for the true interpretation of plays.
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The value and importance of the Group's first production was not that it had better actors or even a better director, not that it was composed according to a more serious method or took more time to prepare, but that its technique and intention was aimed towards the creation of something different in kind from the usual expert production. In completeness, technical proficiency, showmanship, there may have been better many better productions on our stage before this, there were hardly any of this precise nature.
The Group people had succeeded in fusing the technical elements of their craft with the stuff of their own spiritual and emotional selves. They succeeded in doing this because, aside from their native character habit, they were prepared by the education of their work together before and during rehearsals.
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When I first spoke of continuity to our actors and playwrights and occasionally through the press or our programs to our audiences, many assumed that I emphasized continuity as a commercial asset. Continuity of effort to me signified the building of a tradition, the foundation of true culture.
I had always affirmed that there was no lack of talent of every kind in our country, but our talent tended to thin out and droop with the years – not, as some imagine, because that is its nature, but because it is given so little to feed on, so little soil to sink its roots in, so little time to mature. For this there must be a permanent base that allows a continuity of activity along lines dictated by the first needs and creative impulses of the artist.
To make the artist shift his foundations, to make his work discontinuous, as is practically the rule of our theater, is to make him begin anew with each effort. The result is not only wearing and discouraging, but profoundly uncreative. The artist builds from the storehouse of his past strength, memory, training, and experience almost as much as he does from his present contacts and position.
Without some dependence on his tradition, the tradition that he makes for himself and that others help him make, he starts his new work with an always decreasing stock, till he ends with a shadow or memory of himself, not a consummation.
We lack memory. We cancel our experience.
America, Van Wyck Brooks once said, is the country of first acts. We begin with great promise – energy, imagination, fresh impulses. We rarely fulfill ourselves. This is inevitable if we think of each creative act as the dazzling product of an isolated individual to be applauded, admired – and forgotten.
It is a law of life that man cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world’s problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world. No expression is more emblematic of this relation than the creative act which we call art. No art by its very constitution typifies the social nature of that creative act more than theater.
The theater, to be fully understood and appreciated, must be seen as a manifestation of this process of interchange between society and the individual. It must be judged as a continuous development of groups of individuals within society, a development which becomes richer, acquires greater force and value as it grows within the society in which it originates. Only in this way can the theatre nourish us.
When O’Neill’s first plays failed to yield more than a humble income, he did not exclaim, as I have heard many young authors, “If my next play flops, I’m quitting.” More and more theater people consider a play to have little significance unless it is a smash box-office success. As a result, audiences every year tend more and more to view plays in the same light.
All this has become the norm of the theater today – partly because of pressure of high costs but the depressing economic situation in the theater is in some measure due to what we now take for granted as the norm.
Only the conscious desire on the part of each person within the theater to contribute to its existence as a whole, because of a personal dedication to the idea which that theater represents, can preserve the theater as an art.
But if the theater has no incentive or goal beyond that which prevails in any ordinary business, the theater must lapse into the peculiar condition it is in at present. And if society itself eschews every ideal except that which is merely a matter of lip service – without roots in our deepest personal experience – it is unlikely that such ideals will ever find expression in the theater.
We are the problem, we and our ignorance of the theater’s very nature. For the theater is not a business; it never has been basically that. It is an art of direct communication grounded on shared social and moral values.
It is not, first of all, a condiment, a genteelpastime, an escape from reality, but like all art it is aresource in civilization’s human treasury. Everyone in thetheater is a vital communicant; each is responsible to theother. Theatre will always be with us, for better or worse,as there will always be admirable individual talents, plays,and performances.
But to achieve its greatest significance,the theater must be organized and conducted in thespirit, if not the precise form, what The Group Theatre inits ten years of existence sought to exemplify. Thatgeneral ideal, no matter how tricked out by technicalnovelty, by advantageous physical means, even by endowmentsof huge sums of money, must of necessity diminishits most valuable function, its true reason for being.
What is a true theater? It is a body of craftsmen – actors, directors, designers, technicians, administrative staff – united on a permanent basis to develop its own technique, to embody a common attitude to life that an audience more or less shares. Such theaters may be socially, politically, or religiously motivated, but each of them must develop an identity, a style, a “face,” a meaning of its own.
The Ancient Greeks did not produce Asiatic plays, nor did the theater of the Middle Ages mount atheistic ones, any more than the seventeenth century French Theatre lent itself to plays of anti-royalist persuasion! In modern times, even Germany and Russia have developed theaters of varying orientations in style and content.
Above all, true theater sets itself a goal and plans its work as a lifelong continuity, much as the individual artist does. The lesson for today and tomorrow is that a truer synthesis must be achieved.
No true politics, statesmanship, or general external activity can exist that does not stem from the heart of man, the hunger of his soul as from the requirements of his body; no valid spiritual art or religion can be maintained that does not make central the state of the body, the facts of the external world, the well-being of man as a social animal.
Man’s fundamental need to work with his hands in terms of his spirit, to feed and clothe his body, to live with his family and fellow men in the peace of a sound physical relationship sanctified by the consent of his heart and highest aspiration, must be the touchstone of every art and craft, of poet and “practical” man alike.
We cannot devise methods to help man unless we learn to love and understand the individual. We cannot do good “in general.” To be truer collectivists, we must be more deeply individual.
In this struggle for life itself – this struggle for the moral and material world – our battle cry might well be that of the children’s game: “Come out, come out wherever you are.”
1945,1974 (Excerpts from The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the 1930’s by Harold Clurman. Published by Da Capo Press.)
The New Theatre – 1971
by Harold Clurman
All drama in the theatre goes through translation from an initial seed or theme articulated in dialogue into the vocabulary of the stage: acting, setting, and direction. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” exists in print only; what we see in the theatre is this or that actor’s “Hamlet”or this or that company’s “Hamlet.”
Still, in the normal theater of our era everyone’s point of reference is always the original text. Gesture and mime, costume, stage properties, light and sound, improvisations which may include audience participation, may supersede the importance of the spoken word or literary text.
In “new theater” the play is the product of collective “game.” The reduction of the dramatist’s work to the function of a scenario within the larger scope of the company’s total performance is the new theater’s first and most striking trait.
Meyerhold, the great Russian director and to a certain extent the unacknowledged forerunner of much of what is now thought “modern” in the theater, phrased the new esthétique by saying, “Words in the theater are only embellishments on the design of movement.” This was written in 1908 before Gordon Craig, in 1911, published corresponding views.
These pioneers are rarely cited by American devotees of the new theater, but Antonin Artaud, a French actor and theatrical prophet, is. Two chapter titles in his book, The Theatre and Its Double, have become slogans. They are “The Theatre of Cruelty” and “No More Masterpieces.”
To make sense of Artaud’s ideas, his essentially poetic pronouncements require translation into more sober language. “Cruelty” in Artaud means intensity. He wished theater to achieve the force of natural phenomena, like lightning and thunder. “This cruelty,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “is a matter of neither sadism nor bloodshed. I do not systematically cultivate horror. The word ‘cruelty’ must be taken in a broad sense”…
From the point of view of the mind, cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and reason, irreversible and absolute determination.” The path toward abstraction, the departure from realism was first set for us by certain dramatists lumped together under the tag imprinted on them by Martin Esslin: “Theatre of the Absurd.”
The tag is perhaps unfortunate because it designates such men as Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Pinter, who are distinctly different from one another. These playwrights are not to be confused with the new or avant-garde theatre. These “rebel” playwrights of the 1950’s, (at first, mostly Parisian) influenced the generation in the depiction of characters. These are no longer individual persons but states of mind, ideas, types, symbols, masks. “Psychology” is virtually nonexistent.
We cannot speak of Beckett’s figures, for example, as we do of Ibsen’s Hedda, Chekhov’s Gaev, or Othello. What all the new dramaturgy tends towards in this respect is a reversion to the very oldest form of drama. The intention in such drama is to project basic patterns or structures of human existence. They are parables or “myths.”
Among the gifted craftsmen of the new theatre group is Jerzy Grotowski, founder and director of the Polish Laboratory Theatre. The strangeness of Grotowski’s art is not dictated by purely formal choice. His theme is the slaughter of innocence. Grotowski forgoes “scenery” and naturalistically identifiable costumes. There is no sensuous appeal in his art.
At times, the audience is seated above the “stage;” the audience witnesses the drama as it were, in a pit below. The restricted public surrounds the action. Without moralizing or preachment the spectacle suggests purification through martyrdom. There is a religious strain imbedded in this concept, traces of a special Catholicism may be
In view of this we can understand why the Grotowski system presses the actor through bodily and vocal training of extreme strenuousness. The feats of virtuosity or what strike us as fantastic contortions are such as have hardly ever before been carried out in the theater.
They are calculated to free the actor of his “false face,” all the inhibitions, the masquerades, the social evasions which prevent the actor from yielding the truth of his innermost being. When the actor is able to do this, so the theory goes, we may ourselves be transfigured.
Several of our new directors have been greatly influenced by Grotowski’s classes in which they have participated in Poland, in France, and in New York. But such influence, we must hasten to add, is more technical than substantive.
The Living Theatre is the best of the avant-garde groups in America. It had its beginnings in New York as an organization devoted to new playwrights. After a stay in Europe, impelled in part by the Grotowski model, it altered its artistic methods and objectives. Its performances impressed and scandalized many.
Julian Beck and Judith Malina, the leaders of The Living Theatre, were self-declared anarchists. Their theatre was a forum from which the police, the Army, the banking system, war were denounced. They summoned the audience to storm the bastions of power.
As heralds of an anticipated revolt, they engaged in other acts of defiance. Still, the sincerity evident in the fanaticism of the group – it lived as it preached – commanded a certain respect. Their most valid contribution was something beyond theatre. We may set this down to their credit at a time when our theatre is preponderantly banal and complacent.
“What is essential in this time of moral poverty,” Picasso said, “is to create enthusiasm.”
The Open Theatre’s “America, Hurrah!” in its first two episodes is closer to the expressionism of Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine” – itself a derivative from the German playwright Georg Kaiser. “The Serpent,” directed by Joseph Chaikin and Robert Sklar, with a “scenario” by Jean- Claude van Itallie, is perhaps the best single piece that the avant-garde theater has as yet produced in the U.S.
Groups, more eruptive and virulent in their methods than the Open Theatre, make sporadic appearances. Their names – like The Guerrilla Theatre – furnish some inkling of their character. The Gut Theatre, directed by Enrique Vargas, addresses itself chiefly to the people of East Harlem and the ghetto (mostly Puerto Rican) neighborhoods.
The aim of these theaters is more directly socio-political than that of The Open Theatre. All these various innovations in theater practice stimulated the writing of a body of plays which have been produced not only Off-Broadway but in the Off-off- Broadway theaters.
Many of them were first given in the tiny Café Chino in the West Village by the café’s proprietor, Joseph Chino and in Ellen Stewart’s “La Mama.” Among the young playwrights are Sam Shepard, Paul Foster, John Guare, Megan Terry, Israel Horovitz, Leonard Melfi, Lanford Wilson, Terrence McNally.
I do not include LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), though his “Slave Ship”is more stage picture and pantomime than written drama and indirectly a new-theatre by-product. He is a genuinely gifted writer inspired by the upsurge of black race consciousness which is in the process of producing even more significant plays. Edward Albee cannot be aligned with the people just mentioned. His work is marked by the imprint of Ionesco, Beckett, and Pinter.
The man who has profited most by the upheaval in theater thought and practice is Peter Brook. A cultured person, galvanized by Grotowski, with a sympathetic understanding of Beckett and Genet, with a lively devotion to Shakespeare, he has been receptive to the most penetrating injections of the avant-garde needle with Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
What motivates all these artists is the very crux of the entire new-theater phenomenon. It is a protest against contemporary civilization, the rottenness of our corporate state, the lethal effects of the consumer society. They are voices fed up with the hypocrisy, the fraudulence, the horror of a world they did not create: the world of the Bomb, of atmospheric pollution, of racial injustice, of ghettos, of religion without substance, of patriotism without heart, of politics without human content, of overkill and oversell, of lovelessness.
“To be new is everything in America,” said Ellen Terry in 1883. We have not changed. We are hung up on novelty. It is this drive toward the “different” which constitutes our conformity.
Chekhov’s aesthetic credo voiced in “The Seagull,” “I came more and more to the conviction that it is not a question of new and old forms, but that what matters is that a man should write without thinking of forms at all, write because it springs freely from the soul,” is surely in need of qualification. But it is nevertheless a sound point of departure.
It is true that art, the most universal form of human communication, changes. But as long as man remains man, his essential needs remain more or less unaltered: health of body and spirit, the hunger to feel and understand his connection with his fellow men and beyond this his dependence on all else to which he owes his being.
If I were challenged to identify the human core of the new-theater movement I should mention that it is a reflection of our estrangement (or “alienation”) from contemporary society. Because we have become suspicious of so many words which are now employed to confuse and betray us, the “movement” tends to be anti-literary. For youth especially, action speaks louder than words. And theater, it has been notably asserted, is fundamentally performance, action.
Whatever we think of these general aesthetic or craft arguments, in the end we must assign worth to individual offerings within every artistic manifestation in relation to the degree of genuineness, power, breadth, and depth we find in them, that is, to the extent they satisfy our basic human appetites and hungers.◆ 1971
Actors – Image of their Era
by Harold Clurman
Actors,” Shakespeare said, “are the abstract and brief chronicle of the time.” This is not simply a pretty thought but one which, if carefully pursued, might form the basis of an enlightening social history of our country. Naturally, neither the player nor the playgoer is conscious of their social interrelationship. But each is the image of the other.
The audience gives birth to the special person who becomes the actor. The actor is the “ape of society,” and, if he has a sufficiently striking personality which means a sufficiently large quotient of that element which society most values in itself society will soon ape the actor.
The examples of this interrelationship that most readily occur to me are American, although it was the French actress Rachel who, while she achieved her greatest fame in the classic drama of the seventeenth century, represented the new romantic spirit of the 1830’s in France, and gave me the impetus to begin my inquiry.
The theater had some difficulty in establishing itself in this country. What need was there for entertainment on a professional scale when forests had to be cleared, roads laid, homes built? The Puritan prohibition of the theater may be explained in part by the simple fact that in a wilderness only immediately productive work could be regarded as serious. Our first actors and theatrical entrepreneurs were usually English, and their efforts had a limited appeal to a very small audience of the well-born.
