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Vanishing Acts

Vanishing Acts: Theater Since the Sixties

Gordon Rogoff
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Vanishing Acts
    Book Description:

    In this outstanding collection of critical writings, some published here for the first time, Gordon Rogoff tells the story of live theater in America over the past forty years. His view of modern drama and its performance is rich with the insights of both a discerning critic and an individual for whom the making of theater is a passion. As Rogoff explores the topics of acting, directing, playwriting, Shakespeare productions, opera, and theater criticism, he celebrates live theater's victories over new realms while deploring the threat of imitative repertories, acting styles, and playwriting. Throughout the book he underscores his conviction that dramatic literature and performance may be taken as a book of instruction for the way we lead our lives.Rogoff ranges widely in his discussions, considering the work of Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Ariane Mnouchkine, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Alban Berg, and Tony Kushner among others, and the performances of such actors as Laurence Olivier, Donald Wolfit, Judi Dench, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Lee J. Cobb, Vanessa Redgrave, and Geraldine Page. He registers dissenting notes about the accomplishments of Joseph Papp, Eugene O'Neill, and Arthur Miller. In his concluding essay, Rogoff contends that nostalgia-"our millennial nemesis"-may be a way of forgetting rather than remembering.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14559-5
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Acting and Directing

    • The Figure in the Carpet: Peter Brook and Erland Josephson
      (pp. 3-6)

      Great actors are always right. When Erland Josephson’s Gaev sniffs the air around him while preparing to leave his sister Ranevskaya’s estate during Chekhov’s breathless coda toThe Cherry Orchard, he asks, “What is this smell of herring?” In an instant, recognizing the source—Yasha, Ranevskaya’s valet, returned from Paris with half-learned graces—he brandishes a huge white handkerchief, swatting the upstart like an arrant fly. Gaev’s done this sort of thing before: Yasha always seems to be trailing cheap scents into the vicinity of his cultivated nose. The estate may be lost, and life has passed him by almost...

    • E.B. on Acting: Eric Bentley
      (pp. 6-13)

      Eric Bendey has never been swept away by the tidal waves of romantic slush so often reserved for actors and the art of acting. If somebody slighted Uta Hagen’s Joan (in Shaw’s play) as a performance “pieced together,” Bendey caught immediately that behind the pejorative remark was a popular respect for “something vague, sweeping, impressionistic,” precisely what he was avoiding in his own performance appraisals. Instantly, he turned it around; “pieced together could mean something else”: the selection of “bits of reality ... the way a peasant girl walks ... to be rendered step by step.” If you notice her...

    • The Low Points: The Wooster Group
      (pp. 13-15)

      How quickly the Avant falls behind its guard. The Wooster Group’sThe Road to Immortality—revised from their 1982L.S.D.—fights battles already won and is showing unmistakable signs of visual exhaustion: that table stretched across the raised platform covered with microphones, a typewriter, some audio equipment, a telephone, and the obligatory T.V. monitor. In this context, one monitor may constitute a strategic retreat and, therefore, a revolution: Peter Hall is currently framing the proscenium of the Lyttelton at the National Theater with sixteen monitors and accompanying soundtrack noise for Stephen Poliakoff’sComing in to Land. And was it only...

    • Buzz Words: Ping Chong
      (pp. 16-18)

      Ping Chong’sKindnessbegins with a slide lecture in which we are asked to note the similarities and differences found in two images or words. How, for example, are two geometric shapes alike and unalike? Answer: both are green, but one is on the left, the other on the right. Two other shapes might show a hot color next to a cool. Meanwhile, there is Quran on one side, Torah on the other, Think Tank and Tank Top, Chimera and Camera. For some of these, the voice-over offers no comment; for others, he records either what is obvious or, in...

    • Directorially Bound: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Wilson, and Others
      (pp. 18-21)

      Florence and Milan. With Ingmar Bergman finding unpredictable sexuality and violence in almost every scene ofHamlet, Robert Wilson turning Strauss’sSalomeinto an erotically charged masque for singers and mimes, and Klaus Michael Grüber presenting Aeschylus’sPrometheusin a translation by Peter Handke that actually binds the god to the astonishingly high brick wall of the Piccolo Teatro, it can be said that, for one weekend, theater in Italy was refusing to be dead. No matter that Italian was to be heard only in the usual round of public discussions in both cities, where professors of theater history, art,...

    • Post-Neo-Vaudeville: Bill Irwin and Barbara Cook
      (pp. 21-24)

      Bill Irwin may be made of silly putty, but he’ll never be putty in the hands of critics. Clown, so-called new vaudevillian, he’s the best gadfly we have, buzzing away at hoity-toity theatrical conceits fussily presenting themselves as the bearers of the Word. Nobody escapes his wickedly inventive gaze inThe Regard of Flight. Using body—more than word—English, Irwin mocks postmodern pretensions, proving once again that the most telling “image” in theater is the actor triumphant.

      His trump card is himself—dreamer, baffled fugitive, a running-walking-fleeing distress signal in search of something truly pure. Instead, he meets M....

    • Cinderella Double Take: Anne Bogart
      (pp. 24-26)

      Like so many conceptual directors recently—Peter Brook, Peter Sellars, and Robert Wilson—Anne Bogart evidently wants to rescue traditions she views as boring. That her peculiar reduction of Massenet’sCendrillonmanages to invent new boredoms may well be her point: opera, for her, is an opportunity not to tell a story with clarity but to overwhelm its simplifications with hints that she knows something even deeper than music.

      What Bogart presents, however, is a fussy textual gloss on the music coupled with a restless series of gestures meant to illustrate every thought and line. When I say “meant to,”...

