Theater September 1994
West End story
On the American presence in London theater.
“Are Americans Taking Over Our Theatre?” roared the front page of the London Evening Standard. While Broadway prepares to rouse itself from its summer torpor, the West End bounces along with a Lillian Hellman revival, a David Mamet revival, a David Mamet world première, a new Arthur Miller, an old Tennessee Williams, a (sort of) new Tennessee Williams. Over-praised, over-staged, and over here? Maybe. The British critic Christopher Bigsby compares it with TV and movies—“our cinemas are dominated by The Flintstones”—but without noting that Hollywood’s cultural colonialism stems from its strength at home. Mamet and Miller and company are in London for precisely the opposite reason, which is why everywhere you turn they’re sweet-talking the natives: Gregory Mosher, in town to direct Mamet’s The Cryptogram, says that he can’t think of any young American writers; Miller, a not so young American writer, repeats his glib line about London still having plays whereas New York has only shows.
These are familiar complaints, but Londoners love to hear them. Indeed, Frank Rich’s fame here derives from every visiting American theater practitioner’s obligatory whinge about him—a unique negative celebrity triumphantly confirmed by the opening of Sunset Boulevard last year, when the gossip columns included him with the soap colossi and the TV weather girls as one of the “stars” expected to attend. Just before curtain up, I was sharing a joke, as the columnists say, with Don Black (Sunset’s lyricist) and David Frost when Mr. and Mrs. Rich swept down the aisle scattering meteorological bimbos before them. It was the coronation scene from Prisoner of Zenda: if you’d looked deep in his eyes, you’d know it was phony, but he got away with it. So, these days, when New York showfolk breeze in, every British journalist likes to show off his knowledge: “I suppose Frank Rich is part of the problem, too, eh?” “Um, well, it’s some other fellow now, you know . . .”
These are familiar complaints, but Londoners love to hear them.
To extend the monarchical analogy, the difference between New York and London is, in British Parliamentary terms, the difference between the dignified and the efficient parts of the constitution. New York has all the ceremonial, all the myths which so seduce the British: the headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops, there’s no business like, the hip-hooray and ballyhoo, the lullaby of Broadway, Variety, Sardi’s, try-outs, re-writes, play doctors . . . But it’s strictly pomp and circumstance: the Tony Awards ceremony is better than the Olivier Awards ceremony, but only because it’s a ceremony. London now does most of the work: not just the Wildes and Shaws; not just Thomas Southerne’s The Wife’s Excuse, a flopperoo in 1691 which went unperformed until the RSC’s superb revival this summer; but even Charles MacArthur’s Johnny on a Spot, a political satire which sank on Broadway in 1942 but which the National’s Richard Eyre dusted off because he felt it had something to say about Whitewater. He was wrong, but you appreciate the opportunity to judge. These days, one-third of the National’s repertoire is American, whether revivals or new plays (Angels in America opened here first). As Gregory Mosher puts it, “Your National Theater has turned into our National Theater because we don’t have one.”
It’s a simple argument, but that’s something theater people are prone to. To Mosher, Britons respect words, Americans demand spectacle. Oh yes? And who are the spectacle purveyors par excellence? In any one week, 30 percent of working American stage actors are employed in Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh productions. Listen to Arthur Miller’s weary plays-vs.-shows arguments, and you understand the smug wrong-headedness of his later work. Is a man who sees the form he’s worked in all his life in such grotesque cartoon terms likely to have much to tell us about Bosnia?
