Sooner or later, every book about Broadway written in the last half-century refers back to the ur-text everyone who cares about the industry must read: William Goldman’s The Season (1969). Frank, funny, fond, irreverent, analytical, insightful, and comprehensive, it tries to tell the story of Broadway by considering in depth each offering of the 1967–68 season, digressing into related topics such as producers, stars, directors, and, in a couple of chapters with eyebrow-raising titles, “Jews” and “Homosexuals,” each of these groups critical to the theater mission. Goldman (himself Jewish) writes about his subjects like a showbiz veteran born in the 1930s, which is to say his language is not our language. In other words, there is no conceivable way this book could make it past a New York City editor today. On his second page, he refers to worshipers present for a late Judy Garland show as “a flutter of fags.”
Goldman (1931–2018) could write exactly what he thought because he was neither a journalist who had to worry about sources nor a true theater insider who had to worry about his future employment prospects among the people he wrote about. Although he had dabbled in theater in the early Sixties, co-writing with his brother James (who made his name with the play and film The Lion in Winter) an obscure play (Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, 1961) and an obscure musical (A Family Affair, 1962), he was by the mid-Sixties an established screenwriter and novelist. He went on to write the novels The Princess Bride (1973), Marathon Man (1974), and Magic (1976), all of which he adapted for the screen, and also the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President’s Men (1976),and many others. Two collections of Hollywood anecdotes, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) and Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000) are among every cynical screenwriter’s favorite behind-the-scenes tours.
The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway is today out of print, but you can find it in some libraries or buy a secondhand or electronic edition of it. Though hardly any of the shows Goldman writes about remain in the common memory—and even some of the players he refers to as leaders in their field are now completely forgotten—The Season is a buffet of tasty items. Goldman’s we’re-all-pros-here candor would always be welcome, but it’s particularly refreshing in discussing an industry that is up to its eyeballs in hype, rodomontade, and bushwa.
Being dead, Goldman can (one hopes) not be canceled, but it’s easy to imagine a solemn trigger warning being appended to the book should it ever be reprinted. Yet the most recent edition, from 1984, begins with a fulsome introduction by Frank Rich that contains no hint that anything in the book might offend delicate sensibilities. By coincidence, 1984 was the first year in which I heard the phrase “politically correct,” which at the time described a strange fixation of a few silly students at a handful of elite campuses and had not yet become a phrase portending a set of harshly policed, ever-expanding draconian codes governing virtually every institution in the United States, but most especially theater and journalism.
Goldman writes amusingly about turgid star vehicles (“Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions was the butt-numbing drama of the season”).
Goldman orients each chapter around either a show, group of shows (sex comedies, for instance, were big in the late Sixties, as were generation-gap comedies in which befuddled middle-aged folks learned how to be groovy), or some key element of the theater. In an effort to avoid ruining anyone’s life, Goldman is a bit coy in his chapter on theater people who are gay (a term then not yet in vogue, or at least unused by Goldman). He singles out Tennessee Williams as being not particularly authoritative on the question of heterosexual sex yet avers that he has no idea whether Williams prefers male companionship. This is obviously untrue, since we’ve already read the chapter in which Goldman interviews the famed playwright, finding him nestled beside his male companion at the apartment they share. Williams, two decades after writing The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, would have been well past the point of needing a roommate to share expenses. Goldman does what he can to be discreet about specific homosexuals in the theater while reflecting on their (vast) influence and how their taste manifests itself in the productions. In contrast to today’s theater writers, who operate from the assumption that the public is, or at least should be, endlessly fascinated with anything that signals homosexuality, Goldman offers a more doubtful take. Considering a (now-forgotten) Edward Albee play, Everything in the Garden (an adaptation of a play by Giles Cooper), Goldman wonders whether a play about suburban couples in which the wives are prostitutes, the husbands are pimps and murderers, and “the only wisdom lies with bachelors and young boys” might be considered insulting by the audience. Remember, Broadway depends heavily on ticket sales to heterosexual couples and suburbanites. “Everything in the Garden,” he concludes, “is as clear a statement of the homosexual mystique as one could hope to find.” He segues into the precincts of camp humor, which was beginning to become mainstream even as it baffled many, and calls into question media efforts to conflate gay taste with that of heterosexual men. He cites a Newsweek piece that made the case for men wearing jewelry by citing the approbation of an actor (name not supplied by Goldman) who, Goldman points out but Newsweek did not, was widely understood to be homosexual. “Quoting a homosexual as proof that the wearing of jewelry by men is a normal masculine act has to be called a bit suspect,” Goldman writes. Later in the book he dismisses Albee as merely someone who “writes good bitch dialogue.” Not that Goldman is unsympathetic to the plight of homosexuals. He mentions that, for instance, a pair of same-sex lovers might feel unable to hug each other upon being reunited at an airport, and he sympathizes with the frustration. He notes, “They are mulattoes in an all-white neighborhood, and it isn’t easy.” Surely that line will mollify all detractors?