Edwin Forrest (1806-l872), who was at the height of his career around 1852, our first outstanding actor of serious roles. He was not only first in point of time and excellence but in terms of a consciousness of his role as an Americanactor. His was the time when Americans were becoming belligerently proud of their independence of the mother country, and Forrest was an emphatic patriot.
The masses, as distinct from the more refined public, looked on Forrest as their champion against English “superiority.” (In 1848, some of these masses rioted violently and fatally in New York’s Astor Place against Macready, Forrest’s “rival,” because the English actor tried to play here at the same time and in the same parts that Forrest did.) Forrest was one of the first people in the American theater to extend encouragement to American playwrights (there were practically none at the time) by giving prizes of $500 to $1,000 for the “best” plays.
If Forrest was “nature,” Booth represented cultivation. What was incipient and rough in Forrest became informed and tempered in Edwin Booth (1837-93).
Booth brought to his acting not only something of the English training which he acquired through his father, Junius Brutus Booth, a giant among giants (the rival of the unparalleled Edmund Kean) but a certain depth, delicacy and dignity, bred partly from the growing cultural awareness of America toward the middle of the nineteenth century – to say nothing of the tragic circumstances of his life, which included the struggle within his own family between the North and South.
In one sense, the truest representative of the spirit of the American people in the nineteenth century theater was Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), who played Rip Van Winkle from 1866 to 1880. Jefferson’s genial charm rural good fellowship and openness of heart represented all the endearing aspects of the American character. John Drew (1853-1927) was the theatrical paragon of the time. This does not mean that he was the best actor. Otis Skinner (1885-1942) for instance, was far more gifted and versatile.
Ethel Barrymore, with her combination of wit, grandeur and veiled pathos was also a great figure of the day, although in certain respects she transcended it, which was, generally speaking, the way of the Barrymores. The feminine essence of those still comparatively innocent years was Maude Adams, whose elfin charm, modesty and sweetness illustrate what well-brought-up Americans thought women should be. To a certain extent, Helen Hayes was the last of the line to carry on this ideal.
On the stage, the 1920’s was a time of women. This does not mean that there were no excellent actors, but there was a certain feminine tremor in the distress of most plays, as if the general problems of the day were seen through a woman’s person.
The pattern of a Pauline Lord (“Anna Christie,” “They Knew What They Wanted”), with her half-finished impulses, her fluttering hands and her most casual remarks uttered in a voice that was a kind of buried sob, bespoke an aspect of feeling never so magically exemplified in our theatre as in Laurette Taylor’s performance in “The Glass Menagerie.”
It corresponds to a sense of life that has been most thoroughly developed on our stage in the plays of Tennessee Williams. The more routine theatrical convention was a type of glamorous neurotic of “The Green Hat” – as presented for a time by Katharine Cornell.
John Barrymore’s sudden emergence from 1916 to 1923 as a tragedian (from Galsworthy’s “Justice” to “Hamlet”) forms the bridge from the old to the new. Behind the fine romantic brow there was in John Barrymore a painful hypertension, a nervous exasperation and a will to death which had hardly ever been present on the American stage before.
This was the first truly “modern” note in our theater, and it corresponds to the period of America’s entry into the world drama of Western culture. For at this point, for all the hectic brilliance and gaiety of the day, the ominous notes of critical and sometimes desperate thinking were beginning to sound in our literature and our life.
Alfred Lunt was a sort of unconscious but extraordinarily talented compendium of all the tendencies of the 1920’s. He was not as sharp or conscious of tragedy as Barrymore; he was softer, more “childlike,” but still never without a certain vulnerability that was akin to a threatened heartbreak. But just as Barrymore escaped to the movies, Lunt retreated from tragic depth and artistic experiment to ensconce himself in the safety of comedic virtuosity, where, with the brilliantly proficient Lynn Fontanne, he held undisputed sway.
The foundations shook in the 1930’s, the theater was almost totally devastated, as was the whole economic system. There was a real break with the past-the theater no longer seemed central, and all tradition of loyalty to the theater, to artistic discipline, to serious standards, seemed to be vanishing.
The outstanding form of resistance to this seemed to come from the “barbarians” of The Group Theatre, with their lyrically gruff dedication to forthright expression of unvarnished protest, affirmation of hope and impassioned assertion of youth. The Group Theatre actors proclaimed a program for the theater as the voice of real rather than ornamental experience.
One of the uncertainties of our time is the condition of the theater and acting itself. Actors do not remain on the stage long enough or appear in enough plays to become representative of anything beyond their momentary brilliance. They flash, and for most critical purposes, disappear. In our disturbances and disarray, whom can we fundamentally trust!
“Classes” have been broken down and “tradition” is mostly highbrow jabber. The new type is just “folks,” classless, with the complex commercial jargon of radio, night-club and television slang; pure in heart, wise in the small wonders of the street, anxious to believe but still puzzled, for the world is too big and there are so many lies in the air.
American society, is constantly simmering, boiling, and overflowing: we have always been in a state of permanent revolution. That is why it is so difficult for us to establish a theatrical tradition. 1953.
The Threshold of a New Season
by Harold Clurman
AT THE END of the summer, I was invited to speak at the two-day Art Conference given under the auspices of the Woodstock Artists Association and the Artists Equity Association at Woodstock, New York.
The subject under discussion was Art Now, and the anxiety with which the audience waited – almost implored – for a liberating word, an affirmation of faith or the courage to hope was touching and in itself a kind of assurance.
Deep down it is a worry about Everything! Personal relations are questioned because they have become unsatisfactory, the meaning and value of life seem uncertain as almost never before. The illusion of security we may have because of a relative prosperity only intensifies the nervousness underneath. It is as if we were thrown back to the beginning – asking ourselves all over again (or for the first time), “Is life worth living?”
In our hearts we know the question to be unnatural. Man in a state of health is inevitably struck by the magic mystery of life; this mystery, however, does not diminish his appetite for living, but rather heightens his sense of life’s grandeur and passion.
When life itself is questioned, it means that some poison has begun to devitalize us, that the organism of society has become corrupt and that we are suffering from its contamination. It is part of man’s health to seek for a cure, to go to every possible source of inspiration and knowledge for help. Thus, man, knowing that he expresses his essence in art, that art is the evidence of his deepest aspiration, the emblem of his total experience, goes to the artist for a salvaging truth beyond the clamor of editorials or political oratory.
What the reports and credos of the artists at the Woodstock Art Conference showed was that the artists themselves reflect some of the bewilderment of those who come to them for answers.
The artists share in the universal instinct which gives us the conviction that what the artist does (creating in play forms of experience through which we both identify ourselves and communicate with others) is perhaps the noblest of man’s activities, the one most symbolic of life’s aim and meaning.
Yet the artist cannot help but realize that his freedom to exercise his faculty is being threatened, that his position in the world is not only becoming threatenedly jeopardized, but that he and his work are being rendered unnecessary, almost undesirable. The artist, losing his foothold, begins to wonder whether he is not after all an excrescence, a futile playboy, a pariah, a bum!
My own belief – which I feel it proper to reassert every time I begin anew to “cover” the season in the arts – is that if art has no meaning or value, then man himself has none.
Art is the means by which man makes himself visible.
Through art man moves towards self-realization; art is therefore a basic product of man’s living, the synthesis towards which he inevitably yearns. Contrary to the wholesome theory that art is a sign of man’s weakness.
I believe it to be the true testimony of his manhood. All men, whether they know it or not, strive to the condition which makes the artist. Everything that tends to destroy art of the artist in man must be fought. Because nothing human can be alien to art, the artist cannot consider himself outside of anything that is of this world.
A distinguished poet has recently said that the artist’s values are “not of this world.” We all understand what the poet meant, but I think it is a misleading statement, nonetheless.
Whatever values are injurious to the artist are humanly destructive, and should be themselves put out of the world. I am neither a partisan of “art as a weapon” nor of “art for art’s sake” (thought I find the latter formulation more sympathetic since I conceive of art as inseparable from a universal human concern).
“Pure art” is pure nonsense, and my objection to “art as a weapon” does not arise from a scorn of weapons – they too may be creative instruments – but from a refusal to limit the function of art. “Art as a weapon” is a slogan that usually emanates from the same narrowly utilitarian conception of life which hold that art is justified only as publicity serve for toilet articles, household goods and insurances companies.
Art gives content to life itself. The enemies of art are the great betrayers and malefactors of humankind. It is part of the critic’s job to praise life where he finds it and denounce everything that conspires against it.◆
1948 (Excerpt from the essay: “The Threshold of a New Season.”)
The Ideal Audience!
by Harold Clurman
All of us agree that the audience is the theater’s most crucial factor. The thought is hardly valuable if we view the audience as an inert mass. We must regard the audience not as a buyer but as a collaborator. And just as we yearn for good plays should we not also seek good audiences?
The common Broadway emphasis on the latest hit as the only desirable show to see makes for a regimentation of the audience: a routine mind and ultimately what might be called the dictatorship of success. I do not mean to suggest that success is of no account. On the contrary, every success is significant.
A play must appeal to an audience - but we should distinguish between audiences. Tell me how and why an audience is attracted to a play and I will tell you the sort of play and audience it is. It goes without saying that all plays must be entertaining. A dull play never served any purpose. But what’s one man’s poison is another man’s meat; one may gratified by a black play as by a pink one.
What then is the “ideal” audience? In a sense there can be no such thing as universal and identical audience for all plays. That is why in certain European cities there are classic theaters, popular theaters, workers’ theaters, avant-garde theaters, each with their own special emphasis, each reaching their own norm and their own “clientele.”
By an “ideal” audience, I simply mean an audience that is not a cultural automaton, a reflex of prevailing fads and the urge to “keep up with the Joneses,” to see what everybody else is seeing, an audience that does not applaud and laugh, as in a radio studio I once visited, by order.
Nowadays we speak, apropos of everything, of the democratic ideal. That ideal, as I conceive it, is to foster and encourage the individual. A good audience has its own taste.
That is why on the whole I trust the audience of the off-Broadway theatre more than I do the larger one the one composed of members who not only want to see the latest smash but to see it at no other time than on the opening night. The Broadway audience clamors for an originality that is basically familiar; the off-Broadway audience at its best seeks an unconventional point of view, modes of thought and feeling which depart from the already formulated.
The ideal audience has a certain innocence. It comes to the play anticipating pleasure. It does not fence itself off in a “show me” frame of mind. It opens itself up. It considers it the height of indecorum to arrive late. It seeks an intimacy and sense of sharing with the play. For a play is not a dead thing; it is complex because of its collectively articulated human expression.
The dramatist is telling us what he has observed, felt, dreamed and come to realize what has made him suffer or given him joy. He is trying to make us take part. The actors are not simply puppets of the author’s will or the director’s skill: they too bring an individual note to what we see, a note that colors and extends what the dramatist hopes to express.
When Laurette Taylor was on the stage in “The Glass Menagerie,” we perceived not only Williams’ chagrin over a certain kind of mother, we were moved by the pathos of a bewildered and pained searching within a simple woman’s heart.
As we watched, we did not think about the compliments we ought to pay the artisans of our emotions, what prizes they ought to win, what “quotes” would honor them or how long the play would run, all this should come later, if at all.
What we felt was a satisfaction in being with the people on the stage, feeling with them and knowing something in common with them, which was related to something first surmised in a life that preceded the play, something which had been brought to a glorious fulfillment by our having seen it. This is what is often termed a receptive mood. It is also a creative one. It is not passive; it reaches out as much it takes in. It supplies the play with the dimension of our own experience and imagination.
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The creative mood is not only not incompatible with a critical faculty but is inseparable from it. To create is to make distinctions, to recognize values and this is the essence of criticism. For criticism was made not to kill but to enhance and refine our pleasure.
The judgment of a play is not a question of pronouncing an opinion “It’s swell” or “It’s terrible.” Such statements by themselves are more or less presumptuous no matter who utters them.
Judgment of a play is like judgment of a person. If you have some feeling for a person, if you approach the person with love, and in the theatre no other approach is valid, you are disappointed by shortcomings, but you are willing to acknowledge that what you love is more important than what sets you apart.
And if finally, you are impelled to reject, it is through an awareness of the other person and the differences between your need and what that person has to offer. A person you care for, you will want to see again. A person who interests you but whom you cannot quite “get” you will want to know better. Certain plays bear repeated seeing. One is no more through with a good play on a first acquaintance than with a possible friend on first meeting.
Where there is love, there is also memory. The audience I speak of respects its actors because it remembers what they have contributed to its pleasure in the past. A collaboration bespeaks mutual respect. Because my subject here is the audience’s role in the theater, I do not overlook the theater people’s responsibility to the audience. It is to some extent due to an indifference to the audience as anything, but a customer that our theater suffers.
For the theater to flourish, people in the theater must seek by every means to make the audience what they would have it be. Still when we try to excuse the behavior of our audiences, it is not enough to speak of the competition of television, radio, and motion pictures the high price of tickets, the difficulty of getting seats (to which, in great measure, we contribute), or the lack of comfort in the playhouses themselves.
We must not forget to go to the heart of the matter: the nature of theater itself and confuse it with the accidents of show business. We must not forget that we are all part of the audience, and that as such we have a responsibility to perfect ourselves just as we ask our artists to perfect themselves as artists. We should learn rather than complain. The fate of the American Theatre is in our hands.◆
1954 (Excerpt from the essay: “The Threshold of a New Season.”)
Must Directors be Great Lovers?
by Harold Clurman
IN RECENT TIMES recent times the term “the director’s theater” has come into use.
That fine American actor Louis Calhern once declared, “The reason why the director has become so powerful is that there are no more great actors” There is something in this. The disarray of the American theater economy at present makes the development of major actors extremely difficult. There is not sufficiently sustained employment.
Of gifted young people there are enough to establish as many permanent troupes as there are anywhere else. Even the so-called successful actor in America is usually confined to a limited range of parts. He seeks a fat role in a hit show, lest he diminish his market value. He fears for his status as a desirable performer. A good many very able actors in America today are more often active in scene classes (or “studios”) than on the stage. They supplement these “work-outs” with appearances in summer stock, television and films.
The young actor perforce remains an amateur. One of the worst effects of this situation is the actor’s loss of confidence in his profession and in himself. Psychologically the American actor under fifty is nearly always a “beginner.” By the time he is fifty he is either out of the theatre or a warped person.
Who can encourage, inspire, renew the faith of the actor in this condition? Why, the new medicine man, the well-known, the much-touted director! A superstition surrounds this character. (Superstition, even if only in the form of publicity, is always a sign of a sick state of affairs. Where nothing is secure, magic must work its wonders.) The director, the actor trusts and prays, will sustain him, make him a star. The director as fetish is all symptom; the “director’s theater” is very often little better than a commercial tag.