It’s because London has shows that it still has plays. In that sense, the most disturbing trend here is exemplified by this year’s Tony winners, An Inspector Calls and Carousel, both National Theatre productions. Stage by stage, the subsidized companies have annexed more and more of the West End showman’s turf: if J. B. Priestley and Rodgers and Hammerstein are no longer the property of “commercial theater,” what’s left? Subsidy is a two-edged sword. If you don’t do enough theater, you lose the knack (as happened to French musicals after Offenbach: Paris is virtually the only town where Les Miz hasn’t been a hit and where Cameron Mackintosh ended up closing down the office). But too much subsidy, and you wind up like most European countries—over-funded classics, no new plays, a fake democracy where everyone’s paid the same: such a system has so little appeal to anyone with any sense of their own worth that it fatally restricts the pool of talent you can draw on. London’s balancing act is illustrated by the now standard career trajectory of hotshot stagers: plenty of classics at directors’ clubs like the RSC and the National, a few operas here and there, then a major Mackintosh musical. First, it was Trevor Nunn (Cats); then, Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon); now, Sam Mendes, who staged the summer revival of Glengarry Glen Ross at the Donmar Warehouse before starting work on the new Mackintosh production of Oliver! at the Palladium. The special-pleading subsidy junkies and the elephantine spectacle peddlers—the “plays” and the “shows”—are the same guys. Compare their résumés with, say, America’s most bankable director (and that doesn’t bear too close inspection), Tommy Tune.
Between the savage indictments of contemporary Britain and the commercial juggernauts comes the best indicator of theatrical health.
Between the savage indictments of contemporary Britain and the commercial juggernauts comes the best indicator of theatrical health, the ham-fisted hokum which lights up the West End night after night. London is a great town if you like old pop stars whose twin-props come down in the mountains. Buddy is standard bio-tuner fare: the good guys wear blue jeans, the bad guys wear suits and Buddy tells them, “I gotta play mah music mah way”; other than that, he led a boring life and then his plane crashed. When it opened in 1989, Buddy attracted an audience so unaccustomed to legitimate theater that many of them, unfamiliar with the concept of intermission, left at the end of Act I assuming the play was over. Last month, Buddy announced a new box-office period: they’re now booking to the year 2000. Hoping to tap into the same success is Patsy Cline, the story of another American singer who never lived long enough to redeem her frequent-flyer miles but who, otherwise, was even duller than Buddy Holly—at least as played by the sweet Irish colleen for whom this vehicle was created.
These shows wouldn’t run ten minutes on Broadway (Buddy, foolishly, tried), any more than would Hot Shoe Shuffle (Australian tap), Barry Manilow’s Copacabana (the tacky musical of the hit single), An Evening with Gary Linklater (an English footballer), Anorak of Fire (train spotters), Sweet Loraine (old songs plus an “Oprah” parody), or Thunderbirds Are Go (grown-ups pretending to be children’s puppets). But they help sustain the West End and prevent it petering out into those twin dead-end streets of the endangered species (serious plays) and the big event (the mega-musicals).
There are no London equivalents of the Belasco and the Nederlander—big houses that have been dark for as long as anyone can remember. In the West End, when City of Angels or Nicol Williamson’s one-man Barrymore show folds, you can always find something to fill the gap. Stoll Moss (a sort of combination Shubert/Nederlander operation) recently gave in to public pressure to rename the Globe after John Gielgud, arranging the gala re-opening to coincide with a new production of Hamlet. Unfortunately (as I write), due to a booking logjam, it looks as if the new Gielgud Theatre will be inaugurated by a Roy Orbison revue. I hope Sir John enjoys it.
Never mind the quality, feel the breadth. Patsy Cline and Gregory Mosher come to London for the same reason: you can get the piece up on stage. In New York, it now takes longer to complete the necessary legal work on a small off-Broadway play than it did seventy years ago to write and mount a full Broadway musical. Even the first-night notices take longer—the critics insisting that they see the plays at previews in order to have more time to hone their aperçus, the producers glad not to have ’em around for the opening, even though their absence reduces a first night to a stilted ritual. In London, whether at Mamet or Manilow, the curtain drops and the critics charge up the aisle to start barking into telephones: theater on the hoof, as it should be. Theater exists in the present tense: if it isn’t on stage, it isn’t happening. Across the Atlantic, all is ponderous and drawn-out: over-workshopped, over-fixed, over-previewed, the Broadway creative process works for musical-comedy retreads like Crazy for You and the biennial Neil Simon but for very little else. And, to invert Shakespeare, a stage is all the world—or it’s nothing. Watch the Tonys on CBS and you’re struck by the homogeneity. Watch the West End’s Olivier Awards and it’s an incoherent hotchpotch: a sulky RSC director dressed like Richard III flounces on and denounces the Tory government, then a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator sings “Great Balls of Fire.”