    • Future Lieder: John Kelly
      (pp. 26-28)

      Tears make flowers, sighs turn into a choir of nightingales, the soul sinks into a lily’s cup, and those flowers whisper and speak: imagine the lieder singer’s life, everlastingly condemned to yearn for impossible, dreamy, unrequitable love. This, at any rate, is the special mission of Schumann in his setting for sixteen of Heinrich Heine’s 1827 lyrics, theDichterliebe(Poet’s love), a cycle that makes only the vaguest pretension to a narrative line. Between them, Heine and Schumann follow the path of a neurasthenic young man in love with love—with the precious, delectable images he can find as his...

    • Power to the Actor: Donald Wolfit, Campbell Scott, and Others
      (pp. 28-32)

      Faced so consistently with actors maneuvered by auteur-directors who disdain them almost as much as they loathe the transparency of good playwriting, I’m prepared, at last, to confess that Donald Wolfit was one of the greatest actors I ever saw. By which I mean to indicate, quixotically perhaps, that great actors in the full sway of their passions, eccentricities, and startling ideas are likely to be more persuasive conduits to the interior of plays than postmodernist directors with their terrifying grip on arbitrary, decorative conception.

      Confession is called for in Wolfit’s case because he would appear to be the worst...

    • The Neutral Space: Judi Dench, Simon Callow, and Others
      (pp. 33-40)

      London theater, once and for all, is not the best in the world, but it does offer good actors a chance to do what is best for actors, and what they can’t do in the movies: complex roles under their own command. Too often, London neglects the polishing details. Four staircases keep lumbering on and off for the Royal Shakespeare Company’sHamlet(with Roger Rees), revealing their masking; even more absurdly, an actor climbs grandly up the steps only to be seen climbing down the (supposedly) offstage side. Similarly, the RSC’sMother Couragelast winter gave Judi Dench a wagon...

    • Carnal Knowledge: Ariane Mnouchkine
      (pp. 40-46)

      Montreal. It takes only an instant to realize that small talk plays no part in Ariane Mnouchkine’s repertoire. Her lion-maned shock of speckled gray hair recalls Beethoven, almost as if she had stumbled on the visible signs of her anachronistic identity—an eighteenth-century purist defying this most vulgar and indifferent century to stay out of her way. Which means, by analogy, that whatever she directs with her Théâtre du Soleil in Paris—and for the past two years it has beenLes Atrides, a titanic unearthing of Aeschylus’sOresteiatrilogy preceded by Euripides’Iphigenia in Aulis—she does with a...

    • Ibsen, Wilson, and the Play of Time: Robert Wilson
      (pp. 46-48)

      Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present” is not far removed from Robert Wilson’s theater, even less so, perhaps, when he is engaged in the reformation of a resistant text. Stein “found out a fundamental thing about plays ... that the scene as depicted on the stage is more often than not one might say it is always in syncopated time in relation to the emotion of anybody in the audience.” How characteristically delightful of Stein to see Wilson before he happens, and to see him, moreover, with wise qualifications sneaking into her sentences—“one might say” and “almost always.” One might say,...

    • The Presence of Joe: Joseph Chaikin
      (pp. 48-56)

      Even over the most convivial uncorking of a decent vintage, Joseph Chaikin continues to be a genie of hard labor, committed at all hours to the transformation of thought into theatrical statement and image. His head crooked to one side, as if straight answers might emerge only from angular prisms, he allows a festive giggle to fill a parenthesis, only to return in the next breath to the primordial ooze that fuels all his best work as actor, director, and teacher. He’s always been one of a kind, a guru to some, surely, but remarkably free of the postures that...

  6. Playwriting

    • Transfer at Elysian Fields: Tennessee Williams
      (pp. 59-64)

      So the last scene wasn’t the natural inevitable death he had always feared, but only a household accident. Ironic melodramatist to the end, Tennessee Williams didn’t die from the unwashed grape Blanche DuBois thought might finish her, but from an inhaled bottle cap. Not quite the exotic, hothouse ending he might have written, but close enough to bring the wry smile that he could always solicit amid the languid sighs and cracked hearts that keep colliding in his plays.

      To be a playwright in America, as Williams knew better than anyone, is to depend on the kindness of strangers, few...

    • Vienna Woulds: Arthur Schnitzler
      (pp. 64-66)

      This century’s late discovery of Arthur Schnitzler’s plays, densely packed, like Mahler’s symphonies, with sinewy passages of longing and chaos that burst almost discreetly into occasional screams, has not been a discovery shared fully in New York. About lost time and a time lost to us forever, the plays are also about life lived among others. Only a theater equipped to spread that life lavishly upon the stage—with hordes of actors and explosions of Klimtian glamour—can hope to meet Schnitzler’s terms while honoring his moral weight. That New York lacks such a theater is not exactly a secret....

    • Harmed Play: Mac Wellman
      (pp. 66-68)

      Santouche, in Mac Wellman’s seventy-minute epic fantasy,Harm’s Way, is male America on a rampage. In eleven brief scenes with music, he manages to kill five people: first a mother who has just murdered her stubborn child because the kid refused to eat American cheese and baloney on Wonder bread; then the leader of a gang; next a man calling himself William McKinley who has been trying to get a dead Grover Cleveland to bury him alive; then a con artist named Crowsfoot (also revealed as a carnival beast named Guyanousa) who has stolen Santouche’s girl; and finally the girl...

    • Coup de Lace: Joseph Kesselring
      (pp. 68-71)

      Getting away with murder is what all good comedies try to do.Arsenic and Old Lace’s enduring charm is that it doesn’t pretend to be doing anything else. Compared to the carnage seen on an average evening of flipped channels,Arsenic’s two dozen corpses, three attempted murders, and imminent homicide at the curtain represent a triumph of discretion, modesty, and healthy humor. What’s more, the murders are offstage.Arsenicfloats on subliminal clouds in which the horrors of the real world are always being mocked by the simpler lunacies of an imaginative realm.