Capable direction is no doubt a vital factor in the making of a sound production. There is certainly a distinction to be made between the abilities of one director and another. But if we list the plays that have been highly successful on Broadway, we may very well arrive at the conclusion that any number of efficient directors might have returned box-office hits from their scripts. The quality of each production would have been different with each director; however, it is rarely the quality of direction that is perceived by the audience whose spokesman is the run-of-the-mill critic, but rather the degree of monetary success the production may achieve. No matter: when a director has turned out two or three hits, supernatural powers are attributed to him; he is regarded as a “genius,” the cause of everyone’s prosperity and joy.
Signs of this peculiar syndrome may be, observed at early rehearsals of a new Broadway show. Except where a star actor is involved-in which case he has been consulted as to the desirability of a certain director or is aware of his prestige-most of the actors sit in a state of quasi-cataleptic expectancy. They are waiting to be electrified, exalted, transfigured. They seem to have converted themselves into so many vessels into which they hope the director will pour the elixir of his greatness.
At one time I might have agreed with Granville Barker, who said, “The art of theater is the art of acting or it is nothing.” But this is only a partial truth, though it is always worth keeping in mind. Later I arrived at a happy formulation that “the director is the author of the stage play,” a generalization of which I am now somewhat skeptical. It is deceptive; a good measure of conceit is concealed in it. It may lead to disappointment and trouble for all concerned.
The art of the theater is contained in the entity of the production, in which the director may play a crucial role. Direction is a job, a craft, a profession, and, best, an art. The director must be an organizer, teacher, a politician, a psychic detective, analyst, a technician, a creative being. Ideally he should know literature (drama), acting, the psychology of the actor, the visual arts, music history and, above all, he must understand people. He must inspire confidence. All of which mean that he must be a great “lover.” ◆1968
Reflections on True Theater
by Harold Clurman
THERE ARE NUMEROUS and complex obstacles to the establishment of True Theaters among us. I do not say repertory theatres because, while I believe the repertory procedure to be the most conducive to rich results, it is by no means essential to the running of a significant theatre organization. The Group Theatre was such an organization but did not function on a repertory basis. What it had, and what counts in this regard was a permanent company of actors and directors with a consistent artistic policy. I cannot be sure that the terms I have just used, though commonplace, are clearly understood by many who engage in theatre discussion. What, for example, do the words “True Theater” connote?
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My inquiry aims at facing the fundamental question of how a true Theater is made, what indeed it is. Unless we learn that, we shall be forever led astray in our efforts to establish one. A true Theater, in my understanding of the term, is one that plans for continuity along well-defined lines, so that its productions may acquire an identity, a face, a style, a fundamental objective beyond the generalization that it be “good.” In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries such theatres came into being, so to speak, “automatically,” due to the homogeneity of the societies that bred them and the limited audiences that attended then. And because of the old tradition such theatres exist alongside a thriving commercial stage in most European countries today.
For example, in the Soviet Union before 1936, the Soviet Theatre was perhaps the most varied due to the productions of Meyerhold, of Tairov, of the Theatre of Satire, not to mention those at the numerous aesthetically independent studios. It might be argued that no such Theaters are possible with us because there are no federal or municipal subsidies on the European scale. With us the primary interest concentrates on the construction of new buildings – the edifice complex.
True Theaters are not born with a preoccupation of real estate. The point of departure needs to be the desire of actors, directors, dramatists to express something. The impetus arises from the community’s need for communication through play. In a way, the early Provincetown Players, whose “house playwright” was O’Neill, was such a group.
The same might be said of The Neighborhood Playhouse and The Washington Square Players, and even of the Theatre Guild during the twenties. The latter organization devoted itself largely to modern European drama because the production of plays by Tolstoy, Andreyev, and Molnar was still held to be extremely hazardous on Broadway. Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre served for several years the honorable purpose of presenting plays by Chekhov and Ibsen at popular prices.
It is generally agreed that the most productive theatrical enterprise was The Group Theatre. It was rounded by three young people of some theatrical experience who through a long series of meetings from 1928 to 1931, gathered a group of actors around themselves. Most of these were relative beginners though a few had already proved their mettle. Without reputation, funds or subsidy of any kind, endured and progressed by dint of sheer will with an awareness of their task.
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“In the theater, as in so many other things, Americans build from the roof,” I have said, quoting Jacques Copeau. There may be a certain ambiguity in my statement that a theater must be impelled by an idea. If I can clarify the point – the Group aimed first of all at establishing a permanent collective of actors, directors and designers who would develop a common technique and thus, under a coherent body say things they felt and believed in. As a group they reacted against the fun principles of the 1920’s, but at the same time they wanted to raise their voices against the despair of the Depression. As they abhorred the fecklessness of Broadway show business, so they espoused an active humanism.
They were moral enthusiasts. Their plays were only occasionally topical, but they always sought those relevant to the temper of their generation. All but one play was by a living American. (The only play they failed to raise money for was Chekhov’s “Three Sisters!”) They presented the first work of several new dramatists – Saroyan among them and Clifford Odets, who after four years in the ranks as an actor, emerged to become the representative playwright of the time.
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The dissolution of the Group was caused by the fact that no such Theater can fulfill its purpose if it maintains itself by financing each production separately, as commercial managers do. With the advent of war, a new ideological orientation was required, and in the climate of the time the ground for this was shaky. The end of the war brought a return to “business as usual” in which the cultural atmosphere had altered: the idealistic past was not simply forgotten, it was shunned. We all had to begin from scratch. Today, though there is the will and the possibility of a reformation, our thinking in theatrical matters is more muddled than ever.
It may be wholly fitting for towns like Minneapolis to cultivate a theater for plays of classic stature. They have been dismally deprived in this respect. But a true Theater is not a museum or a library unless as with the Comedie Française, its official function is chiefly to serve in these capacities. A true Theater does not simply present plays; it generates them and new concepts for the presentation of old plays. In the main, it does not look backward but forward, not far afield but to its own vicinity.
We in New York could certainly benefit by a theater which might furnish us with a beacon to light our way: to provide us with solid standards. But for a truly live theater we must have something else. The English stage did not quicken with strength in recent years through the Old Vic and the house at Stratford-upon-Avon which had been established long before the war. New action and interest were aroused with the formation of the Royal Court Theatre and the discovery in 1956 of its “house playwright,” one of the company’s actors, John Osborne.
The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych in London added power to the new wave, while the British National Theatre attempts to synthesize various theatrical trends by alternating productions of Shakespeare, Congreve, Chekhov, Ibsen, Pinero and Noel Coward, with plays by Brecht, Beckett, John Arden and other important contemporaries.
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No great Theater has been a retrospective theater only, or chiefly a theatre of foreign imports. The Moscow Art Theatre’s fame is not based on its productions of Shakespeare, even though one of them was directed by Gordon Craig; the Abbey Theatre is memorable not for championing Ibsen but for providing a platform to Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, Lennox Robinson, St. John Ervine.
The Theatre of Louis IV contributed to the enlightenment of nations not by productions of Euripides or Seneca, though they were imitated, but by the plays of the contemporary Corneille, Racine and Molière. (And the German Theatre was weakened for a long time by its dependence on these French masters.)
Works of the past and those of strange lands may move us deeply and influence us greatly but we do not mature unless we nurture talents born of contact with our own world. Our grandchildren’s children will pronounce on the “greatness” of plays written in our day and perhaps make as many mistakes as we do. Bernard Shaw thought Ben Jonson, John Webster and most other Elizabethans “a crew of insufferable bunglers and dullards.”
It may still be possible to make true Theaters within the monumental new edifices. But the boards who pull the wires within them must include a few people not so abysmally ignorant of the arts that they depend on hearsay from fashionable experts. The public must be taught that theater is not entertainment as titillation but entertainment (yes!); as the engagement of the heart, mind, soul and senses.
The theater is not a show shop, where luxury commodities are to be sold piecemeal and haphazardly. When new theaters are formed their directors must understand that the measure of choice for the repertory cannot be set by an assessment of literary excellence alone. A play is not a document; it is an address: the first consideration must be the relevance to the audience for which it is to be performed. It must furthermore be played by actors equipped to do it by training, feeling, intimate understanding. Chekhov maintained that Russians couldn’t do Ibsen properly!
The theater festivity and ritual must be a persuasive forum to an audience sought out as its own by those who lead it. One may then organize a theater of traditional values, a rebellious theater, a religious theater, a theater for farce, musical comedy or tragedy, for realism or poetry, or a composite of some of these, provided there is a central concept to unify the elements into an organic whole.
The craftsmanship in each case is to be wrought on the premise of the theater’s purpose. The beginning of such craftsmanship is a secure sense of the desired destination. ◆ 1966 (Excerpts from The Collected Works of Harold Clurman. Published by Applause Books.)
To the Young
by Harold Clurman
THE GREATEST OBSTACLE to creativity in the American Theatre is the stereotyped idea that only numbers and size count, that only mass media are important. Only what is “big” matters, has influence.
There are perhaps only a million regular theatregoers in this country. Mathematically, then, theater with us is not a mass medium. But this does not, therefore, mean that the theater is without ‘social force.’
Every valid expression of a fundamental idea relevant to human personality, to society, has life in it which will bear fruit – no matter how special, abstruse, eccentric it may at first appear. Einstein’s equations – intelligible at first to only a handful of scientists – have revolutionized the twentieth century.
The strange conjectures of a Viennese doctor, Freud, have penetrated all our thinking, not only in the fields of psychology and medicine but in education, law, literature. The patterns of obscure and presumably “crazy” artists in Paris are now commonplaces of household and commercial decoration as well as of architecture – even among people who still regard those artists as phonies.
Bernard Shaw’s early plays were hardly noticed when they were first presented in tiny London theaters. (One of them, in fact, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”was suppressed by the police in its first New York production.) A young English actor of no outstanding histrionic ability, John Osborne, wrote a play called “Look Back in Anger”which made a whole generation of Englishmen conscious of a serious change in their country’s social character.
What is first whispered in secret may one day be shouted from the housetops. The conventional rejoinder to this is that a play is not like a scientific formula, or a philosophic doctrine. A play will either please at once or expire. This was not true, however, of Chekhov’s, Ibsen’s or Shaw’s plays. More pertinently, take the case of Sartre’s “No Exit”. Presented successfully in a small theatre in Paris, “No Exit” was a failure on Broadway (as was another famous European play: Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”). But “No Exit” and “Godot” have been playing ever since in community and college theaters all over our country.
What is really in everyone’s mind when people speak of success is profit. That is the crux of the matter. But even the concept of profit should be debated. Where communities support libraries, opera houses, art museums, and symphony orchestras in most European countries – there are also theaters that produce plays many of which are recognizably unsuited to a large public.
These plays are not necessarily dismissed as less significant or less valuable than the more popular ones. In fact many critics on such occasions maintain that these “off-beat” plays are frequently more useful to the community than the others and endeavor to explain the worth of these special plays in the hope that they may someday command a wider audience. This, you may object, is a foreign instance. We are concerned with our United States.
Failure in the theater with us is viewed not as a disappointment but as a disgrace. The reason for this is that we equate excellence with success, and success with fortune. In a virtuous mood we deny this, insisting instead that we do not produce plays for our individual pleasure and edification alone. To fight this primary principle is to appear misanthropic, undemocratic and, what may be considered even more horrible,
This is a half-truth that masks our fixation on large numbers and our appetite for money. A noted playwright, when I suggested that he might invest some of his own funds in his play, exclaimed in sincere consternation, “But, Harold, I have only $250,000 in the bank!” To live as a member of the community with the “best,” to feel that he need no longer suffer a social inferiority complex, to maintain the self-esteem he had finally achieved, this artist felt he had to possess a very sizable bank account. If his income or savings were to be reduced to, let us say, that of a college professor he might once again count himself an inconsequential citizen. In our theater, we are a little like Willy Loman, the sorry salesman of Arthur Miller’s play: we want not only to be liked, but to be well liked.
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A normal approach to the theater may be exemplified in certain of my own experiences. In 1938 a play was submitted to me by William Saroyan, to whom I had previously written, encouraging him to turn to the stage. The play he sent me, “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” was by no means a difficult one, if anything, it was over-simple. It was a folk tale – humorous, tender with a loosely articulated ideological point: though the artist may seem an eccentric creature, simple folk need him and will feed him, for he brings them the solace of his music.
Some of my colleagues demurred at the idea of The Group Theatre producing the play because in those days young folk felt that plays had to be “dynamite” I felt Saroyan had a fresh talent, he sounded a heartening note in a wryly smiling manner which deserved be heard. I decided that it should be very economically presented at five special performances.
When the play was given, the majority press verdict was highly favorable. The Theatre Guild, which had previously refused to offer the play to its subscribers, now agreed to do so. It ran for six weeks. Though it made no money I counted the play a success because it had pleased many more people than I had supposed would be pleased.
It had also encouraged a new playwright, a new director, Bobby Lewis, and a new composer, Paul Bowles. Others who admired the play bemoaned its “failure” in view of the money lost. That money; by the way, was supplied from a portion of our profits in Odets’ “Golden Boy.”
Then in 1949, I worked on Carson McCullers’ “A Member of the Wedding,” a play which brought acclaim to one of our finest actresses, Julie Harris. No manager wanted to rent us a house for the play; it was sure to be a dud. It had hardly any story: a twelve-year-old girl insists on accompanying her brother on his honeymoon, to become what she called “a member of the wedding.” How silly! It was difficult to raise money for such a play, but we managed to get it on. It was a solid success. I had believed it a lovely play, and had it failed I should have been very sorry indeed, but my appreciation of its quality would have remained undiminished. I would have continued to produce more such “hazardous” plays.
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The theater at its best has always been the bearer of significant tidings – whether of an emotional, psychological or social character – in our so-called mass-minded civilization. He who speaks eloquently, truthfully, persistently will finally be heard.
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The difficulty for the creator in the New York theater is that production has become terribly expensive, the cost of tickets too high and nothing but smash hits can
We must never abandon the task of essential creation despite all the obstacles in the way. Our very difficulties may force a solution. The problem should not resolve itself to a choice between writing down to the mass audience or shunning it. The answers lie within the conscience, tenacity, fortitude and skill of individual artists. Each man must learn what he wishes to say and work very hard to say it in the manner most compatible with his spirit, taste and inclination.
