At the risk of turning my own creeping anecdotage into a shortcut to perceptible truth, I’m prepared to share a tale told me in Houston some months ago, a familiar tale, one might say, about a poet confronted by a mob. Seven young acting interns with Houston’s Alley Theatre were scheduled to perform a mini-version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at a local high school. Upon arriving there, they discovered that their performance had been canceled; the school, unable to raise money for their fee, couldn’t in good conscience continue to sell $5 tickets to the students who, at any rate, weren’t buying them. Undaunted, the Alley troupe gave the performance as a benefit, no doubt suffering, as actors do, from the loving, lunatic disease known as The Show Must Go On.
But hark, what discord followed: Actors usually know in a flashing instant when they’ve lost even a fraction of their audience; in this case, however, they could scarcely hear their own voices, let alone the dialogue of their colleagues, since the teenagers had evidently decided that they had been dropped unwittingly into a giant living-room-kitchen in which the images on that strange, dimensional screen up ahead were meant only to be quaint accompaniment to brawls, catcalls and throwaway junk food.
It’s easy to round up the usual suspects in such cases – TV as our primary educator, transforming public discourse into sound-bites and game shows, to say nothing of the truly lacerating disparities between Christian-Judaic claims on conscience and our national contempt for citizens outside the market economy of arms sales, drug traffic and banking scams. If painful problems can be reduced relentlessly to slogans and barely disguised calls to even more divisiveness, then it’s no wonder that imagination and all its wondrous uses are never an issue at all, or if they are, only when taxpayers are ready to be offended.
Given the suspects, it’s possible to reserve a sneaking sympathy for that rowdy crowd, not exactly primed for a 16th-century dramatic poet who talks funny and dolls up actors in weird frocks. It may be moderately instructive, however, to consider what they missed by shouting their way through Julius Caesar. For a start, there’s the thrilling story with enough inherent mayhem to satisfy anybody’s cravings for enacted violence. True, sex is minimalist in the play, but surely JFK-addicts might be stopped cold, if only for the appointed hour, by Shakespeare’s wholly persuasive and partially accurate account of a genuine conspiracy to kill a popular boss. But what they also missed – and the irony shouldn’t escape us – was an opportunity to turn their instinctive aggression into a more cultivated version: the bias against theatre shared by the best and the wisest, such as Vladimir Nabokov, for whom theatre was “a barbaric form having to do with hev-nonny-no and that kind of thing.”
If it’s a matter of comparative barbarisms, the Houston kids are in good, even distinguished, company. To be fair to Nabokov, the source for that quotation is Martin Amis, who adds that he doesn’t like theatre himself: “Once you’ve seen Chekhov you’re scouring the third division of gloomy Scandinavians,” he says, as if Ibsen and Strindberg, masters of the barbaric form, should hang their heads in the presence of 20th-century British novelists.
Amis, in turn, was responding to questions published last February in Britain’s Sunday Independent, asked of 20 reasonably well-known Londoners – in the words of the interviewer, “intelligent people, with no axe to grind.” Her suspicion is “that the number of people who never read novels, never go to the cinema, never listen to music, or never watch drama, light or otherwise, on television, is much as it ever was; but those who never go to the theatre, and don’t feel bad about it, are on the increase.” Her informal count is that, with the exception of the novelist Marina Warner, who claims to be seeing 24 plays each year, the average number of visits of the other 19 seems to hover between four and six. More fascinating than the statistics are the comments slipped in by enthusiasts and loathers alike, revealing a division between those who go to plays in order to be amused and those – a distinct minority – who go to be aroused. There’s the geneticist who finds that “TV is a more efficient way of getting entertainment than watching a bunch of actors pissing around.” Then Vogue’s editor weighs in with the observation that “people don’t necessarily like to be challenged in their evenings,” especially, I have to suppose, if they’ve been dozing over Vogue all day. Even the editor of Private Eye finds that “going to the theatre is a bit too risky, really.” One barrister, mercifully, says that “too many theatres are playing safe.” But more common is the view of Graham Swift, still another novelist harboring doubt, if not hostility, about the theatre’s capacity to be at the center of experience: “That I once went more often is partly a reflection,” he says, “of my apathy and partly of the state of the theatre.”
Kenneth Tynan once referred to the hapless merging of a deadly theatrical occasion with an apathetic audience as “the bland leading the bland.” For me, it’s now the dumb leading the numbed – imitations of imitations that could just as easily be comic strips, sit-coms or sit-tragedies (disease-of-the-week plays) for an audience no longer conditioned know the difference. Hamlet was an optimist envisioning the play as the mirror held to nature, but what would he said about the narcotic against our nature Shakespeare’s daring conceit is that the play can be the chief instrument of detection – a means of knowing. Yet when fails to represent a true journey, when it confounds what we already know, when it descends to routine, adding one more layer to the enveloping amnesia, it is surely abandoning itself and our primal needs.
