Read an Excerpt
The Drama Is Coming NowThe Theater Criticism of Richard Gilman, 1961-1991
By Richard Gilman
Yale University PressCopyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Drama Is Coming Now
The spirit of an age is known to reveal itself in everything that the age conspires to say about its engagements with itself. We have spoken about ourselves, which really means that we have spoken to ourselves, more characteristically, more obliquely, more problematically, in painting and sculpture than in the other arts. Here our dialogue has been driven by a greater underground fury, frustration in apparent freedom; here we find the aggressive jest and the sense of exhausted yet tenacious conventions still to be overcome. The novel and the film are only occasionally used for their proper purposes, and when they are they approach the graphic arts and become our autobiography. The rest is noise. It used to be that the other arts aspired toward the condition of music, but it is more nearly true to say that they now wish to reach the condition of painting and sculpture. Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Brancusi-with their solid, unhistorical, and nonexplanatory objects, their breaking of the mirror-are the sovereign examples.
And what about the theater? Even more heavily bound as it is to the social, to"communication," than the forms it resembles most, fiction and the cinema, it has fallen steadily behind an age in which the social is undecipherable and communication, like sleep, is impossible if you set out to achieve it. Where once the stage was the unparalleled means of a society's gaining a sense of itself and of all destiny, of life's winning through to formal and self-replenishing vision, it has become in all but a handful of its manifestations a wearisome repetition of what so many of its remaining devotees, like lovers blind to the withdrawal of love, continue to insist it is supposed to be. If it were not for the handful of plays (and they are the best plays of our time) that declare themselves to be other than what drama has always been taken for, we would be too bored and dispirited even to go on thinking about it. Yet there is something to think about, indeed by now something to overtake.
What we have to catch up with, we who are concerned with the theater and particularly with the theater in the United States where it has perennially suffered from the conviction that beauty originates in the pocketbook of the beholder and is a matter of seduction, is, at the very least, a consciousness of what has been happening to the bases of drama. We need an articulated consciousness, one that spreads among the practitioners and invades the theaters or, at any rate, one that cannot help being heard no matter what its efficacy will be allowed to be.
No one thinks we can create a new drama by fiat or speculation or through aesthetic manifestos or manuals of more promising techniques. But it remains true that we may impede the arrival or growth of any possible theater of truth and substance simply by failing to rid ourselves of the accumulated and inherited notions, which come more and more to resemble prejudices, which we have relied on up to now to carry us past the difficulties in the way of understanding the nature of dramatic art. In Six Characters in Search of an Author there is this admonition: "The drama is coming now, sir, something new, complex, most interesting." As spectators, participants, and evaluators we have not even begun to deal with the changes that have already taken place, much less prepare ourselves for what is newer still.
In America, of course, apart from the hermetic activity of the professionally enslaved, we almost never deal with new aesthetic phenomena until they have overwhelmed us with their multiplied presence, until, that is to say, they have become aesthetic norms. We continued to talk about Hemingway (and still do) chiefly in terms of his preoccupations, his values, obsessions, and possible neuroses until long after it was evident that his importance lay in his having changed the face of prose. Axel's Castle was a revelation to most of us, but the miracle was that nobody before Edmund Wilson had appropriated the material that had been lying so long at hand. Today we steadfastly ignore the new French novelists, who are doing the most interesting work of the moment, and make a mountain out of an artistic molehill of a novel like Ship of Fools.
We write about the movies as sociologists or technicians or chroniclers of nostalgia, and mourn or praise like warring philosophers the disappearance of the human image from modern painting. Except in regard to poetry, where we have been blessed (or cursed) with the New Criticism's unflagging attentiveness, we have never had anything like that close, public, reciprocal relationship between aesthetic theory and practice such as the French, to take the supreme example, have never failed to keep up. There are those of us who are embarrassed or dismayed by such a liaison, but are we better off for having adhered instead to the two-fisted, red-blooded proposition that those who can, do and those who can't, teach?
