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Plays, Movies, and Critics

This exceptional collection explores the mutual concerns of dramatic theater, film, and those who comment on them. Plays, Movies, and Critics opens with an original play by Don DeLillo. In the form of an interview, DeLillo's short play works as a kind of paradigm of the theatrical or cinematic event and serves as a keynote for the volume.
DeLillo's interview play is accompanied in this collection by interviews with theater director Roberta Levitow, Martin Scorsese, and film/theater critic Stanley Kauffmann. Other contributions include a critical look at the current American theater scene, analyses of the place of politics in the careers of G. B. Shaw and Luigi Pirandello, a compelling reading of Chekhov's "The Seagull", a detailed inquiry into the obsessions that energize the works of Sam Shepard, provocative reinterpretations of the films Mean Streets and The Sheltering Sky, and a translation of André Bazin's important piece on theology and film.
Originally published as a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly (Spring 1992), this book has been expanded to include a new introduction by the editor and an afterword by Jonathan Kalb.

Contributors. André Bazin, Robert Brustein, Bert Cardullo, Anthony DeCurtis, Don DeLillo, Jesse Ward Engdhal, Richard Gilman, Jim Hosney, Mame Hunt, Jonathan Kalb, Stanley Kauffmann, Jody McAuliffe, Mary Ann Frese Witt, Jacquelyn Wollman, David Wyatt

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822314189
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/13/1994
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.93(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

Plays, Movies, and Critics

By Jody McAuliffe

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9913-1


The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven

Don DeLillo

TENNIS PLAYER, a man in his early twenties INTERVIEWER, an older man or woman The TENNIS PLAYER, all in white, falls to his knees at the moment of triumph—head thrown hack, eyes closed, arms raised, one fist clenched, the racket in the other hand. He is frozen in this pose, his body glowing in strong light, with darkness all around.

At the sound of the INTERVIEWER'S voice, the TENNIS PLAYER begins to rotate as if on an axis, completing a single 360-degree turn in the course of the play.

The INTERVIEWER carries a hand mike and walks out of the darkness about five seconds after he begins speaking. He circles the TENNIS PLAYER, moving in the opposite direction, stopping occasionally, making as many revolutions as the monologue allows.

INTERVIEWER: How special it must feel, Bobby, finishing off a career in this fashion, it must feel like a culmination you could only dream of years ago, growing up without a role model, without a high school on a hill, using a borrowed racket that smelled of someone else, it must feel like a vindication, an affirmation, winning the big one at last, the one that's eluded you all these years and in all these ways until today, playing before the Queen, the King, the Jack, the Ace, growing up without a blond girl in a Buick, without a girl with long and tawny legs who rocks beside you on the porch swing, coming from behind to win the match they said you'd never win, the doubters and skeptics, the pundits, the clever little men with bad bodies, how sweet it must be to reach your goal at last, so many disappointments, so much sorrow, growing up without sideburns or a personal savior, totally missing the point of rock and roll, undersized and out of breath but determined to prevail, it must feel like a restoration, an eternalization, growing up without a mom in flat-heeled shoes, finding a racket in the bracken and taking it to bed, obsessed, depressed, a boy without a girl in a blue Buick, how transforming it must feel, a blond girl with a tawny body slightly shiny in the moonlight, answering your critics at last, the naysayers and doomsayers, the gloom purveyors, the nihilists and realists, playing before the Queen Mother, the Gay Father, the Battered Wives, tell us quickly how it feels, growing up without a junior year abroad, so many failures, so much sadness, we're desperately eager to hear, it must feel like a permutation, a concatenation, growing up without a girl in a tawny field, a sunlit blond in a summer dress who lets you put your hand, who lets you touch, who says shyly in the night, growing up without an old covered bridge nearby, how super it must feel to achieve your biggest thrill as an athlete on the last day of your life, to know the perfection of the body even as your skin loses heat and energy and hair and nails, and now we're all enfolded in your arms, you are the culture that contains us, we're running out of time, so tell us quickly, time is short, tell us now.