There’s nothing like night after night in un-air-conditioned theaters in a 90-degree London heatwave to make you wonder whether we need quite so much theater. Appropriately, from Naomi Wallace’s In the Heart of America to the National’s revival of Sweet Bird of Youth, this summer’s Americana has tended toward the South, and for once sweltering audiences can join in all the fanning and dabbing and collar-loosening as they wonder why so many American playwrights have come to depend on the kindness of strangers.
900 Oneonta (the title’s a street address) is every Southern Gothic cliché served up in one bravura demented stew: booze, bigotry, rape, madness, disease, incest, rumbling thunder, and an old patriarch called Dandy which, in a lazy Southern drawl, comes out even closer to Big Daddy. As one character helpfully explains, “I am America.” To underline the point, Dandy rages about how the goddamn baby boomers have had everything handed to them and they’ve gone soft and pissed it away. Just in case you still don’t get it, all his heirs are nuts or barren or riddled with cancer. As a metaphor for the country, it’s debatable; as a metaphor for the theater, it’s not bad.
The author, David Beaird, is an American who made various forgettable movies in Hollywood, then got sick and decided he wanted to write one thing in his life he was really proud of. Nobody wanted to do it in America, so he raised the money himself and produced and directed it at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Two fellow-Americans, Frank and Woji Gero, founders of the West End Producers’ Alliance, saw it, liked it, and decided to take it to the Old Vic—a London landmark now owned by Honest Ed Mirvish of Toronto, one of Her Majesty’s loyalest Canadian subjects but, just for the record, also born in America. At the end of the play, one of the cast, another American, steps forward and explains that the West End Producers’ Alliance is committed to new theatrical writing and cheap prices (from $8 to $21, with a top ticket on Mondays and Thursdays of $11), but they haven’t got a big advertising budget so could we please all tell our friends. American-born theater owner, American producers, American playwright/director, American actors, but you have to go to Britain to see it.
In one London interview after another, Arthur Miller blames the decline of the American theater on “showbusiness.”
In one London interview after another, Arthur Miller blames the decline of the American theater on “showbusiness.” It’s the easy distinction: scholarly Londoners steeped in the classics vs. philistine Broadway sharks. In fact, showbusiness is one thing American theater is spectacularly bad at. Even the so-called “hits” are mostly bogus: Tommy Tune’s Will Rogers Follies was a sell-out and ran for years, yet failed to get its money back; City of Angels did better but was so parochial it flopped on its road tour; Crazy for You played two years at capacity and, as soon as it recouped, its first-time producer announced that he’d decided to quit while he was ahead. In contrast, Cameron Mackintosh’s Cats has made more money than the biggest-grossing Hollywood movies, as a result of which virtually every fringe venue of note, as well as the Producers’ Alliance and the National Theatre revivals program (which gave us Carousel), comes with an almost ubiquitous back-of-the-book credit, “Supported by the Mackintosh Foundation.” It never seems to occur to Miller that his heyday was also that of Broadway showbusiness, that his three best plays—Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge—were all produced by that shrewd showman Kermit Bloomgarden. Miller prospered when Broadway prospered, and he has declined with it.