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My message to young people in the theater today is more than ever “To thine own self be true.” Discipline yourselves to speak from your heart and from your mind, that is, from your own experience, to the people who have provided you with the ground and framework of that experience. The more scrupulous your effort to make the passage from your conscience and consciousness to theirs the more successful you will eventually be – in whatever way is most important to you.
In short, every decade the children’s call must be raised anew: “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!” ◆ 1961
Chekhov As Humanist
by Harold Clurman
BETWEEN 1898 AND 1904, the Moscow Art Theatre, under Constantin Stanislavsky’s direction produced four of Chekhov’s plays: “The Seagull”, “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard,”in that order. Chekhov, up to the time of his first success as a dramatist at the Moscow Art Theatre was chiefly known as the author of short sketches, tales and novellas.
Both these and his plays are among the great achievements of literature. Bernard Shaw confirmed that when he read Chekhov’s plays he felt like destroying all of his own! Chekhov was only forty-four when he died. It is an old story; but Chekhov is ever new.
Today his plays and the proper mode for their presentation on the stage are the subject of continuing controversy. The dispute on the matter began with the earliest productions. Stanislavsky viewed the plays as tragedies; Chekhov insisted they were comedies. Both were right. Life, it has been said, is a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy to those who think. In a letter he wrote in 1888, Chekhov himself declared, “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices.”
The fact is the Moscow Art Theatre production of “The Cherry Orchard”with its original cast which I saw in 1922 (I am one of the very few of those now engaged in the argument who did) had more humor and was funnier than most of the subsequent stagings which stressed its comedy. There is something futile in the perpetual argument.
Take “Uncle Vanya,” for instance. It is difficult to see it without shedding tears, yet the climax of the third act is very close to farce. Chekhov depicts the painful disappointments of his people, but also recognizes their absurdities. He is always compassionate. His least sympathetic, indeed ridiculous characters like the selfish Serebriakof are also pathetic figures. The son of a peasant sexton, he has educated himself to the estate of a professor of literature, a writer of many erudite books, and finds himself a failure and the object of general disdain. His egotism renders him irritatingly and laughingly stupid.
Then there is the pock-marked Telyegin (“Waffles”) who says, “You know that the one who deceives his wife or husband is of course an unfaithful person and may very well betray his own country,” and follows this bit of wisdom with, “My own wife betrayed me with another man on the day after our marriage, just because of my own unattractive appearance. But I did not forsake my duties. I still love her and I am faithful to her. I help her as much as I can and have given her my possessions for the education of the children she had by the other man...” We are bound to guffaw at the fool and yet we cannot help but find a touching sweetness in him.
There are comic contradictions in nearly all of Chekhov’s people: they proclaim convictions and do the very opposite. Vanya himself, a man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, a man who has sacrificed his life to support a brother-in-law he believed a genius only to find him a mediocrity, attempts to shoot him and is ashamed of himself for missing, is both pitiable and a joke. Very few of Chekhov’s men and women are adequate to the situations in which they find themselves – very much like most of us.
As Chekhov has a peasant say in one of his short stories, “A bird is given not four wings, but two, because it is able to fly with two; and a man is not permitted to know everything but only a half or a quarter. As much as he needs in order to live.” That is the cream of the jest of tragedy. The attitude is essentially humanistic.
What often summons tears in Chekhov’s plays – even as they provoke smiles or chuckles – is the fundamental goodness that emanates from their every movement: the quality of his perception and art. Chekhov was neither a facile optimist nor a dour pessimist. He embraces life because there is no other choice and he sees it whole.
In “The Three Sisters,” the tender and doomed Tusenbach believes there can be no solution to the universal ache, while the henpecked Colonel Vershinin like the perpetual student Trofimov in “The Cherry Orchard”looks forward hopefully to a future – even if it be a hundred to two hundred years ahead – when humankind will have emerged from its dark ages. In the meantime we must endure. “He who desires nothing,” Chekhov
I call Chekhov “humanist” by which I mean simply humane. He was not denominationally a believer. But a close look reveals in him what we associate with the religious spirit. There is no dogma in Chekhov, no strict or absolute “message.” It is the least sophisticated of his characters – so simple-minded that we may regard them as utter innocents – who voice sentiments which sound “mystic.”
The old nurse Marina in “Uncle Vanya”very gently answers Dr. Astrov, a man both cynical and lofty, who has asked her, “I wondered if the people who live one or two hundred years from now, the ones we’re paving the way for now would remember us with a kind word” by saying, “The people won’t remember, but God will.” To which Astrov rejoins (reflecting Chekhov) “Thank you for that. That was well said.”
Conventional and misleading criticism has grown like a fungus around Chekhov’s work. His plays, it has been repeatedly asserted, have no action or story. This isn’t so. Chekhov’s method of building his plays is different from that of his predecessors – Ibsen, for example, from most other playwrights to the very present. His dramatic narrative does not move in a straight, presumably logical, plot line to an expected or foreseeable high point. It interrupts itself, shifts, eddies so that if we are not sufficiently attentive we do not immediately perceive its pattern.
His technique is sometimes spoken of as “impressionism,” but it more closely resembles the motion of everyday occurrence and behavior than the traditional modern play does; it is, if you will, more life-like, more truly realistic.
The most fatal mistake is to regard Chekhov’s plays as all “downbeat.” Tragedy is never that for it is rounded on the struggle to overcome cosmic obstacles which we may call the nobility of tragedy. Chekhov’s plays are centered in a basic principle: “We must live.” Vanya ends by forgiving his enemy and, in his depression, continues with his thankless job of heeding his niece Sonya’s resolve “We shall live.”
It is the recurrent note stated or implied in all of Chekhov’s work. In the final scene of “The Three Sisters,” Irina, the youngest of them who has more cause for despair than the others cries out, “A day will come when the world will know…why all this suffering; there will be no more mysteries…but life must go on…While we wait, we must try to live…we must work, only work.” It is the faith that moves mountains. It is the faith of the young in “The Cherry Orchard” who, while their elders weep over the passing of the old establishment, greet a new life that’s beginning.
In the short span of his life, Chekhov not only practiced medicine, composed a huge body of writing, helped institute prison reforms, supported libraries, set up a clinic, encouraged other artists and above all, strove to liberate the Russia of his day from its backwardness from which stemmed so much of its people’s frustration and misery. “There is something wrong in this house,” the beautiful and broken Yelena says. (Shaw, in his own time, called it a “Heartbreak House.”)
But if the play has a central action and its characters a prime wish, it is not alone to complain of life but to make it better, to find a way to be happy. Nearly all seek or yearn for that “light in the distance” of which Astrov speaks – a goal and a grace. Chekhov hardly ever preaches; he bids us understand. What he understood about his own time and place is, to this very moment, still left for us to realize.
In the same letter in which he denounced “tags and labels” he added, “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.” ◆ 1978
The Challenge of the Heroic
by Harold Clurman
IN BRECHT’S PLAY, Brecht’s play, “Galileo,” which was produced by The Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, at the close of the scene of Galileo’s recantation a young disciple deeply hurt at his master’s defection exclaims: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” To which Galileo replies: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”
The implication of Galileo’s rejoinder is that only a sick society requires epic effort to heal its wounds. We would exist in comparative tranquility if nothing were rotten in the State. Though Galileo’s maxim is impressive, it is utopian. We doubt man’s ability ever to attain so just a balance in social or private affairs that the struggle which heroism entails would become unnecessary.
In writing about the avant-garde theatre (though convenient, I dislike the term) I said that it contained no “Prometheus.” Even the best of plays in recent years are dramas of defeat. This is not a complaint: everything must be said, and there can be no doubt that very many of us today feel frustrated, defeated, if not altogether maimed. It is inevitable that the theatre should reflect this condition.
If we take Ibsen and Chekhov as classics of the modern era we observe that though their plays are for the most part what the ordinary theatregoer calls “gloomy” (despite their quotient of humor), they speak with a sense of loss which foreshadows the possibility of amelioration. We are not to suppose that such later dramatists as Ionesco, Genet, Pinter or Albee in presenting a demoralized world masochistically embrace the breakdown.
Even Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” in which the outlook is unquestionably dreary, makes the point that the two tramps who are its central characters possess a certain nobility because they know they are bereft of an ‘answer’ and that, despite their every failure to find one, they are actively waiting, enduring. Many young Americans who have been influenced by Beckett and the others give evidence of having become even more devastatingly discouraged. They appear totally flattened. There is a good deal of fashionable imitation as well: they aspire to their masters – or worse.
To the charge that I once leveled at a group of such playwrights – that they were all writing the same play as if they not only lived on the same street but in the same pad – they challenged me with the statement that men of my generation still cling to ideals while theirs has been deprived of anything to believe in. I understood. The young men and women were, in effect, saying: we live in an age in which the imminence of total annihilation hangs over us; there is hypocrisy in high places, even the prospect of material security is denied us.
Promises of social betterment ring hollow; relief from our spiritual depression is a religious concept in which we have no faith. Thus: no exit! For this reason the satire which is now being written has the shrill sound of revulsion rather than of rebellion: it does not mean to affect anything.
While all this is plausible, I do not accept the validity of the argument. It is built on a false premise, a premise which could only be held among people raised on the proposition that wellbeing is the natural condition of man, his inalienable right. There never has been a “happy time” except retrospectively.
The world has always been in jeopardy. The Black plague of the 14th century and the Thirty Years War of the 17th decimated a large part of Europe. All that men have accomplished has been done in the face of death. It is not the great general, discoverer, scientist who is to be considered a “hero,” but, in Emerson’s words, “he who is immovably centered,” committed to the most deeply rooted impulses of his being.
To live is to act, to act is to move toward a greater scope of life. Hope is not a dream of future delight. It is inherent in the very process of engaging in the action of life. Eating breakfast, reading or writing a book, setting up an organization, planning a battle, conducting a scientific experiment are all in themselves hopeful acts. Only the moribund ask “What’s the use?”
The courage to undertake decisive action is in itself an affirmation of life. That is why tragedy inspires a feeling of exaltation.
We cannot and should not blind ourselves to the evils of our day nor reject their more eloquent manifestations on the stage. We must confront them. What is most alive in ourselves bids us go on with the eternally wonderful struggle to forge a different world. That is what should be meant by the full, the good life.
Tragedy does not exclude comedy: comedy is the record of our ineptitude in the task. Satire too is essential: for if tragedy egresses the defeat of something which should have been saved, satire, an arm of comedy, thrives on “conspiracy;” it deals with something oppresslve which should be “murdered.” But we must know and believe in the value for which we employ the weapon.
I am not proposing a return to the social play of the 1930’s. I speak of a quest for restated fundamentals, the bodying forth of our urgent humanity in newly minted language and fresh hams. We can no longer dwell in the dumps or be content with swimming in the swamp. The time has come to abandon a supine position within ourselves and take a walk into the immensity outside.
The still scattered and often immature efforts to establish organic schools of the theatre and repertory groups (Theaters, not simply buildings) are signs of a still only partially informed and articulate impulse which as it takes firmer shape will also produce a drama of greater heart and sinew than that which we now believe to be the up to-the-minute vanguard. The theater’s future lies along that path. But it cannot be created by folk whose first concern is ease, comfort, quick returns and a bland “culture.” Moral ruggedness as well as genuine craftsmanship are indispensable. ◆ 1967
The Famous “Method”
by Harold Clurman
ARE YOU IN FAVOR OF GRAMMAR? Yes or no? God darn it!” Can you conceive of people engaging in such dispute? Do you suppose anyone could become fanatic about the subjunctive mood? In theatre circles the bone of contention is the famous Method — the grammar of acting.
Ordinarily it would hardly seem to me to be worthwhile to write about a matter of stagecraft. It is not at all useful or particularly interesting for the playgoer to know how a performance he enjoys was prepared, any more than a knowledge of how pigments are mixed is helpful in the appreciation of painting.
The Method, an abbreviation of the terms the “Stanislavsky Method,” is a means of training actors, as well as a technique for the use of actors in their work on parts. This technique, formulated in 1909 by the Russian actor/ director, Constantin Stanislavsky of the Moscow Art Theatre, and subsequently employed in the productions of that company, was introduced into this country by three of its actors: Leo Bulgakov, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya.
After the Moscow Art Theatre had terminated its first Broadway engagement in 1923, these three actors decided to remain in the United States. They became the first teachers of the Method, which they and most other Russians referred to as the “System.”
Among the young Americans who studied with Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya between 1923-26 were Lee Strasberg, who dominated The Actors Studio; Stella Adler, who conducted a studio of her own; and, a little later, the present writer.
The Method had its first real trial and success on Broadway through the work of the Group Theatre (1931-40) of which Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg and I were the leaders. In such productions as Kingsley’s “Men in White” (directed by Strasberg), Odets’ “Golden Boy” (directed by Clurman), Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands”(directed by Robert Lewis), the Method, rarely touted beyond the confines of the Group’s rehearsal hall, proved its value as a practical instrument in production.
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The Method, I have said, is the grammar of acting. There have been great writers who never studied grammar — though they usually possess it — but no one on that account proclaims grammar futile. A mastery of grammar does not guarantee either a fine style or valuable literary content. Once in command of it, the writer is unconscious of method. It is never an end in itself. The same is true of the Stanislavsky Method. There was grammar before there were grammarians.
Great acting existed before the Method and great acting still exists unaware of it. A theatregoer who paid to see Michael Redgrave or Laurence Olivier could not tell by watching them in performance which of the two was influenced by the Method.
The purpose of the Stanislavsky Method is to put the whole gamut of the actor’s physical and emotional being into the service of the play’s meaning. What Stanislavsky did was to watch great actors and study his own problems as an actor. In the process he began to isolate the factors that composed fine acting. He studied the way actors prepared themselves for their task, and how they gave shape and substance to the roles they were assigned.
Why was it necessary for Stanislavsky to evolve his Method? First, because the organization of knowledge about acting which the Method represents facilitates the first steps, diminishes the fumbling and ‘wear and tear’ of the apprentice years; and, secondly, because a conscious technique can aid an actor, who has to repeat a part many times, in gaining a greater mastery over his interpretation which without some form of conscious control tends to vanish through the capriciousness and fluidity of what is called inspiration.
All this is clearly set forth in Stanislavsky’s three books – My Life in Art, An Actor Prepares, and Building a Character. It is true that no one can learn to act merely by reading them. But the information they contain is neither mystic nor mysterious. None of the American teachers of the Method (except Stella Adler, who worked with Stanislavsky in private sessions in Paris for six weeks in the summer of 1934) ever knew Stanislavsky personally, and only two or three saw any of his productions.