The drama has suffered more than the other arts from the disjuncture between thought and activity that is so characteristic of our cultural life. The American drama is itself almost mindless; we weep for the intellectual deficiencies of Miller and Williams and for the existence of O'Neill as our monument to the hairbreadth victory of naked will and raw energy over language and idea, a victory that nevertheless leaves the major laurels on other brows. But our theater also suffers from a great reluctance to being thought about, except in the most sanctified and unoriginal ways. If the stage in America has produced so little that is permanent, revelatory, and beautiful, one reason for that is surely its aversion, which resembles that of "masculine" Americans to poetry or practical businessmen to Harvard theoreticians, to being discussed as an art, or at least as an art whose lineaments cannot be traced in all the standard, echo-bequeathing textbooks. If we set out to discover the art of drama on the theater shelves we are led to taking seriously Robert E. Sherwood and Sidney Kingsley, Lillian Hellman, William Inge, and Paddy Chayefsky.
It is doubtless also true that the notorious fate on American stages of the most important and life-giving European drama-our mangling, perverting, or simply letting go down the drain every valuable accession from abroad, from Ibsen and Chekhov to Brecht, Lorca, Beckett, Ghelderode, and Genet (we all have our memories of anguish in this regard)-stems far more radically from a failure of intellect, from a refusal to believe that intellect has anything to do with theater, than from a deficiency of mechanical skills or technique (which is in the end, however, almost nothing but a question of a certain kind of intelligence).
Intelligence is the last virtue we seek in our directors of "significant" foreign plays, for example. "Theatrical sense," éclat, professional briskness, inventiveness of the order of those star salesmen who "put over" a new product-these come first by a wide margin, on Broadway and, with its atrocious timidity and pretentiousness, Off-Broadway as well; and it is a measure of our hopelessness in the matter that when we do decide to make a gesture in the direction of mind we apotheosize a director like Tyrone Guthrie or José Quintero or Elia Kazan, bowing to them as if they were the Platos of the theater, when the truth is that they have become, if they were ever not, its Walt Disneys and Cecil B. DeMilles.
We have absorbed the European novel into our own, we have taken over and now outdistanced European painting, but a chasm remains between our theater, our conception of drama and theirs. We still do not understand what they are about; and we go on believing that we can effect our regeneration without such understanding. We wish to come to life again, or for the first time, without recognizing what the theater's true life is in our time. The point is that if the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet are permanent and inexhaustible, in themselves and especially in comparison with anything we have offered the world's stages, it is not simply because this European drama exhibits a greater complexity or a more direct involvement with crucial existence than our own, but because these plays in their various modes approach the theater as a means of knowing and not merely as a means of expression.
(But of course we may continue to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the world makes a bigger thing of our accomplishments than some of us do. The world is wrong. If it pays extravagant homage to O'Neill, Williams, Miller, and now Albee, it is partly because an illusion is at work, the illusion of refreshment or inspiration from primitive sources common to minds tired of thought and subtlety, and also to minds that have never known them; the illusion that led Gide to call Dashiell Hammett our greatest novelist and other Frenchmen to adulate Horace McCoy; the illusion that leads a culture like Israel's, from the other extreme, to specialize in O'Neill in the belief that he is the shortest way back to the ancient Greeks and so to high "seriousness" on the stage.)
In Pirandello's Six Characters there is another moment of warning and illumination. At one point the stepdaughter protests against the attempt of the father, and by implication of the dramatist who has placed all six "characters" in existence, to make their story theatrically viable. "He wants to get at his 'cerebral drama,'" she cries out, "to have his famous remorses and torments acted; but I want to act my part, my part!" The speech functions as one of the elements building the play to the realization of its theme, which may be described as the suffering produced by the conflict between levels of reality. But in its ironic suggestion that it is just the exigencies of the theatrical impulse that endanger the possibility of arriving at truth, the speech has a wider reference: it is expressive of the situation of modern drama, caught in a self-consciousness which it must draw upon to give itself strength, no longer straightforwardly celebrating the mysteries or dilemmas of existence but having moved to a position among them.
The speech also throws light on some of the problems of drama criticism in an age when the textbooks are exceptionally useless. We are still heavily involved, despite all the evidence to the contrary which continually arranges itself under our noses, in the fixed notion of drama as the enactment of passions, "cerebral" or otherwise, "famous" or, as is increasingly the case, quite the opposite. We go on thinking of a play as a structure in which to trap, shape, control, exemplify, and give significance to the major passions or to their perversions, which we further expect to embody themselves in the form of characters who will then work out their destinies along the unreeling line of a plot.