Goldman writes generously about the reassuring techniques of the already venerable gentleman writer-director George Abbott, then working on his eighty-fifth show, a musical called The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, and just hitting his stride at age eighty. He went on to live another twenty-seven years. Goldman writes amusingly about turgid star vehicles (“Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions was the butt-numbing drama of the season” yet dragged on for more than one hundred fifty performances because Ingrid Bergman played the lead). He writes poignantly about the life of an ordinary no-name actor, Peter Masterson, who received excellent notices for playing the title role in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and then faded back into obscurity. This leads to a keenly sympathetic chapter about the struggle to get cast called “The Enemy,” a term actors sometimes use to describe their auditioners—sometimes torturers, not infrequently executioners.
The only chapter in which Goldman is truly nasty and contemptuous is his one on critics. It is my turn to take offense, and take it I shall: Goldman makes the conceptual error of many people in the creative arts in thinking that critics ought to spare a thought for their subjects. He praises the longtime nbc News man Edwin Newman, then a television theater critic but on the evidence adduced here not at all an interesting or especially perceptive one, for habitually making the effort to say something nice about a given show. Goldman turns the profession of criticism inside out with his approach, but in fact it is no part of a critic’s job to be kind to his subjects. A critic writes solely for his audience, and he is betraying its members if he is anything other than completely honest in his appraisal. Every time a critic downplays failure, he is misleading the people who pay his wages.
Goldman does some considerable slapping around of Clive Barnes, who from the highest perch of lead critic at the Times wielded the power to break a production (if not, as Goldman points out, necessarily to make one: rave reviews can float a show, but word of mouth can soon sink it regardless). Most of Goldman’s sallies against Barnes (my colleague for some years at the New York Post before his 2008 death, though I barely knew him) are cheap shots that have little to do with the caliber of Barnes’s writing, such as his repeated (and angry) mentions of Barnes having once been late to a show because, being a celebrity, he had given a lecture in Pittsburgh that same day. Goldman is also irritated by Barnes’s having simultaneously held the Times’s position as dance critic, but offers no particularly cogent reasons why.
It’s far too rare to come across a theater lover who dares to mock Pinter’s strange career in purposeful bafflement.
Goldman charges Jack Kroll, then the theater critic of Newsweek, with the crime of being a “supercritic,” by which he means a contrarian. Similar charges have been laid at my door, and I am always baffled by the underlying assumption that I am in the habit of writing the opposite of what I secretly believe. In other words, I construct and elaborate an argument that I know to be specious for the purpose of . . . what exactly? Being odd? It’s hard enough to formulate a piece of criticism without assigning myself the additional workload of devising an elaborate ruse to conceal my true thoughts. From the examples given, Kroll (who died in 2000 after thirty-six years at Newsweek) had somewhat eccentric taste in theater. Should that be disqualifying? If so, is the ideal critic one whose taste is nearest to that of the average viewer? That sounds more like a weather vane than an analyst. If we want to know which shows are generally liked and which are not, we may consult the box-office chart. For all his perspicacity, Goldman simply cannot grant that two reasonable, well-informed, insightful people can assign completely different values to a piece of art.