I note this because it is always important to remember that just as every actor has his own individual personality which supersedes whatever technique he may employ or aesthetic doctrine he may profess, so every teacher of the Method lends it the quality of his own mind and disposition. As so often happens, on some points most of these teachers contradict one another violently. Which of them is in the right? For the layman, it matters very little. Only results on the stage count.
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I have never heard anyone speak as long and as dogmatically on the importance of the voice and diction as did Stanislavsky to me on the several occasions of our – meeting in Paris and Moscow. As for posture, physical deportment, correctness of carriage, discipline of manner: on these subjects Stanislavsky was almost fanatic. The actors of the Comedie Francaise (famous for fine voices and speech) had an inadequate vocal range of hardly more than three notes, he complained. Most actors walk badly, he pointed out. He was not satisfied that anybody anywhere had developed a voice to match the inherent demands of Shakespeare’s verse.
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How then had this calumny about the drabness, not to say the grubbiness, of ‘Method acting’ arisen? And is it only calumny? Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” was indirectly a major factor in the development of what might be dubbed a dreadful Method tradition or superstition. Brando’s was a brilliant characterization, and made a deep impression unexpected as well as undesirable in its consequences.
It is worth mentioning that when I first heard that Brando was to do the part I thought he had been miscast. For I had known Brando, whom I had previously directed in a play by Maxwell Anderson, as an innately delicate, thoughtful and intellectually eager young man. No matter! For an alarming number of young people in the theatre Kowalski was Brando and Brando was great! The fact that Kowalski was largely a mug who frightened rather more than he fascinated the author himself – the play was intended to say that if we weren’t careful such mugs might come to dominate our society – this fact escaped the host of Brando imitators.
They equated the tough guy, delinquent aspect of the characterization with a heedlessness, a rebelliousness, a “freedom” and a kind of pristine strength which the performance seemed to them to symbolize. In it, they found combined their unconscious ideal: creative power in acting with a blind revolt against all sorts of conformity both in life and on the stage.
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The Method has influenced no theatre as much as the Amercan. Another very important reason has to do with one particular element of the Method – “affective memory” or the memory of emotions. I need not dwell here on the artistic validity, the use and abuse of this device. This introspective action, in which the actor is required to recall some personal event of his past in order to generate real feeling in relation to a scene in his part of the play, rivets the actor’s attention on his inner life, and frequently strikes the novice as a revolutionary discovery.
Most young actors who come upon it eat it up. Some it tends to make a little self-conscious, melancholy, “nervous,” tense, producing a kind of constipation of the soul! Those with whom it agrees, not only use it but often become consumed by it. The actor being the ordinary neurotic man suffering all sorts of repressions and anxieties seizes upon the revelation of himself – supplied by the recollection of his past – as a purifying agent. Through it, he often imagines it will make him something like a redeemed human being and an artist.
In this manner, the Method is converted into something akin not only to psychoanalysis but to “religion.” This was not Stanislavsky’s aim, nor does it represent the purpose of the Method teachers in America.
Culture with us is still considered something apart from the main current of our lives. This is especially true of the stage. Since we have no national theatre, no consistent employment for the actor, and channels for serious discussion, examination and practice of acting as an art are rare, the American actor clings to the Method and its ever-expanding centers of instruction as to a spiritual as well as a professional boon. It becomes manna from heaven.
I am glad the Method has “caught on.” It has been of enormous benefit to our theater and acting profession. Now that it has been established I hope to see it more or less taken as a matter of course.
What the American actor really needs is more plays and productions in which to practice what has been preached. What actors of every kind need is a broader understanding of the Theater as a whole: a general education in its relation to the world and to art in general. Young actors imbued with the Method have become so engrossed by what the Method can do for them that they forget that the Method exists for the Theater and not the Theater for the Method.
What they must finally understand is that the Theater is here for the pleasure, enlightenment and health of the audience – that is to say for all of us.◆ 1958
The Arts are the ‘Flower of Life’
by Harold Clurman
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN ENTERTAINMENT as something trivial and theater as something noble and serious is a silly one.
The theater is an expression of the deepest feelings of men and the community that you can have and share together. I speak about the theater as if I were a revivalist speaking about morality and God knows, and human love. People always say, why don’t you talk about entertainment. I say, “What’s more entertaining, more exhilarating and engaging, than the love of the community? The ideas communicated to you by the playwright and by the actors to the audience? That’s entertainment.”
No theater should depress you. Certain kinds of audiences, they think anything that has tears in it is depressing. But what tragedy does is say life is difficult, but there are those who rise about it, who struggle. And even if they fail, the struggle itself, which is the struggle to make things better who made sacrifices, beginning with certain religious teachers, and who suffered for them, we wouldn’t be the people we are today. The struggle that makes man a very noble creature.
There was fervor in the 1930’s. I’m very amused by the people saying that it was a period of depression. Of course, they’re talking about the economics, and that was true. I find now, a period of depression, more than then. In the 1930’s, people were losing money and not getting jobs, but they were fighting it with a kind of sense that they might overcome it. And to a large extent they did overcome it. Now I find this dead level of complacency, or indifference, or pessimism, or bitterness, or cynicism today, depressing.
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Every play is a statement, even a light comedy becomes a statement. And it’s not a statement about the theater, it’s a statement about life. Because if theater has nothing to do with life, we don’t need it. The theater is there to stimulate our experience of life, to increase it, to make it richer, to make it more that we even understood of it. Because most people don’t understand their own experience. It’s the artist, who enriches our experience. We understand more about ourselves through having read Tolstoy, let’s say, or through having read Emerson’s essays, or Walt Whitman’s poems.
The arts are not decorations to life, they’re the flower of life. We live to create art. We live to create art not through books and music; we live to create art through conversation, through comradeship, through friendship.
All our acts should be a work of art, everything we do should be conceived as art. That is what I think of as art, as being the very essence of what we’re here for. That’s what life is all about!
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Picasso said art was a lie that tells the truth. And the theater is that way: it’s a fiction, it’s not true. It’s imagination. It’s a story, sometimes a cock-and-bull story, but the point is to tell you something that is true and valuable to you. Hamlet advises the players about art mirroring nature. Often I find, when something hits me, it’s because of a play that I saw or a piece of music that I heard. You wouldn’t understand the play unless you had something in your experience that it duplicates.
Suppose a man or a woman had never experienced love, really experienced it. Othello would be meaningless, or Tristan or Isolde. It would be a lot of noise. They’d say,” What’s this about?” In other words, you always have to have in you a part of the experience which the playwright is expressing. Otherwise you wouldn’t understand.
Some people say: “I don’t want messages in my plays.” Every play has a message, including the musical comedies of the Ziegfield Follies. The Ziegfield Follies had a wonderful message glorifying the American girl. That is a point of view. To say: “I have no point of view,” is a very devastating, nihilistic point of view. I don’t want to go to a play and say: “This show will run for forty years.” I don’t give a damn how much money the producer’s going to make. That’s of no interest to me.
And so, I would encourage playgoing on anything that shows even a gleam of some talent, visible talent. The idea that we have to have masterpieces and great men around is insufferable, because if we had only great men around us we couldn’t live a day either, because the world would be devastated in two minutes.
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Theater is a living art. It’s an art of presence. Thornton Wilder said theater was the greatest of all arts because of that, the community was together with itself. The theater is a means by which society realizes itself, in making itself real to itself. ◆ 1978 (Excerpts from an interview by Studs Terkel with Harold Clurman in Hard Times.)
Modern Art and the Vision of Stieglitz
by Harold Clurman
WHEN I WRITE ABOUT THE THEATER, I generally dwell on the origin and significance of its productions in terms of the world that fostered them and the audience they are addressed to.
The same is true of what I have to say about painting. If we keep thinking of the arts as just a matter of diversion arbitrarily conceived to fulfill the needs of our leisure, we will never know anything about them. In the recent and constantly raging controversy about old and contemporary art, there is always a tendency for those shocked by what they consider the excesses and disabilities of the modern artist to talk as if he was a perverse creature who suddenly took it into his head to paint disturbing or incomprehensible objects. (I should like to point out in passing that it is a physical impossibility not to paint any object at all, since even a pot of paint hurled at a canvas would produce an effect which, without being art, would still have to be defined as an object!)
The truth is that most people who proclaim that modern art is a monstrous mistake rarely understand or feel very much about the kind of art then profess to adore. The fact is that it is not at all easy to comprehend the Raphael Madonna, while the counterpart of the Picasso distortion may be seen at almost every street corner! What I want to know as I look at the Raphael Madonna is not whether she is pretty – even if she is, it is no great matter to me, since far prettier ladies are much closer at
What I want to know is why Raphael painted her as he did, what world gave her birth, what needs and what forces in the painter, his patron, his admirers were released and satisfied by such painting. This is not a simple thing to discover in a hasty glance. For while I know Picasso’s world intimately – it is more or less my own – Raphael’s world is fairly remote. In a sense Raphael’s “realism” is a stylization for which I need some preparation, while Picasso’s ultra-modernism in its closeness to the contemporary scene is a kind of “realism.”
When we learn really to see paintings, we shall find that we are not actually concerned with “pictures” as such – for if we were, we should not care much about our preference for one picture to another — but with the experience or “world” that the painting conveys. When this happens – and it is only at this point that we can be said to have contact with art (any art) – we shall understand what distinguishes the old creation from the new.
Is contemporary art more “fantastic” than what we call the classic? A picture like Giovanni di Paolo's sea piece from the life of Saint Clare (15th Century) is as “wild” as anything ever painted by Van Gogh or Chagall! If there is painful preoccupation with the horrors of death in many moderns, we find the same in such work as Camaccio’s “The Burial of Christ.” The older artists were much more conscious of the world as a whole – of the social and religious as well as physical dimension of the universe which contained them. Our modern artists – since 1870, let us say – are much more alive to sensation.
For this reason, you can “move around” more in the world of the older artists. Modern man, it would appear, is bereft of everything but his senses. If you do not like what you see in modern art – it is not the modern artist who is to blame but modern life. And if you don't like modern life – look to it!
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There are two ways in which an artist may be neglected. He may simply never be seen or heard of by a large number of people, or he may be widely heralded for the wrong reasons. The latter, it seems to me, is the fate that has befallen Stieglitz. What is emphasized is Stieglitz's role as a pioneer in the modern art movement of America.
What is overlooked is Stieglitz the artist. He was a great artist – one of the greatest, in my view, this country has produced. It is easy to forget this because his art was photography and because his photographs are so modest. They look as if anyone at all might have done them. As a result, it is easy to say that they were remarkable “for their day.” After all, he was the first to do a certain type of night photography, and so on.
Such qualifications represent either timidity or insensitivity. When I returned from London and Paris, to see Stieglitz's photographs in central Manhattan was to come on a secret oasis in the midst of increasing spiritual aridity. These photographs have scope without ostentation. They are expressive without pressure. Without self-advertisement they reveal a man. They are a social commentary without proclamation. Their outstanding quality is tenderness. They are quiet without sentimentality.
Only an occasional title – such as “The Hand of Man” – gives any clue to a pretentious meaning. Stieglitz does not impose on his subject matter: his feeling for it is natural, relaxed, spontaneous. His art is a real being – without any exultant cry of aesthetic discovery. It derives from understanding. His objects seem to bathe in God's air.
Stieglitz’s work is pure in expression and content. He is never angry, vehement, hortatory, or clever. His work is sometimes sad without tears, gentle without softness, almost imperceptibly humorous. Stieglitz saw life as an infinite mystery that reveals itself in clarity. Every object is presented with utter simplicity, while at the same time
What is the core of Stieglitz's vision, the basis for his sadness, the sum of his solicitude? Stieglitz loved life in its most direct, unmetaphysical sense. He looked at flesh and saw in it what was universally true of all things. Thus, there is an equivalence in his work between the nudes, trees, the look of a house, the flanks of a horse, the shape and texture of the clouds. Human flesh is delicate, lovely, powerful and perishable, unfathomably wonderful. It is changeable, evanescent, capable of creating or sustaining every blessing, effort, martyrdom, and cruelty.
Human flesh is spirit; the spirit is human flesh. All things on land, water, or in the sky have similar properties, are, indeed, part of it, as it is part of them. Human flesh is easily destroyed and ever reborn: that is why life is precious, sad, beautiful, ultimately neither good nor bad, so that optimism and pessimism as permanent states are both equally meaningless. Life without labels, life that cannot be characterized as either animal or spiritual, since both are one, life as the source and sense of all strength is what Stieglitz saw in the wispiest, most inconsiderable fragments of reality.
In Stieglitz, this personal vision becomes a social vision. The history of our times from 1880 to 1935 becomes an intimate human experience. This is especially important today, because there is a tendency with our increasing consciousness of the social aspects of art to overlook a basic truth that was implicit in Stieglitz’s approach to life: a social point of view is worthless unless it is included in a framework greater than the social.
In the end, a correct politics is only possible where a basic position on man's place in the universe has been taken, in short, where a comprehensive philosophy, a comparatively conscious relationship to the whole of life has been assumed. Stieglitz saw an America in peril of losing its soul – and thus ultimately all its real goods – through a failure to appreciate the true nature of man, the real quality of life.
He saw technical energy being cultivated beyond everything else for purposes that hardly seemed to include man. He saw the thinning out of our emotional capacities in proportion to the progress made in our mechanical and monetary efficiency. He saw in America the disastrous triumph of modern cleverness, the trick whereby man could dispose of men, make them unnecessary, render them extinct.
Through the silent report of his eye, with the aid of a soulless mechanical gadget, Stieglitz was able to produce a series of reflections on paper which, for those who really look, contain a great part of the truth of our era and of all time. Stieglitz’s work is a repository of joy and wisdom, a priceless signal to mankind. That is why I say Stieglitz was a great American artist – and I do not refer to the graphic arts alone. It is about time we began to discover him. ◆1947
Theater - A Place of Marvels, of Wonder and Inspiration
by Harold Clurman
LET US TREAT THE THEATER not as a social chore but as a festivity. Even the unbeliever in a cathedral feels the power of religion because he behaves there according to the code tradition dictates. Ceremonies of all kinds are meaningful to us despite any skepticism one may harbor – because we act ceremoniously at them. So, the theater will prove greater fun if we train ourselves to behave less casually toward it.
I made this point in conversation and brought as evidence the fact that at the opera and ballet, where people “dress” more frequently than they do at plays, where flowers are brought and bouquets thrown, where bravos are less apologetic, where a sense of ritual pleasure and even lavishness are created not only on the stage but in the auditorium, the theater still has glamour.