Several months before those 20 interviews, theatre practitioners themselves responded to the Independents end-of-year questions about “their hopes an fears for the new year.” In eerie contrast to our own situation, Richard Eyre of the Royal National Theatre and Stephen Daldrey, new at the Royal Court, agree that 1992 will be the year “we’ll see more talk about art and less talk about money.” And Daldrey adds that “the argument about government subsidy seems to have been won.” Others converge on the conviction that new writing will be attracting new audiences, with Eyre citing the works of Robert Lepage in Canada for its combination of “very exciting visual theatre with meticulous attention to text and actors.” Most intriguing of all is Daldrey’s view that “we’re moving from |cold’ theatre to |warm’ theatre,” adding that “the ’80s was a time of cynicism, symbolism and conceptual theatre,” and now – he believes – “we’re moving into a more emotional and full-blooded theatre.”
Leaving aside my suspicion that British warmth might be expected to leave a trail of chill winds, it’s warming enough just to nuzzle up to their optimism. A recent discussion at the New School for Social Research in New York told me all I don’t want to know about our own circumstance. For an hour-and-a-half, Harvey Lichtenstein, director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Nathan Leventhal, head of Lincoln Center; and JoAnne Akalaitis of the New York Shakespeare Festival talked all too persuasively about nothing but money, their language a vivid reminder that, as Lichtenstein put it, “We’re dealing with loss.” And, of course, when not talking about money, they were sharing strategies about censorship and the “onslaught” on the National Endowment of the Arts. “We are,” says Lichtenstein, “under siege.”
Not unlike the Alley’s interns in Houston, where Shakespeare, not Cinna the poet, was murdered. Who were the poets in that audience, unknown to themselves, who have no idea they’re here not merely to live, but to transform experience and transcend themselves? Who are the actors who might otherwise dig deeper into experience if only to find more of themselves and, not incidentally, a variant of the fun once known in their playpens? Who are the ringleaders who have not yet discovered that directing plays and actors may be the least lethal form of power ever devised? And who, finally, are the members of an audience one day fated to have that shock of recognition available in the compressed time chamber of a well-wrought play, that brief hour in which all life suddenly unfolds before them?
I’m not suggesting that lives careening into contingency without introspective pause can be helped by hushed attention to Julius Caesar. Yet I’m willing to bet that the plainest assertions sprinkling from iambic murk – “The readiness is all,” for one, or Lear’s repeated “never” – might act on behalf of those essential shifts in consciousness we all need when facing the darkness of the new day. Even Beckett’s devastating “nothing to be done” is proof against despair. The play itself is something to be done. Deficient in physics as I am, I keep insisting that the shortest distance between two points is a good play. Granted, obsession comes with the territory: Shakespeare’s 37-play burnout over 20 years is evidence enough. Meanwhile, how to explain Goldoni’s golden one hundred, or Goethe’s absurdly prodigious life, or Moliere’s exhausting playfulness? But even if obsession is not for everyone, it can be momentarily catching, offering glimpses into possibility, and in the case of postmodern theatre Works at their most mysterious – Robert Wilson at his best – visions as fresh and surprising as Cezanne’s apples or Matisse’s delicious paper cutouts.
My own fantasy is that American theatre artists will one day come together in order to mount a month-long work stoppage, particularly in New York and Los Angeles. Suddenly, theatres would be dark, and so, too, the restaurants, taxis and hotels, better still, the sympathy strikers in film and TV studios, the network anchors, all the technicians, would bring merciful silence to our airwaves. Everybody would soon be reminded that actors, just for one sub-species, have been trained for a theatre that scarcely exists while peddling their wares for auxiliary theatrical forms that have never once returned a dollar to the theatre for the rare gift of their exploited talents. At last, the public would make the connection between the practical presence of theatre as the generative force behind their casual entertainments and – in New York at least – the thousands of jobs that wouldn’t exist without it.
But there I go again; true to our condition, musing about money when, instead, I might be dreaming of occasions like the Royal Shakespeare’s recent performances of Sophocles’ Electra in Northern Ireland. One woman said of Fiona Shaw’s Electra: “I thought of Mrs. Kelly whose son was killed on Bloody Sunday and how they would find her several years afterwards lying on his grave in the cemetery with earth smeared on her face.” Another kept remembering the hunger strikers, and one man, weary of TV images of mothers and widows marching against retaliation, said, “You forget what they must be feeling inside.” Evidently, public event and intimate drama converge when nobody’s talking about money. “The readiness is all.”