As he feels so strongly about Broadway’s corruption, you wonder why he doesn’t root one of his plays in the subject: at least he’d have a telling detail or two. All his recent work—The Last Yankee, The Ride Down Mount Morgan, and now Broken Glass—has brooded on national malaise but in increasingly slapdash plots and unconvincing environments. Broken Glass was supposed to have its première at the National, but schedules clashed and instead it became for Miller a rare return to Broadway, passing a few unhappy weeks at the Booth earlier this year. Everyone here is too polite to mention its rapid dispatch, and Miller himself seems relieved to be back with his favorite British director, David Thacker. We are in Brooklyn, 1938: Sylvia Gellberg has mysteriously lost the use of her legs, and her husband takes her to the doctor, who diagnoses hysterical paralysis. “I barely know my way around psychiatry,” concedes Dr. Hyman (“a Socialist”), but he gamely offers to “give it a try.” The brazenness is magnificent: the line excuses the author from research or expertise, and, intentionally or not, justifies his view of himself as the great have-a-go psychoanalyst of American anxieties. In his last few plays, Miller reminds me of a butch Miss Marple: moral inertia has descended on the village, the local constabulary’s baffled, Miller pokes about a bit with his knitting needles, identifies the problem, and still gets home for tea.
These are “whatdunits” rather than “whodunits.” For Sylvia, paralysis is her response to newspaper reports of Kristallnacht; her immobility, says Miller, is “an exact image for the paralysis we all showed then in the face of Hitler.” Oh, and it’s also due to her husband’s subsuming his Jewish identity (though, oddly enough, not changing his name) in his pursuit of the American Dream. Where 900 Oneonta likes its metaphors to have the neat precision of a synchronized swimming team, Broken Glass prefers to burden its characters with contradictions they can’t bear. For one thing, Sylvia is in a state of terror and seems, therefore, a most inexact image of the American people’s reaction to Hitler—or to the carnage in Bosnia, where, pace Roosevelt, the only thing we have to fear is complacency. Here, the complacency is all Miller’s: there’s no attempt to persuade or engage; he reminds us of the past and leaves us with the vague hope that things will be different this time around. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to go to the theater.
Patronizing your audience is one thing; patronizing your characters is worse.
Patronizing your audience is one thing; patronizing your characters is worse. It’s never easy to make stupid, inarticulate people engaging on stage, though dramatists as various as Eugene O’Neill, George Abbott, and Oscar Hammerstein managed it. But Broken Glass has a false tinkle; its dialogue is clumsy and fake. Here’s Miller’s conjuring of time and place: “This Crosby’s the one I like,” Sylvia says to Dr. Hyman. “You ever hear of him?” Crosby? In ’38? I resent the thudding obviousness of the reference, the ludicrous implausibility of the question, and I don’t believe the lady- like Sylvia would have referred to “Crosby” by surname only: that’s guys-drinkin’-Bud-round-the-jukebox talk. Conversely, I don’t believe that in 1938 an educated Jew would open a conversation with another Jew with “I find this Adolf Hitler very disturbing.” As opposed to Bing Hitler? And while we’re at it, what’s with all this “this” business? It happens every second or third line: clunk-clunkety-clunk.
By coincidence, a day or two after seeing Broken Glass, I came across a tape of the BBC’s 1989 radio production of The Crucible with Richard Dreyfuss leading a starry cast. Here was language that resonated with truth and character, that motored the drama. “In Britain, they listen much, much, much more. They like language,” says Gregory Mosher. But what if the language isn’t worth listening to? Miller’s championing of “plays” over “shows” would be more impressive if his play could stand the scrutiny. As for “shows,” Broken Glass could learn a thing or two there, as well. David Thacker gives Miller a mournful cello obbligato. In theater, a mournful cello signals “serious play” as surely as, in television, a smoochy sax means an upmarket perfume ad. “Show,” as Miller uses the term, is the business of hucksters and fairground barkers, but you could argue that it’s about a more theatrical style of storytelling, one which film and TV can never capture, which uniquely requires live presence. The theme of Broken Glass—passivity in the face of great evil—led me back to Cabaret, when the emcee is dancing with the tutu-ed gorilla and singing “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes.” The scene is funny, the tune is beguiling. “If you could see her through my eyes,” he pleads, and then hisses the final line: “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” We laugh, we catch ourselves laughing in the mirrors over the stage, we realize what we’re laughing at, and the song dies in shamed silence. Music, lyrics, plot point, choreography, design, and involuntary audience participation have fused to create an effective theatrical shorthand. A dramatist can have other tools than words.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 1, on page 57
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