I am reminded of a story about a lady who was preparing to go to one of Odets’ later plays: “Shall I dress?” she asked her escort, “or is it going to be a play of social significance!” The grand manner in public attire may seem out of date for one of the more somber of our realistic plays.
This is like saying that we should dress for “Tosca” but not for “La Boheme,” for a Balanchine ballet but not for one by Jerome Robbins. But it is not the black or white tie that makes the difference: Gautier wore a scandalous red waistcoat at the Comedie Francaise for the opening of Hugo’s “Hernani” in 1830 to declare his pride in the advent of the then new romanticism. It was a colorful sign of defiance, too, a symbol that the wearer thought the event a splendid one.
We need to keep our sense of theater as a place of marvels, of wonder and inspiration – and we ought in some way to show by our manner of entering it what we hope to see there. The theater at all times – even with Ibsen and Chekhov – was a place to escape the humdrum, a place where we expected to hear better language, see more beautiful people listen to more elevated or wittier thought than are found elsewhere.
Whatever the show, we anticipate that it might somehow prove a holiday. Even the rough manner of the 1930’s — now a woeful affectation with a few — had a kind of dash to it, just as the flowing tie or bobbed hair or extreme de colletage were other expressions of pleasure in an attitude.
But our theater is changing; there is something like a new trend in the air. For conformity will have its rebels, and the newest rebellion will veer toward more rather than less grandeur. The boundaries of realism are being extended.
There is an increasing interest in the more “classical” theater – of costume, of eloquence, of plastic movement, of color and rhetoric. It is no accident that the production of plays by Anouilh, Giraudoux, Fry, Eliot, Schiller and a return to Shakespeare, not to mention interesting developments Off-Broadway, have become increasingly common in the past few years.
I seem to be harking back to the “old,” that is, to the traditional. Sam Goldwyn once asked a famous choreographer why he didn’t introduce some “modern stuff” into a picture he was arranging dances for. “But the ‘modern’,” the choreographer answered, “is so old fashioned.”
In the future, I hope to see our audiences advanced enough to be old-fashioned. This audience will not come to the theater haphazardly but as partisans of the theater and its artists. It will not be so concerned with the theater as show business but hungry for it as art. (How detestable the announcement in theater columns of the investments made in plays and the degree of profit or loss realized on each of them! It is a thousand times better for the health of the theatre for an audience to view it as an art, which is fun, than as trade which is trouble.)
The pride of the artist is always in the quality of his work and the kind of appreciation it evokes. The pride of audience should be in the quality of the appreciation it gives. Let us cultivate a degree of hero worship for our favorite actors. If we are bold enough, let us become stagedoor Johnnies.
Perhaps the glow of our adulation will stimulate actors and actresses to a handsome manner, a finer presence, a more attractively distinctive appearance, princely or bohemian, than has been customary in recent years. If actors imagine the public prefers to view them as just folks, they are sadly mistaken. The actor offstage should either remain invisible to the casual eye or retain something of the fabulous air his profession bespeaks.
Let us emulate the audience which greeted Caruso at his first appearance in “Aida” in New York when the police on the street dashed into the Met for fear a riot had broken out there or the less fancy but equally fervent audience at the old Civic Repertory Theatre when “Waiting for Lefty” made everyone suspect the day of the ‘revolution’ had arrived.
Let us debate things theatrical. Let us encourage people who are never bored at the theater and find something good in every show. Boredom is boring. Let us advocate champagne bars in the theatre — gaily decorated. “The Theater,” Gordon Craig once wrote, “is a famous temple.” We should enter it in an elevated mood. Democracy, yes, but let’s make our theater regal. ◆ 1958
Will They ‘Awake and Sing’?
by Harold Clurman
READING THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the off-Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” caused me to speculate on what the reaction to it today might be. Much, of course, depends on the quality of its staging. Still, I could anticipate that many might find it “dated,” always an easy out for the careless spectator. After all, the play was first presented in New York on February 19, 1935.
All plays are dated. They are products of their time. Do we complain of “The Importance of Being Earnest” because its idiom is not Osborne’s? Even those dramatists who aim at timelessness – Samuel Beckett, for instance – are representative of a period. “Waiting for Godot” could not have been written in 1912 any more than we can imagine plays like those of Congreve being written in Shakespeare’s day.
The dramatist’s datedness applies chiefly to the historical circumstances of his writing: what was going on in the world at the time he set about doing his work. He employs the speech of his environment, uses the techniques which he has inherited from the past and adds something of the present which (at best) points to the future. What is permanent in his creation is that element which his fellow countrymen still find nourishing to their inner health and pleasure in later days.
The 1930’s, of which Odets’ plays are the outstanding dramatic expression, are chiefly remembered as the time of the Great Depression. We are now presumably living in a period of affluence. There was much talk in those “ancient” times of rescuing the suffering working class, supporting the rising trade unions, and some even espoused socialism of one kind or another. Today many are convinced that the unions are not only greedily monopolistic but often reactionary, the working class by no means underprivileged, and “socialism,” a dirty word.
Odets was never a political playwright, nor even a “revolutionary” one in the limited sense attached to that epithet then or now. His was a rebellion against our materialism, our subservience – to the idol of Success as the supreme good. Odets’ denunciation of this blight was not that of a sociological preacher. He knew its corrosive properties because they dwelt within him, and he hated them because they were crippling him and, at last, literally killed him.
There was a tormenting duality in Odets, as there is in most important artists, a duality which makes them dramatic. It is from the conflict within themselves (of different kinds within different artists) that they create. Where the duality is resolved or kept in balance, the result is benign; where the duality is finally insuperable, the artist’s career is fatally damaged.
The duality in Odets consists of his being an impassioned idealist and, at the same time, a creature constantly lured by the trappings of the bitch goddess (Success) whose seductions he knew were lethal. If we examine Odets’ history (his twelve plays and his Hollywood activities), we perceive the drama of defeat issuing from a foundation
This drama is an American tragedy. It is related to what O’Neill had in mind when planning his never completed nine-play cycle, the theme of which he declared was to be centered in the challenge of “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” There was in Odets an inextinguishable, characteristically native, optimism. All but one of his plays end on an “up-beat” even when the curtain rings down on a death.
His plays point to that future which would unify all men in mutual understanding and reconstructive effort. Odets’ favorite author in his youth was the Victor Hugo of Les Miserables, with its compassion for the downtrodden; later he turned to Walt Whitman with his dream of a truly democratic America peopled by sound individuals.
“Life should have some dignity,” old Jacob says in “Awake and Sing,” and the play’s prophetic title is indicative of Odets’ mood in this, his purest play. And to attain that dignity, Jacob adds, we must “go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.” To which his grandson’s ultimate response is “Let me die like a dog, if I can’t get more from life [than that which the Depression has produced…I want the whole city to hear it, fresh blood, arms. We got ‘em. We’re glad we’re living.”
This is not only youthful high-heartedness but a declaration of the activism (the meaning of “Strike!” in “Waiting for Lefty” emblematic of Odets and the thirties in their early stages. Jacob, who constantly cites Marx but who has not read him, describes himself as a man “with good ideas, but only in the head…. That is why I tell you-do! Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution.”
All of Odets’ first “heroes” are determined to “change the world,” to make America yield the fruits of its promise. But Ralphie, the twenty-two-year-old grandson, also hankers for his “name in the papers,” just as Joe Bonaparte in “Golden Boy” yearns for “fame and fortune,” which leads him to give up his musical talent to battle for more visible benefits.
For the poor boy (Bonaparte-Odets), the booty of the battle is expressed in the purchase of an expensive car. This is a naively romantic image which signifies that American materialism is not only a monetary matter but manifests itself in the impulse to parade the success with which one’s efforts have been crowned. Odets was nothing if not a romantic.
Right after “Awake and Sing” opened to generally enthusiastic notices, Odets bought an elaborate record player. (He had a genuine love of music.), Odets’ plays are rich with vividly defined characters. They are brimful with the juices of life. The fever of his writing directly communicates the turbulence of his spirit. His dialogue pulsates with the beat and whirl of the city.
While his language is a compound of New York dialects, one cannot say that it is “dated” because no one ever really spoke exactly as Odets’ characters do any more than the Elizabethans spoke as Shakespeare wrote. Odets had a wonderful ear. His language is a personal poetry wrought from phrases, jokes, popular word-coinage and songs heard in the street and in homes, things he read in newspaper captions as well as in the funnies, remarks picked up from desultory companions and relatives. These have all been recast in the fire of his imagination and transfigured into a beautifully original rhetoric. “Awake and Sing” was not understood when it was produced in Israel because it is much less Jewish than thoroughly “United States.”
His writing is full of salty humor and melody. It makes us aware that even his most impatient outbursts were part of his exultation in the hope for a better life, a saner world. This brings us back to our point of departure. Odets is still pertinent. For though our present economic and social problems are not precisely what they were in the thirties (except for our intensified sense of possible annihilation), the basic disturbances in the whole fabric of our living are due to a lack of truly generative ideals – practical ideals – not mere alterations in nomenclature.
We want something to transform the conduct of our lives day by day. The alarming “wildness” of our youth is a symptom of our failure to make our deeds correspond to our professions of faith. We know that the negatives of “anti-Communism” will not help, nor will or should our young be content with the solace of comparison with other people who “don’t have it as good” as we do. We know that we must act so that we radically affect our physical environment, our economic and political structures, our buildings, the aspect of our streets, our manners, our educational institutions, our arts, our entire comportment.
Even when they don’t rightly understand it, know how to organize it, and are often corrupted by some of the diseases which afflict their elders, there is a revolution going on in the hearts of the young which must either lead to the “new world” invoked in “Awake and Sing,” or to a veritable hell of destructiveness (to the self and to others), which is always the consequence of idealism betrayed. This is the crux of Odets’ dramatic statement and what in its totality it portends. ◆ 1970
Mysterious Rites of the Rehearsal
by Harold Clurman
“WE’RE GOING INTO REHEARSAL TOMORROW,” an actor may say to a “civilian” – if he knows any. This person will note in the actor’s face a mixture of anticipation close to elation and a certain apprehension. He may wonder at the mixed emotions.
Year after year – particularly between mid-August and late March – plays are scheduled for rehearsal but, even if he is sufficiently interested to read the item publicizing the event, the ordinary playgoer is vaguely puzzled. What actually goes on at rehearsal? It always remains something of a mystery.
The explanation for the duality of reaction on the actor’s part lies in his knowledge that, rehearsal is the crucible of creation for everyone concerned in play production. When you read a script, which will later become the published version of the play, all you have are words suggesting what may happen on the stage.
In terms of color, sound, movement, all is shadowy. Hamlet, as we see him on the stage, is not Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” (he exists only in the book). What we see is Gielgud’s Hamlet, Olivier’s, Redgrave’s, Evans’. Although all of them speak the same words, none is alike, none has precisely the same meaning. The words are absorbed in the person of the player. The function of rehearsals is to transmute words into a world.
A play on the stage is the most elusive of phenomena. After more than thirty years of professional experience, the present writer is quite frank to admit never to have been certain of the success or failure of a play in production. Any professional who claims even a fifty percent degree of infallibility is deluding either himself or others.
As director, I was convinced that it was a lovely bit of writing which would probably prove caviar to the general. The reassurance of a few colleagues at rehearsal did not entirely persuade me that my forebodings were unjustified. While the play was greeted with glowing notices in Philadelphia, business was still bad. Other colleagues who came to see the play there shook their heads and consoled Julie Harris on having to appear once again in a flop. The paid preview audience on the night before the New York opening was distinctly cold. The play turned out to be a solid hit.
All this is relevant to our story because it points to a factor nearly always overlooked by the general observer who asks, “How can so many supposedly knowledgeable theater folk make so many mistakes?”
A play on the stage is not only different in nature from its point of origin in the script but it is never exactly the same from one rehearsal or performance to another. Most plays at the tenth day of rehearsal are miserably dull. A set which looks “great” may be causing a short circuit in the proceedings – a fact that only the most trained observer may notice.
A fine actor who later will give a brilliant performance sometimes develops rather haltingly at rehearsal (or vice versa). Marlon Brando might have been dismissed after the first five days of the “Truckline Café” rehearsals – the first play in which he scored. After the tenth day, it was again suggested that he be dismissed: nothing he did was “getting over.” If it had not been for Maxwell Anderson’s kindness and co-producer Elia Kazan’s support – “if you have faith in him, stick by him” – I might have been pressed into yielding.
The theater building itself (when too large or small) may modify the impact of a play. A nervous seizure (or “freeze”) on the part of a star on opening night (Michael Redgrave in “The Sleeping Prince”) may mortally influence the quality of a production – particularly a comedy – thoroughly enjoyed out of town. The social atmosphere or historical moment (a declaration of war, a stock crash, an economic depression or the weight of a bad theatrical season) may alter the audience’s reaction to a play.
The composition of an audience is extremely important to the fate of a play. Hence, plays fail in one town and succeed in another. This is true within the boundaries of one country; it is more emphatically evident when one compares reactions to the same play in New York, Paris and London.
Yet there is joy in creation even as there must be pain. If rehearsals are conducted — as many are – with love and mutual regard on all sides, a wonderful sense of community grows in a theater troupe that is hard to match in any other collective enterprise elsewhere. ◆ 1961
The Group Theatre Diary
(excerpts from the Group Theatre’s first summer in Brookfield Center, Connecticut
by Harold Clurman
“EVERYTHING IS AT A STAND STILL and everything is going forward. This is an objective fact and yet I am in so peculiar a state of mind that I almost wonder whether this objective fact is not merely a reflection of my own mood.
Never have I so desired to cut myself off from time – past and future – and from the rest of the world. Never have I had so little desire to receive mail, to write letters or to acknowledge in my own way the existence of a world outside The Group!
When I hear that one of our people has gone to New York or requests information to go, I feel almost pained that they can remember other obligations and harbor desires unrelated to our immediate life here; and contact with other people in the hell of New York inspires in me the dread of contamination. It is as if everything outside the Group were somehow impure.
But curiously enough something within me contradicts this feeling. The actors seem to have lost the future more completely than I have. They appear to dwell more wholly in the present moment. Their confidence in the reality and perpetual continuance of The Group – as sure as the reality of snowflakes – is exactly what I hoped for and what, for some strange reason, disquiets me. They act as if they were an external summer, as if they were going to be able to discuss their parts, do affective memory exercises, play the victrola, swim, play tennis and dress in pajamas forever.
There is not enough pathos! In their enjoyment of their new life, I would have them realize in all of their carefree pleasure how difficult the achievement of this “summer’s paradise” was born, how terribly hard it is going to be to perpetuate it amidst the external realities of the winter and the New York coming season.
