‘The American Stage’ Is Best Enjoyed As Theatre As Literature

These are not the best of times to be an American theatre critic, at least not if you have any aspirations of earning a reasonable living in that profession. However the current uncertainties in the field offer a good opportunity to step back and reflect on how theatre criticism (and writing about the theatre in general) has changed over the last 200 years or so.

Serendipitously, the Library of America just brought out a handsome maroon-bound volume of writing about the American theatre, edited by Laurence Senelick. The book begins with a selection from Washington Irving’s Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802) and concludes with Tony Kushner’s tribute to Arthur Miller (2005). In between it includes pieces from the usual suspects (Mark Twain, Alexander Woolcott, John Lahr) as well as from some whose names may be less familiar (Philip Hone, Charles King Newcomb). One thing stands out immediately: lots of authors best known for other types of writing (Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Mary McCarthy) also wrote about the theatre (not always perceptively, but that’s another issue: this doesn’t claim to be an anthology of the best writing about the American theatre).

All sorts of writing are included in this volume — journalistic criticism, memoir, opinion pieces and more — and some selections are self-contained while others are excerpts from larger works. It is intended neither as a documentary history nor as a survey of American drama, but rather, Senelick says, as “an assortment of first-hand written responses to the theatrical experience that display insight, wit, or strong feeling.” Not all the authors are Americans, but they’re all writing about the American theatre. The volume is arranged roughly chronologically and the selections are weighted heavily toward the past with about two-thirds of the selections written more than 50 years ago.

We’ve already established that the physical book is attractive: what about the contents? Since there’s no pleasing everyone it may be more useful to consider what purpose such a volume is intended to serve. Or to put it another way, who is the intended audience for volume #203 of the Library of America, a non-profit publisher who aims to provide “America’s best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions”?

By my reckoning, the primary targets are graduate students of theatre history and American literature as well as professors in both fields, with a small market of genteel readers who want to read a bit of Twain, a bit of de Tocqueville and a bit of Trollope without getting up from their easy chair. The selections have all been published elsewhere but academics and academics-to-be will appreciate their presentation in one handy package while the emphasis on the past and on descriptions of performances (rather than on dramatic theory, say, or methods of actor training) will appeal most to those interested in theatre as literature or as a cultural phenomenon as opposed to those studying to be actors, directors or designers.

Senelick, a professor of drama at Tufts University, provides a general introduction as well as an introduction to each author. The general introduction tries, in 15 pages, to supply a potted history of the American theatre from the colonial days to the present, an overview of American writing on theatre from the 19th century to the present and an explanation of the logic behind the selections chosen for this volume.

Covering so much in so few pages inevitably means resorting to generalities and the reader must trust the author’s superior knowledge in choosing what to include and what spin to put on it. This can be problematic because while I lack the expertise to know whether Senelick’s summary of 19th century American theatre is fair or unfair, I have a real problem with his glib remark about the contemporary New York scene: “Even today, a ‘think play” from the West End is transferred to Broadway each season as the theatrical equivalent of the coffee-table book.”

Clever, but what does it mean? This quote is part of an argument that America’s inferiority complex with regard to Great Britain persists over 200 years after the Revolutionary War but ignores a more logical explanation: the lower costs of production in London mean it is less risky to develop new works there than in New York. This is commonplace knowledge among those working in the theatre, as it is for anyone who regularly reads about the contemporary theatre in, say, the New York Times, but perhaps the news has not yet penetrated the ivory tower. Besides, this system enriches American theatre: we’d be poorer without the chance to see transatlantic transfers such as The Seafarer, Frost/Nixon and Red and to characterize them as coffee-table books (with the presumed implication that they are glossy but inert) is grossly unfair.

This collection is oddly backward-looking even when dealing with recent history. You will learn very little about avant-garde theatre from it, nor is much included about the innovative musicals of Stephen Sondheim or the inventive choreography of Bob Fosse or Michael Bennett (all of whom created works which traveled in the opposite direction across the Atlantic). Walter Kerr and Frank Rich between them spent decades writing about theatre for the New York Times, yet each is represented by a single nostalgia piece: Kerr about the days when summer stock was performed in barns and Rich about Carol Channing as a symbol of the good old days when a single great performer could carry a show (no microphones or falling chandeliers required). By way of comparison, the 19th century actress Anna Cora Mowatt is allotted 19 pages, as is the turn-of-the century clergyman and journalist Rollin Lynde Hartt.

All in all, this is a collection which is most interested in theatre the further it gets from the present-day.

RATING 6 / 10