      That realm doesn’t fuss about Great Themes,...

    • Not Fear Itself: Franz Xaver Kroetz
      (pp. 71-75)

      Franz Xaver Kroetz is merciless about most people’s little acceptances. Taking jobs or joblessness as natural conditions, Kroetz’s characters inhabit a landscape in which each sees the other as an ectoplasmic bundle of displaced energy and numbed accommodation. The joke—and the mercilessness—is that none of them see themselves. Living on the edge, yet rarely tipping over, they are finally protected by their own hysterical gestures or accidental insights. Kroetz knows what his characters acknowledge only in passing: that while action and talk can mean momentary rescue, resolution is a lie.

      The Kroetz landscape, therefore, comes into focus only...

    • Les Liaisons Abstruse: Heiner Müller
      (pp. 75-78)

      Heiner Müller may not be everybody’s idea of a humorist, but for Robert Wilson, Müller’sQuartet“is funny because it’s about role playing.” Unlike his source, Choderlos de Laclos’sLes Liaisons dangereuses, Müller’s version places the marquise de Merteuil and Valmont—those horrific ritual seducers—into one masquerade after another. Wilson calls their antics “parlor games,” a clue to his continuing hesitancy to judge or interpret. He is hard on French directors who have madeQuartet“too romantic,” and he’s equally dismissive of German directors who “make it too tragic.” Like Müller himself, who finds all his plays “relatively funny,”...

    • Comedy of Mannerisms: Somerset Maugham and S.N. Behrman
      (pp. 78-80)

      When an actor enters with his hands tightly woven behind his lower back, you know that you’re in for one of life’s encounters with the Prince Philip School of Acting. That mysteriously prestigious genre, the comedy of manners, may not be responsible for all the crimes of the twentieth century, but surely it accounts for some of the coldness and indifference found every day wherever people congregate to make each other miserable. Plays like Somerset Maugham’sThe Circle(1923) and S.N. Behrman’sThe Second Man(1927) are frigid models of the not-so-comic way in which “civilized” people wreck each other’s...

    • Posing for Playboy: John Millington Synge
      (pp. 81-83)

      When the “glory be to God” hypocrites rioted over Synge’sThe Playboy of the Western Worldin 1907, they were said to be ranting about a supposed insult to women in Synge’s use of the word “shift.” Yet surely some darker insight was at work, some intuitive shock that Synge was not one of them. Without judgment or disdain, he was plainly showing men at their worst and women as their resourceful, sex-starved victims. That early audience couldn’t be pacified by the play’s poetry, those extravagant phrases uttered on one arched breath as if words and their sounds were more...

    • Samish: Mike Nichols’s Godot; Frederick Neumann’s Worstward Ho
      (pp. 83-87)

      No point in waiting for the perfectGodot. If nothing else, Mike Nichols’s new production passes the time, which—as Gogo says—“would have passed in any case.” That one wants the play to pass into other realms, stopping time perhaps, is the unreasonable expectation set up by Beckett’s severe perfection—his ingenious purloining of tradition for new purposes, his insistence on the stage as a pitiless, enclosed universe, his refusal to solve anything. Theater, however, rarely shows pity to playwrights: Beckett’s theatrical universe today is as hard a nut for us to crack asLearused to be until...

    • All-Consuming and Condescending: Pam Gems
      (pp. 87-89)

      “Trust me, trust me, Armand, trust me,” says Marguerite in Pam Gems’s extravagantly awfulCamille, a revision of Alexandre Dumas fils’sLa Dame aux caméliasevidently meant to rescue Marguerite from male romantic clutches. What fate could be worse, however, than Gems’s miserable prose? It was easy to lose count of the “trust me”s during the play’s waning moments; when Gems can find nothing to say, she says it again. Poor Marguerite, less in need of pseudofeminist twists than she is of a distinctive eloquence that might truly liberate her. Gems roughs up Dumas’s story a bit, giving Marguerite a...

    • Bound and Gagged: Neil Simon
      (pp. 90-92)

      Neil Simon isn’t kidding: after the longest, most remunerative apprenticeship in playwriting history, he still wants to be a Jewish Chekhov or Tennessee Williams.Broadway Boundis the obligatory first play he never wrote, the one in which the dramatist celebrates his presumed talent by showing us his roots.

      Driven, perhaps, by similar demons, Chekhov wisely avoided his own history, choosing inThe Seagullto group family and friends as a metaphor for the distance between the will to create and the gift. Chekhov is hard on everybody: for him, nothing will rescue the mediocre from their pretenses and shabbiness....

    • A House Is Not a Poem: Federico García Lorca
      (pp. 92-94)

      Heresy to say so, but Federico García Lorca’sThe House of Bernarda Albais an opera without music and therefore not a good play. Drama, the cruelest art, was no kinder to Lorca than it was to other modern poets. Better ones—Yeats and Eliot—tried either divine afflatus or parched authority. Yet nothing worked: the dramatic center could not hold. Meanwhile, lesser poets such as Maxwell Anderson and Christopher Fry, huffing and puffing toward the condition of music, ran out of breath before even reaching the condition of drama—in which characters are in the grip of ideas and...

    • All My Plots: Arthur Miller
      (pp. 94-96)

      All My Sonsshouldn’t work, not even for an instant: Arthur Miller crammed so many transparent story lines into the single 1946 day and night spent in Joe and Kate Keller’s backyard that the play feels constantly as if it might drop dead from exhaustive coincidence. That it lives at all is a tribute to Miller’s reliable advances into what Ibsen used to call “the great scene.” Neither in plotting nor in scenemaking is Miller equal to Ibsen’s best—he’s too soppy and schematic for that—but despite the sweat, he finally finds those end-of-the-tether moments when characters are released...