This is just as it should be: the actors – the flock – are happy, believing in their leaders, while their leaders question the future, and ask themselves whether they will be permitted to go on as they dreamed – and themselves these questions within themselves – fervent hope and passionate fear, for The Group has come to be the only life for them and for the actors.
These are the things I secretly wish the actors would feel more often so that this confidence would become something more than the childlike passion it generally is.” ◆ 1931
by Harold Clurman
THE CREATIVE MOMENT IN ART occurs when the thing shown makes the spirit leap into that realm where we seem to be set free by the experience of some essence of being.
Without this all entertainment – no matter how well wrought – holds us down to a mere exercise of the surface faculties, and offers no release. With this we enter the world of aesthetics which, to paraphrase Anatole France, is to ‘walk in the clouds.’
What I found myself reflecting about when I saw Henry Moore’s sculpture and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art was not so much the elemental qualities of his work as the pertinence of his pronouncements which serve as a kind of introduction to it.
“A work can have in it a pent-up energy,” Moore says, “an intense life of its own, independent of the object it may represent. When a work has this powerful vitality we do not connect the word ‘beauty’ with it....Beauty in the later Greek and Renaissance sense is not the aim of my sculpture.
Between beauty of expression and power of expression there is a difference of function. The first aims at pleasing the senses, the second has a spiritual vitality which for me is more moving and goes deeper than the senses.”
I am in sympathy with Mr. Moore’s intention, but I fear his statement is misleading. What Mr. Moore means, in the first place, is that prettiness is not his objective. It is wrong, however, to concede that beauty may be the attribute and goal of one kind of art, while “spiritual vitality” occupies another category. Who today would say that the obviously ingratiating music of Mozart is beautiful, while Beethoven, whose music was once regarded as shockingly cacophonous, is not beautiful?
I much prefer Ibsen’s statement about “Peer Gynt”: “If it isn’t poetry today, it will be tomorrow!”
Walt Whitman, too, faced this problem when he declared that what he sought was “not beauty but expression.” Art that merely pleases the senses is not beautiful, and an art that has a rough and even repellent aspect may be beautiful. The reason such defenses as Henry Moore’s have to be made is that in our time beauty has become synonymous with the pleasing and vulgarized as the pretty.
Art has become a pastime, a salve, an opiate. In these circumstances, art as such must die in either a sterile academicism or a trivial debauchery.
Beauty has many faces. It can inform the glowering Christianity of a Russian icon as well as the graces of a pagan statue. It resides in the gentlest psalm and in the harshest words of the prophets. Whitman’s best work is beautiful, with a beauty different from that of Keats. El Greco is certainly as beautiful as Raphael. The “spiritual vitality” that Henry Moore speaks of must be immanent in the beautiful works he refers to or they are not beautiful, and his own work must be beautiful if it has “spiritual vitality.”
The critic’s job is always to discover and define the particular kind of “spiritual vitality,” “beauty,” or expression that may lie in each body of work that he encounters. ◆ 1947
Art Is A Responsibility
by Harold Clurman
IF THEATER IS AN ART, then it must be capable of yielding some of the results in human significance that we associate with the other arts. When I speak of the theater, however, I do not speak of it simply as a subsidiary or annex of literature.
When and in what way do acting and directing – the whole process of theatrical production becomes creative? This is the central issue to which I shall be obliged to return to reply to the initial query apropos of my “toughness,” as well as to arrive at some standard of theatrical judgment.
We can neither see nor share what the artist gives us if we are intent only on manifesting our pleasure in bestowing approval. Our mania for the great is self-intoxicant, an egocentric indulgence rather than a tribute. Since most of us soon exhaust the pleasure we take in ourselves, we are quick to discard the objects that afford us the excuse for such exercise. We look around for something new to give ourselves a thrill with; we find something else that is “great.” The manufacturers of publicity are familiar with this mechanism and live by exploitation.
Our mania has two victims: the artist and the public. The artist, hungry for appreciation, imagines that our enthusiasm serves him. It does serve him commercially – which is one of the reasons why he cannot guess its danger – but it soon becomes a poison. It is a poison when the artist learns – as he must – that the enthusiasm is superficial, ephemeral, made to please ourselves rather than to reward him. He feels more lonely than ever when we have turned to our new enthusiasm. But the most toxic effects of our enthusiasm comes from its emphasis, which is not actually on what the artist has made, not on the artist as a subject for flattery.
The artist can only grow when he keeps his sources, his material, and the object of his creation constantly before him. The moment the artist puts himself before his work as a thing with a life and dignity of its own, the artist deteriorates. Art is a responsibility as well as a “release.”
The artist is himself in service – to the things that have moved him, and to the thing that has come before him, both of which always exist beyond his ego.
The nature of man is to know,” Aristotle said. Art is a knowing. It arises from our contact with the world outside and within. Life is a challenge from the day of our birth. ◆ 1958
A Critic’s Credo
by Harold Clurman
Recently I was introduced to a gentleman as a person about to stage a new play.“What do you think of it? I was asked. “It’s a good play,” I answered. “Ah, I notice you are careful not to say it’s great,” he remarked. I then explained that in the history of the theatre from Aeschylus to Axelrod there were probably less than a hundred plays I would call indisputably great. Not all of Euripides, Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen or Chekhov is great. Shaw, Pirandello, O’Neill, Brecht, Beckett, Genet are important but I hesitate to call them great.
The use of the designation, depends on one’s frame of reference. If one believes a play may retain its efficacy for, let us say, fifty years, one may reasonably call it great though that is not the yardstick by which I measure. In contemporary American Theatre criticism the word has come to signify gushing enthusiasm, as similarly indicated by such a phrase as “the best play of several seasons.”
With us, the superlative is largely an implement of first aid to the box office. Our theater and its status among us are in such a sorry plight that when a reviewer labels a play, “good” or “interesting,” we take it to mean ‘mediocre,’ hardly worth the expense of seeing it. Only a “money notice” is considered a favorable review – something having at least the force of a full-page newspaper ad. Criticism in such an atmosphere is perilously difficult. Theater managers who complain about the reviewers do not want criticism; they want praise verging on hysterics. This generally holds true for playwrights and actors as well.
The reaction on the part of some critics to this journalistic inflation is to reverse the process: to preserve their critical chastity they assume an attitude of absolute severity. They will have nothing but the “best,” they insist on “the highest standards.” One cannot be too extreme, they feel, in defense of excellence. Such a posture strikes me, as no less false, than the promiscuity of those addicted to raving about any presentation that can decently be commended at all.
For while some absolute standard must be latent in the critic’s mind if he is to give any play its proper place, it is not at all necessary or desirable to judge every new play on the basis of that ideal. There is even something inimical to art in such a practice.
“Masterpieces,” says Auden, “should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit.” That is certainly not to deny that we need organizations to keep masterpieces perennially in view. But what we must demand, above all in plays, is that they speak to us, stir us in ways which most intimately and powerfully stir our senses and our souls, penetrate to the core what is most truly alive in us. To do so, plays do not have to have the stamp of universality on them, of impeccable inspiration, or signs of topflight genius. They have to be the consistent and persuasive expression of genuine perception, individual in origin, social in application. Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Moliere are prototypes of dramatic greatness. It must be evident that many second, third, fourth and fifth-rate plays may also fulfill the function of usable art.
It is no special feat to determine greatness retrospectively. The critic who implies that nothing less than the absolutely first-rate will do is usually more pedant than artist. Immortality awards are best conferred by our descendants.
“A ‘high standard,’” said Henry James, “is an excellent thing, but we fancy it sometimes takes away more than it gives.” We live more fully on what we create now than on what was created for us in the past. That is as true for audiences as for the makers and doers.
Since we are speaking of the total phenomenon of the theater, rather than of drama alone, we must remind ourselves that masterpieces, badly produced or produced at the wrong time and place, cease to occupy their exalted position; in fact they no longer serve the purposes of art. Under the proper circumstances, on the stage and in the auditorium, plays of more modest literary pretensions may excel them.
I am often given to understand that Sophocles was a greater dramatist than O’Neill. I need no such instruction. It is none the less true that most productions of Sophocles (and of other Greek masters) have struck me as singularly empty, while certain O’Neill staged plays have impressed me deeply.
We have also learned that some dramatists of unquestioned stature – Goethe, Kleist, Racine, Strindberg – do not have the same impact in one country as in another, or make the impression they presumably should, even upon their own people at all times. Talent of every kind, even small talent, must always be credited. That is particularly so of talent close to us in time and place.
I do not suggest that we follow Herman Melville’s injunction: “Let America first praise mediocrity in her children before she praises...the best excellence in children of other lands.” I submit, however, that a sense of the present, and of presence, are factors which it is unwise to overlook or underestimate.
But the critical faculty does not consist only in recognizing talent; there must be also an ability to evaluate it. The American Theatre is richly supplied (I almost said lousy) with talent, but too often talent not worthy enough or put to the best uses.
This raises an aspect of theater criticism in which we are decidedly at fault. Our praise is usually the response to an effect, a register of stimulation. We applaud the person who produces the effect in an acclaim which ranges from a compliment to cleverness to the proclamation of genius. But what counts in talent is its specific gravity, its meaning, how and in what way it affects us, the human nourishment it offers us. Cyanide of potassium is tremendously effective, but it is not food.
Everything – even the damnable – must be expressed in the theater. I cannot hold anything to be true unless tested by its opposite. I need Beckett’s negations if for no other reason than that they fortify me in my affirmations. I need Genet’s “decadence” to sustain my health. I embrace the madness in certain modem dramatists to find my balance.
To be sure, there is authentic “far out” writing and there is its fashionable simulacrum; it is the critic’s task to distinguish between them. He must sift the stuff which composes each particular talent, assess its value for and in itself, and in relation to himself as a person representative of a certain public.
“Entertainment,” “good theater,” “beauty” are not enough. We must know what these virtues actually do, how they work. The critic’s main job, I repeat, is not to speak of his likes or dislikes as pleasure or distaste alone, but to define as exactly as possible the nature of what he examines.
It were best to do this without the use of tags intended for quotes to be read on the run. Merit in acting is weighed chiefly by the degree of personal appeal it exercises. The actor is rarely judged for his relevance to the play as a whole since the play’s meaning to begin with is frequently unspecified. To speak to the point about acting, the critic must judge the texture and composition of the role as the player shapes it through his natural endowment and through the authority of his craft.
Perhaps critics should not be held to too-strict account for neglect or oversight in the matter of acting, direction, etc., since most acting and direction on our stage today, for reasons we must refrain from entering into in the present context, is rarely better than competent. In such cases a consideration in depth. becomes supererogatory when it is not pretentious.
Still, even with actors as eminent as Laurence Olivier, Alfred Lunt, Paul Scofield, Jean-Louis Barrault, or with directors as accomplished as Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Brook, Orson Welles, what our critics have to say usually comes down to little more than catch phrases, a bleat of unreserved enthusiasm or regretted disapproval.
In this connection I must cite a fact first called to my attention by Jacques Copeau, the actor-director who strongly influenced Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin and a whole generation of European theater folk from 1913 to 1941: “There have been fewer great actors in the history of the theatre than great dramatists.”
The new season begins, and no doubt, I shall often make hash in my columns of many of my own prescriptions. In extenuation I can only urge that while I am not sure I agree with an admirable literary critic I heard lecture many years ago in Paris who said, “The artist has every right; a critic only obligations,” I always bear it in mind. ◆ 1964
Thoughts on Art, Michael Chekhov,
by Harold Clurman
It matters very little with what tools or through what devices an art object is made. Artists have always used whatever material they found in their environment. I am sure that much of the melody in classic compositions is based on common folk music that is too obscure now for us to recognize as such modern paintings reveal more cafe scenes than cathedrals because our artists frequent the former more often than the latter.
It is alleged that Racine’s vocabulary was limited to five hundred ordinary French words. Only what is conveyed matters.
Inventiveness may be valued as a quality of an artist’s endowment; by itself it does not assure us of anything outside itself-not eve originality. I know of a composer whose melodic gift is quite steady and rich. Yet he has not achieved important body of work.
Every artist has a statement to make. We judge him not by the terms employed in making it but by the final worth of his statement.
It is really of little moment whether an old composer like Chopin is better than a new one like Roy Harris! Each is as inevitable, unique, and necessary as the other. It is ultimately of very little real interest to be informed that Velasquez was a more gratifying artist than Picasso. No artist takes the place of another for precisely the same reason that it is futile to tell us that people in the Middle Ages were luckier than we because they had faith. We live with and through our times.
The conditions of our life today, which must be our major concern if we are to live at all, produce artists that are not going to be Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Granting that the latter are ‘greater’ than those of the present, we should realize the urgency of knowing, appreciating and cultivating our own artists on their own grounds, in preference to living in stupefied contemplation of those of the .past. (We cannot carry on our life with Helen of Troy!) Roy Harris cannot give us what Chopin does, but Chopin cannot supply what is in Harris, and to confuse ourselves by comparisons of the two is to misunderstand both.
The fact that there has been a Chopin means that there cannot be another. That job, so to speak, has been done. Every life is irreplaceable; every life has its own function – is lived in some mysterious way under conditions which are always uniquely its own. This is especially true of the artist.
The critic’s business is to discover the individual life of the artist he is called upon to consider. The criticism that uses the past as a whip with which to punish the present is plagued by what might be called the trauma of the museum. It regards art not as something to be made but something to be received. It lies back and waits to be pleased.
Even the beholder of art must regard himself as an active witness, a maker. In this sense all art – old and new – is contemporary. We stand before and ask ourselves: “What is this doing to me now? What can I do with it now?” And our present values of life rather than of ‘‘art’ will dictate our judgment or use of it.
Audiences should make it their permanent motto that in life to accept no substitutes. The function of criticism in our time might well confine itself to one problem: to expose the fraud of all of such substitutes. What is wrong with them is that they tend to render life meaningless. What we increasingly suffer from in our day is what a poet has called ‘”the terror of no meaning.” This is the case so common and so little considered a subject as in acting.
Some of the best acting may be seen; not in the big climaxes of plays and movies, but in hardly noticeable transitional moments. An example of what I am referring to could be seen in the film, “Spellbound.” The two major performers – Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck – were called on to tell this picture’s unlikely story so that it might be temporarily acceptable and interesting. But though this task was handsomely fulfilled, there was no moment in their acting that was anything more than good imitation. The picture’s only vitality was that of Michael Chekhov. He was not a cog in the machine of the story, but a living person. Chekhov is one of the few great actors of our time.