Yet if anything is true about drama as an art it is that it has passed through a transformation-has pressed its way through one-which has brought it to the condition of denying the usefulness of the passions as material, or at least their usefulness as long as they remain mummified within the inherited rigidities and spent predictabilities of traditional characterization and plotting. And this is one of the results of a more profound process. The drama, like the other arts, was alienated from itself and its immediate ancestry and then, subsequently, it recovered its own being through self-mockery, wit, fantasy, aggression, and ironic handling of its materials.
It should be a commonplace by now that all the representative art of our time is marked by a questioning-implicit or otherwise, comic mostly, extravagant, remorseless-of the very nature, purpose, and validity of art itself. We see this in the whole of twentieth-century art, from Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce to Kafka, Pirandello, Brecht, Mann, the surrealists, Jackson Pollock, the pop painters and sculptors (who are representative of the latest twist of the knife upon which art is impaled when it repeats itself too long), the a-novelists, Beckett, Antonioni, Ionesco, Nabokov, and Genet. This questioning is what fixes "modern art" and most radically separates it from what came before. From Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken to the poems of Wallace Stevens to Mann's Doctor Faustus the testing and interrogation of art can be observed in many concrete instances. But even when it is not the direct subject of the work it informs the creative action throughout the modern period. And that this examination stemming from doubt and despair should have led to a revivification of the imagination and its forms is surely one of the paradoxical glories of our notably inglorious age.
Pirandello was one of the most conscious of the artists who have made the imagination do new duty, struggling at each moment with its treacherous inclinations and forcing it back to the business of truth. To act out a cerebral drama or to present us with remorses and torments, passions which are arbitrary and selective and therefore certain to do violence to the wholeness of truth, the step-daughter in his play is saying, is to make it impossible for me to act my part, my truth, which I only wish to offer as the direct revelation of myself, the unmediated history of what has happened, and not the dramatization, reductive and distorting, of someone's idea of the way things happen.
The tension is between art and life, between knowledge and actuality, and the spiral of irony and paradox rises to an extreme height because of the fact that the girl is of course a dramatic creation to begin with. As such, she is fighting for her life within a play which is in turn fighting for its life within a larger play-the play itself -which is struggling for its own existence ... that is to say, struggling toward a dramatic mode which will enable it to overcome the obstacles blocking the way to truth.
The stepdaughter wishes, in other words, not to be a character, an arbitrary creation, but an identity, a reality, in the same way that drama, in Pirandello's practice, as in that of every other serious playwright of our time, wishes not to be the reflection of life, its staged version, but a reality, a counterpart or analogue. To act out known passions is to persist-as the most vigorous and original recent drama has told us by negation and new steps-in being the reflection of a life that in its loss of self-knowledge and confidence desires only to be handed back mirror images. These passions are useless because they are encrusted with a type of language that no longer describes the feelings themselves; beyond this they are fixed in those various flows of actions that have been repeated again and again because it is thought that there is no other way to present them. And it is these conventions, operating in the name of emotions, that serve to prevent any renewal or resummoning of passion from showing itself to us.
The analogy is, of course, with abstract painting's movement of repudiation and changed aims, its creation of a universe in which shapes, colors, and lines exist in their own right and not as the attributes or properties of objects that have their definition in the world of fact outside art. Such an analogy should not be carried too far; the best contemporary plays are not to be distinguished by their abstractness (the attempt at creating a theater of pure abstraction, in the manner of the experiments at the Bauhaus, the work of a playwright like Jean Tardieu, the Dadaists, or even Ionesco's slim, half-hearted, and mostly theoretical efforts in that direction, have resulted in not much more than some specimens of curiosa). Drama is nothing if not concrete. But there clearly are affinities between the relinquishment of subject in most recent painting and sculpture and the abandonment of character and the accompanying revolution in the concept of plot, character's milieu, that have come to be the characteristic features of certain dramas in our time. In both cases it is a matter of coming back to the truth, which lay disguised and impotent under the automatic functioning of convention. It is necessary to sketch the course of drama's entire revolution before returning to this rediscovery.
Excerpted from The Drama Is Coming Now by Richard Gilman Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.