    • Serving Two Masters: Carlo Goldoni and Cole Porter
      (pp. 96-99)

      Strange how two comic unearthings, so distant from each other—Luca Ronconi’s painstaking four-hour traversal of Carlo Goldoni’sLa serva amorosa(The loving servant-girl) and Jerry Zaks’s butterfly remaking of Cole Porter’sAnything Goes—should choose to emerge in their first moments from twilit darkness and tentative hush. Ronconi begins almost as if unlocking a vault: his diaphanous act-curtain has barely swept mysteriously across the proscenium when a voice is heard from one of two figures in silhouette, “In this room we can speak privately.” Here, surprisingly, is anything but formula commedia dell’arte; in an instant, Ronconi has banished the...

    • Half-Caste: Jean Racine and Tony Harrison
      (pp. 100-102)

      Poor Phaedra, usually played by stunning gorgons draped decorously in tunics and operatic passions. Hard to imagine a scholar like Jan Kott writingRacine Our Contemporary;even for the French, the idiom remains distant and lofty, treasurable for its resistance to our compulsions, its steady gaze backward to ancient models. Neglected by her warrior husband, Theseus, Phaedra has all the time she needs to fall silently for Hippolytus, her stepson; when she thinks Theseus dead, she reveals all, first to Oenone, her nurse, and finally to Hippolytus. Not dead yet, Theseus returns, only to banish Hippolytus when Oenone denounces him...

    • Still in the Woods: Lee Blessing
      (pp. 102-105)

      It’s an ominous moment when a serious play begins with a joke. Certainly, Lee Blessing’sA Walk in the Woodsfinds a surprising quantity of laughter in the sour subject of U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations. The long-winded opening joke, however, is a hint that, like diplomatic strategy, the humor is a ploy to seduce an audience not likely to find the issues gripping enough on their own. Who would have thought that the tedious manipulations of governments and the terrifying realities of nuclear bargaining could yield the most charming play of the season?

      This isn’t Graham Greene “entertainment,” one of those...

    • Party Games: Harold Pinter
      (pp. 105-108)

      Four years after writingThe Birthday Partyin 1958, Harold Pinter gave a talk describing the pleasure he finds in using words. Like a character in his plays, he suddenly jumped into reverse: “At the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea ... words written by me and others, the bulk of it stale, dead terminology, ideas endlessly repeated and permutated, become platitudinous, trite, meaningless.” That hemorrhaged condition, a sense of permanent dislocation, words failing to protect us from going over the edge, haunts every moment ofThe Birthday Party, perhaps...

    • The Seductions of Cynicism: David Mamet
      (pp. 108-110)

      Three audiences converge on David Mamet’s perversely funny morality play,Speed the Plow—Madonna-watchers, committed cynics, and those (like me) who know that, whatever else he does, Mamet will make language sound like spoken jazz. Madonna’s crowd has to wait for her entrance, and then they may not recognize her: in the drab role of an office temp, she’s sleekly handsome rather than shockingly gorgeous, too subdued a presence to hold her own as the good-guy half of the argument but, admirably, not trying to do more than she yet knows how. If she’s unequal, it’s partly a response to...

    • Ahead of Himself: Larry Kramer
      (pp. 111-112)

      If rage could guarantee a good play and doors a funny farce, then Larry Kramer might easily go to the head of the class. As a proud, card-carrying conspiracy theorist, I’m ready to go anywhere he wishes to take me in suggesting that the most successful hideout for big-time criminals is government itself. And though I can’t quite believe that a play is likely to be an effective weapon in any of our dolorous battles, I’m delighted to applaud Kramer’s lonely frontline commitment not only to politics but to theater as a political instrument. Brave beyond the call and undoubtedly...

    • Triumph of the Words: George Bernard Shaw
      (pp. 113-115)

      Now that Michael Holroyd’s biography is reminding us that it wasn’t easy for loveless Sonny Shaw to turn himself into devilish G.B.S., we may be compelled to view his plays with more of an eye to their reluctant melancholies. Yet there was never any doubt that, putting all his genius into work rather than life, Shaw also rescued drama from its easy slippage into comforting solutions. Dick Dudgeon’s apparent sacrifice inThe Devil’s Disciple—letting himself be hanged to save Judith Anderson’s husband, Anthony—is anything but a conventional move. Judith (and the audience) may wish to cling to love...

    • The Fugitive Play: Tennessee Williams
      (pp. 115-119)

      That London’s West End is the home of what must be the best Tennessee Williams production in thirty years is only part of America’s mounting national and theatrical disgrace. Let Rocco Landesman and Lincoln Center snipe at one another, the bloody awful truth remains that Broadway is now what Carol Cutrere, inOrpheus Descending, would call “the local bone orchard,” unable to fulfill anything but its own prophecies that the public will buy only high-tech trivia or spin-offs from soppy tube dramas. Peter Hall’s lucid, passionate production ofOrpheusis at the Haymarket, one of London’s oldest and coziest comfort...

    • Lost Soul: Albert Innaurato
      (pp. 120-124)

      Albert Innaurato’sComing of Age in Sohocan’t resist the confessional mode. The leading character, an ambisexual writer named Bartholomew Dante, admits at the beginning that he is looking for a plot. Since it is reasonable to deduce that he is very much the author’s voice, it is clear that Innaurato will keep revealing doubts about himself; indeed, that he won’t be able to hide either the absence or contrivance of plot. The play fails, but honorably: Innaurato can’t make dramatic or even comic sense out of his writer’s turbulence; neither can he disguise his elemental honesty. There is something...

    • Three-Inch Pickings: Charles Ludlam
      (pp. 125-126)

      Charles Ludlam used to say that “the shortest distance between two points is playwriting,” a deconstruction of mathematical wisdom he didn’t always observe. In his own work, two points are never bridged the easy way. Midway in the studious mess that spills over the stage in Ludlam’s first play, 1967’sBig Hotel, the bellhop races in to voice what Ludlam wisely suspected most of us would be feeling: “Somewhere along the line, I’ve lost the thread of the narrative.” This could have been his way of thumbing his nose at narrative anyway, a quick escape clause from the happy chaos...