In a few other notably weak chapters, Goldman is strangely hostile to Mike Nichols, then perhaps the most revered director on Broadway, and to Tom Stoppard’s career-making Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which Goldman brushes off as the “snob hit” of the season (though, of course, reasonable people may disagree). That R & G is still performed, and much loved, today, and has always been a big seller in print, would seem to disprove any suspicion that it was simply a late-Sixties fad. Goldman was an immensely gifted practitioner of linear storytelling, but the existentialist and avant-garde theater has its moments as well. Which brings me to Goldman’s brilliant, wickedly funny, and delightfully sacrilegious chapter on Harold Pinter: it’s a little unfair, but only a little. It’s far too rare to come across a theater lover who dares to mock Pinter’s strange career in purposeful bafflement.
Some of the finest and most insightful chapters are Goldman’s autopsies of disaster. Sandy Dennis was then one of theater’s most sought-after leading ladies, and just before the book begins she has captured the Academy Award for her supporting role in Nichols’s film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? On Broadway, she had transfixed critics and drawn crowds playing an adorable nymph in Any Wednesday. Goldman explains in vivid detail how she called the shots on a play called Daphne in Cottage D, and though it probably didn’t have a chance anyway, she ensured its destruction with her neuroticism. (“Soon, Dennis was rewriting the play with scissors, literally, cutting out sections here, pasting them in there, making the script as she wanted it at that given moment. She was out of control, and no one could stop her.”) In a later chapter, “The Muscle,” Goldman develops the case of Dennis into an explanation of how each production is ruled by a single autocrat—it may be the producer, the director, one of the stars, or (less often) even the writer. After Daphne flopped, critics started to notice Dennis’s trademark hesitancy, fumbling, and mannerisms, and soon after this book was published she was demoted from critics’ darling to nobody’s.
At the other end of a career, the Thirties Hollywood star Jean Arthur, who hadn’t done anything for years, agreed to make what all expected to be a triumphant return to the public eye with a comedy, Richard Chandler’s The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake.This was one of many current plays about a square getting turned on by hippies (in this case, a spinster who goes to Greenwich Village to seek her niece) but managed severely to underperform expectations anyway, thanks to moronic decisions and hilarious bad luck (“at the first call, the curtain came down and almost hit Miss Arthur on the top of the head. She barely managed to jump back, and somebody said, ‘You should have let it hit you, Jean’ ”). Arthur (the sole attraction) began to skip performances, claiming nervous exhaustion, and the play closed in previews, though it lives on among aficionados as one of the most delectable disasters of the era.
Prognostications are usually amusing to revisit after the fact, and Goldman’s suggested reforms make for worthwhile reading: he got some things right and was in the ballpark with other suggestions, but was far too pessimistic about the future of what appeared to him a sickly business. Broadway grew to a record $1.8 billion in sales in 2018 and was just under that in 2019, with every theater in regular use. Goldman would have been stunned. A look at Hair leads to an accurate prophecy of “a spate of shitty rock musicals,” but Goldman’s weary analysis of “ice,” the practice of reselling tickets above face value and pocketing the untaxed cash proceeds, which was made possible because the best tickets were consistently underpriced at the box office, proved easily fixable by letting the market work to the advantage of theaters. That’s why premium seats to Hamilton cost $850 at the box office before the pandemic (though brokers were still involved, albeit at a reduced level).
Goldman spends some energy arguing that since audiences are far more interested in weekend shows and matinees, the performance schedule should be compressed to four days a week, with four daytime and four evening shows. This wasn’t a practical idea (two shows a day is brutal on performers), but he was onto something that it took a surprisingly long time for theater to consider: the audience’s scheduling needs. Curtain time was at 8:30 in the late Sixties, which meant suburbanites and even people living in some parts of the city would be lucky to make it home by midnight. These days, shows start at eight most nights, but at seven on others, which allows people to get home by 10:30 on, say, a Tuesday night. Broadway’s half-price ticket booth tkts (which opened in 1973) created more flexibility and transparency on pricing and made it easy for theater lovers to find last-minute options in a ticket supermarket. In any case, theaters are no longer empty on Tuesday nights.
Or rather, they wouldn’t be empty on Tuesday nights if there were any theater going on. At the moment, Broadway is considering a September reopening. Broadway cannot function with “social distancing,” so theaters will have to resume packing people together as usual. But by the time you read these words perhaps five million New Yorkers and many millions more suburbanites will have been vaccinated. Enough of fear, let the orchestra start warming up. The next time you hear from me I hope to have some new productions to describe.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 39
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