But what he does in motion pictures hardly represents even the surface of his talents. Through his playing in a Russian repertory, he gave us a series of magnificent stage portrayals in a season that passed practically unnoticed on Broadway in 1935. His film performances – including the one in “Spellbound” – are not true samples of his art. They are routine performances. But with him, an entrance, an exit, walking across a room with a glass of milk, lying down, looking, listening, become dramatic.
No matter what the scene, we feel ourselves in the presence of human experience. What he does, takes on meaning almost apart from the concrete instance of the picture’s plot. It is as if he needed no actual role; his acting is a kind of agent of life-focused, pointed, and expressive. He makes the juices of life circulate.
Through him we learn once more that we have but to watch any moment of concentrated behavior to be fascinated. The smallest action thoroughly carried out seems to contain a kind of universal essence. This, in little, is the mystery of acting, one might almost say the mystery of life! It illustrates anew that, just as in painting an apple may equal a Madonna, so in acting that has living texture there is more real drama than in the most intricate technical ingenuity.
All this might be summed up by saying that in Michael Chekhov – whether or not he creates a character – we are still in the presence of a whole man. With alarming rapidity, our artists are being reduced to the status of functions. Observe our publicity. Actors and actresses are advertised as the Body, the Voice, the Look, the Nose, the Pout, and soon it will be the Bust and the Unmentionable.
This is no accident. It is merely a vulgarization of what is happening on a world scale. People are valued for their commercially useful attributes. They are commodities for sale. The part has outdistanced the whole. Our vision of man as a total organism is fast disappearing, and because of this it looks very much as if soon man himself will disappear.
This breakup in our concept of man corresponds to the splitting of the atom. The atom was our last rugged individualist, but we have learned how to disintegrate it. Just as the history of the arts since the end of the nineteenth century, painting for example, may be interpreted as an ever more minute division and detailing of parts, so the human personality today may be said to be under-going the same process of fission.
The concept of wholeness is breaking down in every phase of existence. It is the great modern catastrophe. In the world of social affairs its danger is more or less recognized in the world of the arts which means the world of human relationships. The danger is not only not seen, but its manifestations are cheerfully, even hysterically embraced. It is the ultrafashionable, the smart, the popular. Every faith, thought, idea, word today is fissionable. And 3how we love the particles! ◆ 1965
by Harold Clurman
We hear much talk nowadays about the theater of participation in which the audience and players fuse and become part of one another. The impulse which prompts propaganda for that sort of theatre is a healthy one. It harks back to the theater’s origins. Its recurrence now as a battle cry of the younger generation has social meaning.
But it should escape no one that the theater is and always has been the product of such fusion. The theater is inconceivable in any other terms. Theater is a particular mode of expression through which a community realizes itself. The audience is the theater’s wellspring, it’s leading actor. This is not a metaphor; it is an historical fact.
Questions and Answers…
If the sources of the theater are rooted in the community in which it is situated, does this not restrict the choice of plays to the narrow interests of the local scene?
Though I deplore a theater which neglects the patrimony of the past, I confess a predilection for the newly created. Not because the latter is superior to the old – obviously this is not so – but because the art of theater, an art of presence, is the art of the present. Shakespeare and other masters of the past are, as Jan Kott and others have pointed out, our contemporaries. Their greatness transcends the limits of time and many cultural differences. In the theater they reveal their contemporaneity only when they are felt and projects in response to our innermost needs. This is not to be construed to mean that they must be made ‘topical,’ for example, Julius Caesar as Mussolini, Shylock as an East Side peddler or King Lear as an example of latter day nihilism.
The theater is not a museum, a treasure house to commemorate absent wonders; it is a vehicle for the manifestation of the joys and travails of our existence. The greater the scope and profundity of its revelations, the more universal it becomes. But it always begins with the now.
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What do I do about the resistant actor, the one who disagrees with your interpretation of a part?
Before answering the question, it is important to realize that refractoriness in an actor has diverse, not always immediately recognizable causes. Vanity may enter into it, or a too-great susceptibility to criticism, a fear of disapproval, a ‘star’ complex, unfamiliarity with the director’s mode of procedure and other peculiarities. Every director invents or improvises ‘tricks’ to deal with the individual actors’ hang-ups.
In the Moscow Art Theatre company, there was an actor Stanislavsky believed lacked self-confidence. The actor was always breaking down with a sense of inadequacy after his finest flights in a role. Stanislavsky instructed his company to prepare placards on which were inscribed something like “You are a superb artist.” Whenever Stanislavsky noticed an attack of inferiority tremors was about to overpower the actor, he would call on the others to parade around the despondent man. This always produced the desired affect: the actor felt refreshed.
In directing Thomas Mitchell as Willy Loman in the touring company of “Death of a Salesman,” I found no matter how brief a remark I made about some small point, he would elaborate with extended comments of his own to show me not only that he understood what I had said, but that he understood better. After all, he was a veteran actor and director many years before I had begun my career. I realized that if I betrayed impatience or attempted to silence him he would resent it. On the other hand, if I let him continue to interpolate his disquisitions at every bit of direction I proposed, the rehearsals would deteriorate into hours of futile discourse.
I ceased offering him any direct guidance. I would turn instead to whomever he was playing a scene with and say something like: “You are annoyed because your father has just reprimanded you,” or “Willy has begun to plead with you so touchingly that you answer in kind,” or “You see in Willy’s face the clouds of anger gather and you try to calm his impending fury.” In other words, I directed Mitchell through his partners in the scene. The stratagem worked.
But my principal maxim in cases of personal difficulty with an actor is: Never, never, never win an argument with him, never persuade him that he is ‘wrong,’ just get him to do what you want! A director who insists that he is always absolutely right is indulging his own ego. Much rehearsal time is wasted through such indulgence. Still! When an actor tells me that he differs with me, I usually say, “Don’t talk, show me.” If his demonstration fails to convince me, I can explain why what he has shown me doesn’t fulfill the play’s or the scene’s demands. The actor more often than not will then turn back to the directorial suggestions which he had initially rejected!
Does the director call additional rehearsals after the play has opened?
He should. It is difficult to keep a production in shape after three months of playing. We rejoice in a long run, but it is artistically debilitating. A director should check on his production at least twice a month. I say this glibly, but the truth is that during my first years as a director I positively loathed seeing one of my productions after it had opened; I was nearly always disappointed at my failure to accomplish all I had hoped for. But since then self-discipline has prevailed.
Apropos of this, I recall speaking to the brilliant Czech director, Ottomar Krejca, about his beautiful production “The Three Sisters.” Though I admired it, I found much in it subject to cavil. A year later, on seeing it again, I told him that now liked it much more. “Ah, but we’ve been working on it ever since we opened,” he said. The play, to begin with, had been rehearsed for many months.
It was in repertory. Elia Kazan once told me that after six months of a continuous run, actors are unable to retain either the glow or the just proportions of their original performance: they lose their resilience. I agree.
There are exceptions. I saw Walter Huston in “Desire Under the Elms” four times over a period of twelve months. Each performance was better than the previous one. One day after many months of playing in “Awake in Sing,” I noticed Stella Adler examining the “book” of her part. I asked her why. “I’m looking over the notes I took at rehearsal,” she answered. I’m trying to see if I’ve lost something of the original intentions and if there are new ways to recharging the battery.”
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A sixteen-year-old student once asked me: “What is the worst thing that happens to a director?”
My answer was: “You see from all I’ve told you how thoughtfully, how painstakingly, how sincerely and how knowledgeably I labor on a production. Yet for all that my efforts to bring about the hoped for result may be in vain. The magic doesn’t happen I fail.” “What do you do then,” the candid youth asked. “I forgive myself.”
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In the judgement of theater, we must first of all understand what goal is being sought, what the artists are endeavoring to communicate. We must believe in what we see and ascertain what value we attach to what we see and are asked to believe.
I believe in the Noh Theatre, I believe in the great clowns. I believe in Edward Villella’s leaps, I believe Violette Verdy and Allegra Kent, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham. I believe in superb acrobat. All have their reality – as well as deadly imitators. Whether we think of their different realities as an “imitation of life” or not matters little except to pedants: they are manifestations of life.
What do we expect from the theater? It is not merely a question of novel techniques for these must be ultimately judged by their contribution to our human needs, our aspirations, moral concerns and philosophies. These questions lead to the role played by the audience in the theater. ◆ 1972
(Excerpts from On Directing, Published by Macmillan Books.)
All People Are Famous: Instead of an Autobiography
by Harold Clurman
GETTING TO KNOW PEOPLE, whoever they may be, is what’s important: life, after all, is just one person or another. This may be an odd statement for me to make in a book where so many famous people have appeared. But then what is fame?
Copland sat in a café in the Paris of 1938 with Sandy Meisner, who had come over for a weekend from London, where he was acting as Kazan’s understudy in “Golden Boy.” Someone who had known Copland happened along, greeted him, and sat down at the table.
Soon Meisner left for an appointment, and the man who had joined Copland asked, “Who was that fellow?”
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John Barrymore as Hamlet. In all my years of play-going I have never seen an American actor more richly endowed than John Barrymore. Yet, like a number of other greatly gifted actors, Barrymore was contemptuous of the stage. He wanted desperately to be a painter, but he had come to realize he would never be a good one. Whether it was this or deeper psychological causes that were at the root of his self-destructive bent I cannot say but still there was always an air of grandeur about him.
When I was given the opportunity to sit beside him at lunch in the Paramount dining room, I was all fascinated attention. Rapt in grim meditation, he said little. His answers to the casual questions were short and rather sullen.
When the waitress serving him asked him what he would like. He noticed that I smiled at his answer. “What’re you smiling at?” he barked.
“I observe,” I answered, “that you have one tone of voice when you speak to a man and quite another when you speak to a woman.”
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“While serving as a play-reader for the Theatre Guild (which was during the years of 1929 to 1931), I wrote letters to various novelists and poets asking if they had written or were planning to write a play. Hemingway answered: “You ask me if I’ve written a play. Who the hell hasn’t?” Hemingway’s play, “The Fifth Column,” was produced several years later by The Theatre Guild and directed by Lee Strasberg.
My happiest experience in reading plays occurred during the Group Theatre days. A script had been submitted which began: “Act One: Ten thousand years before the creation of man. Act Two: Two weeks later.”
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Though a theater man by profession, fascinated from early boyhood by all manner of spectacle, I didn’t choose to make a career of the theater till I was twenty-three.
Before that, and ever after it was not just the theatre but all the arts that attracted me. Aaron Copland, who has played an important role in my life, said to me when we were young, “Art is your religion.” I was troubled by the statement at the time because I realized it contained an element of truth, but today I could go as far as to deny it.
Art for me is the bearer of an essence far more profound even than religion. Brecht called this essence “the art of life,” but even that is inadequate. Perhaps it would be best not to name it all. Names are prone to vulgarization, to obsolescence. Think of what has happened to “God,” to “law and order.”
But whatever that essence may be – and it is surely a holy spirit – I seek it in some of the people around me, that is, in their actions. And the artist’s most worthy action is usually his creation. ◆ 1974 (Excerpts from All People Are Famous: Instead of an Autobiography by Harold Clurman).
The Future of Theatre
by Harold Clurman
The productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), whatever their individual merit, interest me less as subjects for review than as a new attempt to establish a “a resident classical repertory company…a lasting and vigorous institution.”
One of the first such efforts was the valiant but ill-conceived New Theatre, established in 1909 at the enormous new Century Theatre. It was situated on Central Park West and 63rd Street, at that time too far uptown for the average playgoer. Though many of its participants were distinguished theater people, the project was doomed by the incongruity of its theater’s physical size, its location and the weakness of its repertory in relation to the climate of the period.
More viable was Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre, established in 1926 on West 14th Street, where the company produced thirty-six plays for 1,581 performances at a top price of $1.50. The Wall Street crash of 1929 robbed the venture of its subsidy – and a subsidy, it should be emphasized, is indispensable at all times and everywhere for theaters that aim at continuity of production.
Le Gallienne’s Repertory Theatre was not composed of a particularly brilliant roster of actors – though there were a few excellent ones among them – but its productions were intelligent and faithful to the literal intention of plays of Ibsen and Chekhov and other nineteenth-century European playwrights – the mainstay of the repertory – and thus important at the time.
Without drawing up a complete list of the movements, which made permanent theater companies their goal, one must not fail to recall the pleasant Neighborhood Playhouse on Grant Street in the 1920’s, supported by Irene and Aline Lewesohn. Then, too, out of the early strivings of The Provincetown Players, which first introduced Eugene O’Neill, grew both the MacDougal Street Provincetown Playhouse and the Greenwich Village Theatre at Sheridan Square. They too sought to maintain a permanent company. But when O’Neill was taken up by the commercial managements there was little life or hope left for the Village pioneers.
The Theatre Guild was certainly the most successful and prestigious of the attempts to form a permanent theatre of distinction. It concentrated at first on challenging contemporary European plays, employing some of the best American actors – Lunt, Fontanne, Dudley Digges – and later, it produced a number of O’Neill’s plays, such as “Strange Interlude” and “The Iceman Cometh.” The Guild virtually ended its career with “Oklahoma!”
The history of The Group Theatre is too well known to be repeated here. Perhaps its most remarkable achievement is that, without any subsidy at all, it maintained most of its company throughout its career and became in a very real sense the emblematic organization (apart from the Federal Theatre Project) of the 1930’s.
The point of this sad sketch is that we must come to understand why our sincere efforts to establish a repertory company have ended, with hardly any exceptions, in disappointment. The reason is not simply an absence of such a tradition in our country.
The fact is we still do not know what theateris, how it comes into being, what it is meant to accomplish and consequently how it is to be generated.
A theater is not a shop. It is not a well-administered assortment of talented actors, directors and worthy scripts.
A theater is the projection of a spirit, a style, a technique embodying a specific cultural attitude, a social direction and meaning, a “face” which corresponds or responds to some deeply rooted hope, hunger, anxiety or preoccupation of a sizable part of the community within which it functions. Its very idea of craft, its methods and its manner of organization are calculated to voice its human aim.
The choice of a company is not a matter of collecting able performers but of educating and inspiring men and women of talent who possess a similar moral disposition. It takes time. This especially true in such a heterogeneous civilization as ours.
Unabashedly, I would declare that for a theater to exist as such – rather than as a market for commodities or entertainment – it must partake to a considerable degree of the nature of a cult. The present experience and more time for consideration of all its problems…may lead to a clear expression of artistic intent.
For a theater to grow, continuity of activity is indispensable. ◆ 1980
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