    • Anniversary Schmaltz: Maxwell Anderson
      (pp. 126-129)

      In a year when banality kept reaching for new definitions, the most emblematic nonevent occurred in late September when theNew York Timesmourned our apparent neglect of Maxwell Anderson. It seems that, like Eugene O’Neill, he was born in 1888, yet only his widow, son, Helen Hayes, and Professor Alfred S. Shivers, his biographer, were truly celebrating. I had been successfully dodging O’Neill’s centenary—no arguments so far with partisans ofDynamo and Marco Millions—so I could scarcely feel sanguine about an Anderson centenary, with battles looming overHigh TorandThe Wingless Victory. Yet Mervyn Rothstein of...

    • Trip to Fanciful: Tina Howe
      (pp. 129-131)

      God bless our bushed middle class, devoted to family, amazed by nature’s wonders, crazy about babies, delighted by memories of a happy childhood, yet—and on such a “yet” Tina Howe builds still another of her exercises in privileged melancholy—desperately uneasy about morality. InApproaching Zanzibar’s universe, as hermetically sealed from real anguish as any 21-inch T.V. screen, the major issue of the day is how fast life’s going. No matter that Wallace and Charlotte Blossom and their preteen son and daughter, Turner and Pony, travel southwest for two thousand miles, failing to uncover anything more disturbing than a...

    • Angels in America, Devils in the Wings: Tony Kushner
      (pp. 132-142)

      As one who lives a life rather than a “lifestyle,” I’m not sure what a gay play, let alone a gay fantasia, might be. But there they fly, those miniprovocations and tiny half-thoughts, now glued permanently to whatever may be dredged from the experience of seeing George C. Wolfe’s musical-comedy version of Tony Kushner’sAngels in America: Millennium Approaches, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” Well, if not exactly a musical comedy, a play now underscored with so much musical blather instructing us what to feel or think that it might just as well go all the way. A...

  7. Shakespeare and the Brits

    • British Theater: The Fight Against Situational Chat
      (pp. 145-151)

      London. A week spent in London’s theaters is a week spent in the company of words. As a consequence, it is also a week spent in the company of too many actors who rely upon a definition of acting as an interpretive art occurring somewhere between the throat and tongue. Only the great British actors—and fortunately, many of them are currently at work at the National Theatre (NT), the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and in the West End—have been able to avoid total captivity to the voice.

      John Gielgud is an acknowledged master of words, who nonetheless fills...

    • Neocolonial Puns and Games: The National Theatre of Great Britain
      (pp. 151-154)

      Nicholas Nickleby’s charms notwithstanding, let us at last bury the dumb, craven idea that British theater is the best in the world. For a start, there is no best, only the good emerging in one country or another—Germany at present—when aspirations and subsidy manage to coincide for a passing moment. Americans envy British theater people largely because we are impressed by actors curling tongues around consonants, playwrights supplying them with more consonants and story in one play than we are likely to find in a hundred plays, and directors who could unsnarl traffic on the Long Island Expressway....

    • Uneasy Lie the Crowns: Wilfred Lawson and Others
      (pp. 154-156)

      Acting may be the least accountable of the performing arts, because so little of the best is ever really seen. Imagine audiences at the opera unable to measure the passing Callas comet against the exquisite Tebaldi mineral, or ballet fiends unaware of Ulanova’s Giselle when viewing Fracci’s. At the opera or ballet, the past is always sending startling information to the present and the present keeps passing bulletins about the past. But an actor with Callas’s power may wear a crown at home while remaining obscure abroad. It is only too easy, therefore, for pretenders to arrive as if they...

    • Richard Unbeckoned: Joseph Papp in Central Park
      (pp. 156-159)

      “Gangsters glorified by tides and blank verse.” That’s how one superb Shakespeare scholar, Northrop Frye, describes the nobles surrounding Richard II. And bloody thugs and monsters they are, even Richard himself, deposed by Bolingbroke for his incompetent kingship but redeemed more than the others by his command of words. Not that he’s alone in poetry: this is the strangest of all Shakespeare’s plays, the only one written entirely in verse. Frye sees this as Shakespeare’s effort to keep “the dueling ritual” unbroken by the usual bawdy or mundane interruptions; even the gardener speaks in couplets. More likely, Frye was right...

    • Et Al, Brute: Al Pacino
      (pp. 159-160)

      The good news about Stuart Vaughan’s otherwise clunky production ofJulius Caesaris Al Pacino’s fiercely serious, sharply spoken Marc Antony. A small man, almost unrecognizable in the beginning, he merges into the fabric of the play like a prowling beetle, one of those little ones you should beware. His face is a mask, rarely talking for him, the only giveaway his darting, cavernous eyes. Modest to a fault, Antony claims a lack of wit and absence of “utterance.” Pacino, however, knows otherwise: husky in his middle register, this Antony can still find a trumpet in his voice when the...

    • The Abbey Theatre: Speechless at Last
      (pp. 161-162)

      It’s not difficult to guess what the contradictory Yeats would have made of the Abbey Theatre’s hemi-semi-demi-modernist production of Tom MacIntyre’sThe Great Hunger, based on an epic poem of Irish rural misery by Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967). Yeats loved “poetry” in the theater, but by that he meant his own. When O’Casey submittedThe Silver Tassieto the Abbey, with its expressionist second act plunged between the naturalism of the other acts, and its robust antiwar passions standing so far outside Yeats’s dreamy ideas of what theater should do, it didn’t take long for Yeats to send his foolish...

