I must confess that I am not a proper estimator of theatre in America because I see too few productions. But I have my own experience as reference as well as reports I get from writer, actor and director friends.
It seems clear, now in 1992, that we are the end of something. Without indulging in overblown praise for theatre in the ’40s and ’50s, I do think that on the whole theatre had far greater importance than it does now, not least for actors. Television held much less promise then of either fame, steady work or income for actors. And the movies, while always attractive to them for obvious reasons, did not gobble them up as they have since.
Judging from my own experience and that of several very active director and writer friends, theatre now is a minor adjunct of the film media. It is basically a training ground for movies and television, the ultimate evidence of success. The people eager to play in theatre are for one reason or another not wanted in TV or the movies. This doesn’t mean they are lesser talents necessarily, merely that as types they do not attract roles in film or TV. To be blunt about it, the mature actors, people who have learned the trade and in other eras would be ready for the great roles, are not interested in theatre. The money is ludicrously low compared to the film media, the work is much harder, and the chances of being blasted out of the water by critics immeasurably higher. What is the point?
When a well-known actor, not to speak of a “star,” accepts a stage role now it is almost always for a limited time, three months or perhaps four or five, at most. And when a young actor who was previously unknown makes an impression in a play and is offered TV or film work, he is gone before he has practically learned all his lines. A director I know, who is probably a typical example, had a big Off-Broadway (really near-Broadway) hit recently in which the cast was replaced three times in a matter of months. The man kept directing the same play for a quarter of a year, and he does this all the time.
Can you blame the actors? I used to years ago, when, for instance, after a few months on Broadway, Lee Cobb quit the part of Willy Loman to gallop off as a movie sheriff. That cannon of an actor was using himself as peashooter when he had a talent that could have developed into a major force in world theatre. Of course he never did.
The waste of people is what bothers me. That and my own inconvenience, of course, when it is so bloody hard to find mature people for my own plays, old and new. Theatre is the fifth wheel of a wagon that only really needs four.
This is not only an American dilemma, of course. Actors in London ae not eager to tie themselves up for the run of play on the West End, for fear they will lose a TV series or a great film role. But what they have in London, and we don’t have here, is a subsidized group of theatres which keeps alive and sparkling so both the old repertoire and new plays that need big and mature acting. As for France, Germany and Italy, commercial theatre is barely extant, the main work being done by either tiny Off Broadway-type theatres or the main subsidized houses.
I daren’t looke too far ahead for fear I will see only a downward slope for us. I think it a miracle even now when something really first-class is done, and there are a very few such productions still. It seems to me our level of work is barely acceptable most of the time, and lower than that too much of the time. And how could it be otherwise with the kind of insecurity, cynicism and haphazardness we live with? I could be wrong, but I think this country is bursting with talent and it is being wasted like so much else that is human among us, when it is not brought up at its first youthful bloom, and then is too often tossed aside. It seems to me we don’t have an American theatre but only the shards of one, some of the broken pieces reflecting lights, others covered with the dust where they have fallen.
Theatre is not at an end only because so many people want desperately to act and write and directed and design. “Always the young strangers,” as Carl Sandburg wrote. But our system is simply kicking them in the teeth most of the time. It’s a pity. The vision of a prideful theatre, with art rather than cynical greed at its center, is still beyond the horizon.