    • Out, Out, Loose Canon: The New York Shakespeare Festival
      (pp. 162-165)

      Shakespeare deserves a rest, especially if he’s to be rescued from English teachers who think him better read than said. Let them have their way for a time so we can argue, confer, and suffer a little while trying to discover how these plays might come alive again in the theater. Surely, pick-up casts, whether on Broadway or at the Public, are the worst kind of answer. If I differ in any way with Michael Feingold’s devastatingly fair review ofMacbeth, it’s in his generous tribute to Papp, whose love for Shakespeare has rarely helped him to produce or direct...

    • Brevity Is the Soul of Grit: Dustin Hoffman
      (pp. 165-167)

      When William Hazlitt saw Edmund Kean’s Shylock, he was surprised not to find “a decrepit old man ... sullen, morose, gloomy, inflexible, brooding over one idea.” Only afterward did he realize that he had drawn this notion “from other actors, not the play.” Glory then to Dustin Hoffman, who, like all gifted actors, takes cues only from himself. It isn’t even too farfetched to see him as a Kean incarnation: the short actor who breaks all the rules about heroism, showing Shakespeare in lightning flashes, yet never pandering to expectation or display. Unlike Kean, however, Hoffman has been a stranger...

    • Ardent Sex Change: Christopher Grabowski
      (pp. 167-169)

      In Christopher Grabowski’s cunning adaptation ofAs You Like it, Rosalind is not only a male actor as she once was for Shakespeare, she’s also at one time or another Silvius to her male Orlando who’s momentarily playing Phoebe, and just as suddenly she’s Jaques or Touchstone as Orlando becomes Audrey while her female cousin, Celia, switches from Phoebe to William and back again to Celia. Nor is this all: with only four actors to play on the round, raked mat, Orlando must wrestle with an imaginary opponent, the bad Duke is a voiceover, the good Duke never appears, and...

    • Cracking the Code: Hugh Whitemore
      (pp. 169-172)

      The second act of Hugh Whitemore’sBreaking the Codebegins with a long, impassioned address by Alan Turing (Derek Jacobi) to the boys of Sherborne, the school he had attended twenty-five years earlier. It’s 1953 and he’s comparing the human brain to “a bowl of cold porridge,” a casual, if provocative, observation meant to lead the students into his real subject: the description of the computer, a machine than can think. The audience has already learned that Turing—as the mathematical wizard hired by Winston Churchill to break the Nazis’ Enigma code, essential if the British were to win the...

    • Theater Mania: Peter Hall and Others
      (pp. 172-176)

      London. Wagner may have invented the performance as religious pilgrimage, but the British have perfected it as a long, swooning, major event in anybody’s day. True, directors outside of England such as Robert Wilson, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Peter Brook are more commonly identified as auteurs who will go to any lengths to command—or lose—your attention, but surely London has domesticated the phenomenon, making the long evening or half-day seem normal, the definable guarantee of an occasion profound.

      Years before the RSC’s eight-hourNicholas Nickleby, it had produced Peter Hall and John Barton’s revision of Shakespeare’sHenry VItrilogy...

    • Serious Money: Caryl Churchill
      (pp. 176-179)

      She won’t be liked for it, but withSerious Money, Caryl Churchill is offering news that rarely hits print—not what we already know about Ivan Boesky and his comrades in sleaze but what fuels their greed, the overheated intensity that keeps them breathlessly alive, immune to the unnatural disasters they’re dumping on the rest of us. A serious poet, Churchill lets her free-market monsters talkmolto vivacein free verse—in one stroke giving them a dignity they don’t deserve yet at the same time making their appalling cruelties worth listening to. No wonder we miss the news in...

    • Sublime Neglect: George Chapman and Others
      (pp. 179-183)

      Wasting no time, George Chapman’sBussy d’Ambois(1604) opens with Bussy’s astonishing soliloquy bitterly describing the outrageous, illusionary politics that have reduced him to abject poverty. (Has there ever been a more daring stage direction than Chapman’s “Enter Bussy d’Ambois, poor”?) With an almost embarrassing prescience, Chapman describes how shallow, upstart phonies can be transformed against all the evidence—“Fortune, not Reason, rules the state of things”—into imitations of “unskillful statuaries.” Bussy has noticed that the spin-doctors surrounding him believe they can forge a hero by making him “straddle enough, strut, and look big, and gape.” “In their affected...

    • Hare Today: David Hare
      (pp. 183-184)

      Would it were not so, but David Hare’sThe Secret Rapturereveals him as a closet Tory. This current National Theatre success, headed for the Public next fall, pretends to tell the story of kind, easily victimized Isabel, coping bravely with the death of her beloved father, despite pressures from Marion (her Thatcherized sister), Irwin (her dependent yet wayward lover), and Katherine (her father’s young, bitterly alcoholic widow). Isabel is good, the others are bad—or at any rate, they are arranged by Hare to do bad things to Isabel. She, in turn, accepts everything that comes her way, with...

    • Playing with Ire: Alex Jennings, Peter O’Toole, and Mark Rylance
      (pp. 185-188)

      Not easy to put to rest is the myth that protagonists in plays ought to elicit sympathy. That this would be news to Athenians and Elizabethans doesn’t daunt those tyrannical sentimentalists who persist in judging plays as if they were making up a guest list suitable for charming dinner parties. I’m reasonably certain that Medea, the Macbeths, Tartuffe, and the whole Orgon clan would make lousy companions, even as I’m equally clear that it would be hard to compete with their gift for the fine-tuned phrase. My choice, then, would be to exclude them from dinner but catch them anytime...

  8. Operas and Musicals

    • That True Phoenix, da Ponte: Lorenzo da Ponte
      (pp. 191-200)

      Prima la musica e poi le parole:first the music and then the words. This ancient issue, decaying from overexposure, can be settled at once by agreeing that, in opera, inmusicaldrama, the words bear a less central position to artistic results than does the music. This is not quite the same as saying that words stand beneath music or that they have no significance at all. When Richard Strauss joined with Clemens Krauss to fashion a speculative romance around the sophist comedy ofCapriccio, he was writing music to a libretto prepared not by a poet but by...

    • Emotional Weather: Notes on Alban Berg’s Theater
      (pp. 200-212)

      That Alban Berg took so many years to write only two operas, leaving one not quite finished, ought to be one clue among many that the stage was not an easy medium for him. Even allowing for the disruption of military service between 1914 and 1917, a disruption, in fact, that shifted Berg’s views about both war and the oppressive nature of the army,Wozzeckstill took another five years to complete, in 1922. Berg first saw Büchner’s play in 1914. He had seen Wedekind’sPandora’s Boxeven earlier—at its first performance in 1905 when he was twenty, having...

    • Don Juan in Hell’s Kitchen: Peter Sellars
      (pp. 213-215)

      Peter Sellars can claim that he’s rescuedDon Giovannifrom old age: his cast of young singers, securely embraced by a concept that throws them daringly into what looks like the South Bronx or a hellish Catfish Row, assume the roles as if nothing could be more natural than the mix of Mozart and a life driven by hard drugs, booze, and street fights. Sellars can be trusted not to offer a costume party for miscast tenors and sopranos, but there’s always a danger that, like so many committed conceptualists, he’ll treat the operatic stage like a playpen for closet...

    • Out of the Woods: Stephen Sondheim
      (pp. 215-217)

      Stephen Sondheim nasty, mean, and ready to murder most of us is Sondheim at his entertaining best. Even if Susan H. Schulman’s restaging ofSweeney Toddwere less effective than it is, the reminder would be salutary. Only diehardSunday in the ParkandInto the Woodsjunkies could possibly disagree: those one-act larks stretched into two-act monotonies fall all over themselves to prove that Sondheim has a heart, but the effort and consequent banality keep bursting through the seams. For whatever reason—incapacity or musical ideology—Sondheim rarely builds a tune; similarly, he and his book writers usually fashion...

    • Fats-uosity Triumphant: Nell Carter and Others
      (pp. 217-219)

      The great fat and sassy star presence heard but not seen inAin’t Misbehavin’is Fats Waller himself. Bowler hat cocked over an ear, eyes brimming with mischief, his belly good-capon-lined, he was the Falstaff of performer-composers, thumbing his nose at the state and all its prissy dignities. Like Falstaff, too, he was more than an overstuffed clown. Not that he flaunted anger or draped himself in melancholy, but beneath the joy there was always his mocking awareness of a darker text made visible and eloquent by his insinuating inflections, his aggressive intelligence. The first song he recorded, when he...

    • Stratosphere: Teresa Stratas and Others
      (pp. 220-222)

      Any number of statues who happen to sing—Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Renata Tebaldi, and Jussi Bjoerling come to mind—have demonstrated that supreme voicing of a role can for an instant seem like acting. On voice alone, with line held taut or immaculate placement of expressive tone hefted to the rafters, such singers cast a peculiar spell over the dramatic occasion, as if to say that nothing could be more emotionally real than the human body caught in a moment of vocal ecstasy. Yet even when phenomenal singing seems to say everything, someone—Maria Callas or Teresa Stratas—comes...

    • Two Cheers for Booing: Bayreuth
      (pp. 222-226)

      For one, like myself, who applauds and boos in print, the sounds of no hands clapping and big mouths booing is an assault not merely on the nerves but on my hopes for the critical act. Not for me the raucous outburst and impulsive moan or—heaven forfend—the unpondered analysis of a play or performance. My faith, such as it is, has relied always on the hours or days left to think about what I’ve seen; with any luck, the business of writing, offering a chance to look more precisely on the event, is the way I come to...

    • Cliff Notes: Robert Wilson and Others
      (pp. 226-232)

      A worrisome moment, indeed, when Amelia, in the Metropolitan Opera’s version of Verdi’sA Masked Ball, arrives on the top landing of steps evidently carved from a Swedish cliffside: ever so gingerly she negotiates her way down, no doubt praying, as we do, that her voluminous gown and cloak will not betray her equally effulgent girth by tripping her over the edge into a percussive fill onto the hangman’s scaffold nesded below.

      A cliffside in Sweden? I suppose my geographical information is just as skewed as soprano Deborah Voigt’s understandable tentativeness when faced with that special crisis in verisimilitude that...

  9. Ideas, Obits, and the Critical Act

    • The Management Game
      (pp. 235-245)

      Ignorance never stopped anyone from having an opinion, so it comes as no surprise where the performing arts are concerned that Europeans envy American energy, sense of adventure, and untiring commitment to experiment, while Americans envy Europe’s commitment to national subsidy. Viewing America from almost any European city (except Berlin, perhaps), I might long for an environment in which I can move blithely every day from Joseph Chaikin to Richard Foreman to Robert Wilson, the Mabou Mines, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, or odd little groups with funny names presenting barely definable configurations of dancers who make bizarre sounds, actors...

    • Geraldine Page
      (pp. 245-246)

      Repose wasn’t her style. Geraldine Page’s natural home may have been Off Broadway’s pocket stages, but no space could adequately contain her body and soul sounding their alarms. Who can forget that surprising voice, with its panpipings suddenly interrupted by great, flat baritone wails? Page was identified early with Alma Winemiller’s fragile longings inSummer and Smoke; then her Alexandra Del Lago inSweet Bird of Youthreleased the glamorous lion lurking in every Tennessee Williams heroine. At the Actors Studio, she offered a taste of Lady Hotspur and Lady Macbeth, but American theater never learned how to meet the...

    • The Birth of a Notion
      (pp. 246-249)

      Little did I know at the time, but the 1963 International Theatre Conference in Edinburgh marked the end of drama as theater. I should have realized that the dissonant voices at the conference were announcing a new theater desperate to redefine itself as something more (or less?) than the playwright’s art, the theater of conceptual spectacle and high technoogy we have today. Nobody put it that way, but that’s what it was all about. If I think about the conference’s extravagant, outlandish, preposterous collection of nonsequiturs now, it’s partly because I feel the need for a hard dose of cleansing...

    • Cry God for Larry: Laurence Olivier
      (pp. 249-251)

      That master of the chilling death scene has finally mastered the one that counts, dying peacefully, they tell us, in his sleep. But I doubt it. Even if he looked untroubled, he must have been up to his old tricks, searching for a gesture no other actor would imagine, let alone have the lunatic chutzpah to try—Richard III biting the sword that cut him down; a stammering Hotspur choking on the “W” he can’t complete so that Hal is left to say “worms”; Coriolanus dashing to a point 12 feet above the stage, speared by the Volscians, toppling forward...

    • Richard Hayes
      (pp. 252-253)

      Richard Hayes’s death on January 8 may have been the release he needed from the disappointing years in which he could no longer bring himself to write with the “mandarin eloquence” he once ascribed to Henry James, but to those who cherished him for spoken eloquence, his vigilant reminders that performance standards need not hang back with the brutes, this final defeat is not acceptable. That his work must now be collected goes without saying, though as always with Richard it’s a bit tactless that this too must be done by his friends. We had hoped against the evidence for...

    • Theater Without Programs
      (pp. 253-258)

      When a playwright can become the elected president of his nation, as Vaclav Havel did last year in Czechoslovakia, it’s time to acknowledge that where theater is, politics cannot be far behind. Yet it can be argued that Havel’s triumph as an unlikely politician might have happened had he never written a play. His absurdist comedies, not to the taste of his absurd Communist oppressors, were banished from the stage, but it was Havel’s underground essays that sent him to jail. True, Havel and his friends in Civic Forum organized—if that’s the right word—the Velvet Revolution in a...

    • Othello’s Occupation’s Gone
      (pp. 258-262)

      Among the ethical pratfalls and linguistic somersaults that marked most of the Clarence Thomas hearings, petty misdemeanors against dramatic literature may leave only a faint stain on the ultimate reckoning; yet surely they demonstrate that great drama, even when traduced and betrayed, has its uses. Witness the spectacular slip, ignorant rather than Freudian, made by Senator Alan Simpson when he was moved to quote Shakespeare on Judge Thomas’s behalf. Thomas had not exactly covered himself in eloquence during the initial hearings, and the prose unleashed for his defense against Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment—“high-tech lynching” and heart-tuggers such...

    • The Leader We Invented: Joseph Papp
      (pp. 262-265)

      No doubt about it: Joseph Papp loved to play David armed with grapeshot and righteousness against official Goliaths such as Robert Moses, assorted mayors of New York, and Jesse Helms. The trouble is that once triumphant, he could transform himself so swiftly into Lear, dispensing rage and dismissal at the drop of his latest whim. Only one event reported by Helen Epstein in her honest, uninflected account of his life,Joe Papp: An American Life, can come as a surprise to any who knew him near or far, and that is the heroically touching way in which he alternately confronted...

    • Did Dinosaurs Dream
      (pp. 265-268)

      Imagine a nation prepared to coerce its millionaires into supporting rehearsals and productions of new plays. The method would be simple: in the event of a court case of any kind, the overpropertied citizen could save face with a jury by declaring how much he has spent as a patron of the drama, thus proving that he was both a patriot and a democrat. He would recall to the jury that he had been appointed as chief funder for a play at last season’s drama festival. To illustrate his magnanimity, he would point out that his contribution represented at least...

    • Jerzy Grotowski
      (pp. 268-270)

      I can see from a quick scan of my critical scribbles that, like many at the time (the sixties), I took Grotowski at his word: for me, he was one of “a handful of practical dreamers—Martha Graham, the Becks, Stanislavsky, Brecht—who have succeeded in this century against the pressures of a culture insensitive to the real process of work.” By 1981, withThe Constant Prince, Apocalypsis cum figuris, andAkropolisonly a fleeting memory, I summoned the heresy of a different memory, something I referred to as his “Catholic moan and sadomasochistic urge.”

      That heresy had stuck in...

  10. Endgames

    • Legacies and Their Discontents
      (pp. 273-283)

      Oh, please, ye gods and hurricanos, bring back the Cold War! Surely, even thirty years ago, it was kinder to our digestive slime than are its telegenic successors—ethnic cleansing, nationalistic terrorism, the manipulation of markets and currencies, primordial racism and xenophobia everywhere, everybody fighting every two-bit, bystanding sucker instead of the corporate thieves scooting off with the boodle. And then—oh gods can’t you spare us?—there’s the elected leadership: Bill the satyr who never knew a friend he couldn’t betray, Boris the besotted bear, Tony “Blur” (I can’t do better than what the British have already coined), and...

    • The Critic Vanishes
      (pp. 283-292)

      The latest nemesis, then, is nostalgia, precisely what was biting at my heels when accounting, in 1998, for our legacies and their discontents. In 1999, Broadway trooped dutifully behind London’s lockstep armies, producing new productions of three mid-century plays: Eugene O’Neill’sThe Iceman Cometh, Arthur Miller’sDeath of a Salesman, and Tennessee Williams’sNot About Nightingales, the latter the only surprise—apprentice work from Williams’s files, never before produced. As usual, the carefully staged drumbeats signaled universal acclamation, as if plays and actors alike were beyond compare, the premise behind the hype that theater, like any respectable Bordeaux, simply gets...

  11. Index
    (pp. 293-306)