The INTERVIEWER fades into shadow before he finishes speaking.

The TENNIS PLAYER completes his rotation.

He remains motionless in intense white light for five seconds.



Reinventing American Theater

Robert Brustein

The theater, usually at odds with reality, seems to be imitating nature in one important regard: its cycles of death and rebirth. Something seems to be dying, and, as with all seasonal changes, something new is struggling to be born. The death of the theater has been celebrated so many times now that nobody bothers to mention it anymore. Instead, the print and broadcast media are behaving as though grass is already growing on the grave. In the past, the state of the theater's health would be argued in intellectual magazines, popular newspapers, and trade journals, in living rooms and bars, even in the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. Today, the question is treated with a vacuous and rather bored silence. The Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times—who remembers when it was once called the Theater section?—can barely squeeze out an article about the stage once every two or three weeks on its front page. Nor does discussion often focus on the American theater. Instead, we find Frank Rich or Benedict Nightingale celebrating the riches to be found in London, and when Mel Gussow does a follow-up review of some item of the Broadway season, that is usually an English import, too. The Times has three full-time reviewers, and another two or three part-time contributors; but considering how seldom they appear in the daily cultural pages—once or twice a week at most—it would be more economical to pay them an hourly wage.

Newsweek has drastically reduced the space of its regular theater critic, Jack Kroll, so that he rarely appears in print unless covering some monumental event—like Peter Brooks's Mahabharata or the London theater season. Time magazine is more generous to its reviewer, William Henry III. But most New York newspapers feature reviews that read like telex copy, not much different in kind from the encapsulated asides of the coiffured pundits of TV. The Village Voice still makes an effort to cover most New York theater events (so does Variety from another perspective), and its writers constitute the largest reviewing staff on any current newspaper. But even that lively enterprise is now buried under ads and personals, a considerably eviscerated effort in contrast to an era when half the paper was devoted to the stage.

As for the serious magazines, neither Harper's nor Atlantic has carried a theater article in years—an exception was David Denby's Theaterophobia, a savage attack on the stage. I'm still writing in The New Republic, but my once-weekly column now appears monthly, by editorial decree. John Simon continues to rage weekly at helpless moving objects in New York magazine, but that's less a species of criticism than a blood sport, to be recorded in the annals of bull-baiting. There was a time when every serious magazine reserved considerable space in order to examine what was happening in theater—when Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag were reviewing for Partisan Review, when Elizabeth Hardwick was covering theater for the New York Review, when the New Leader featured Albert Bermel, The Nation had Harold Clurman (later Alan Schneider and Richard Gilman), and Wilfrid Sheed and Richard Gilman were writing for Commonweal. Even the Hudson Review had regular reviewers, John Simon among them, where he had the opportunity to be more reflective than reflexive. And Commentary—in the years before the editors began to see Reds in every dressing room—was noted for its sociological overviews of the American stage. Indeed, at one time virtually every American intellectual felt a compulsion to express an opinion on the state of Broadway theater.

Well, what happened? The chief thing was the decline of Broadway. We were having such a great time hurling stones at a seemingly invincible commercial target that we were unprepared when that muscular philistine fell flat on his face before the assaults. I'm not suggesting that it was our little slingshots that brought Goliath down. The issues were far more fundamental than that. But when you're flailing away against the mediocrity and meretriciousness of a powerful adversary, and it suddenly falls down, the effect can be disorienting. In any event, something unsettled many of the writers I've just named, because they abandoned theater criticism and returned to literary pursuits, thus ending that golden period, in the early 1960s, when literate theater critics were having an impact. The New York Times even asked me, a notorious highbrow, to become its daily drama reviewer, undoubtedly responding to the discontent then being expressed by the intelligentsia toward the newspaper's cultural personnel. I refused the temptation, pleading my inability to write coherent reviews in less than three days (the real reason was a hesitation to exercise instant life-and-death power over productions that took months to prepare). I recommended Stanley Kauffmann for the post. He held it for less than a year, and still hasn't forgiven me.

The end of concerted intelligent reflection on the state of our theater coincided with the deterioration of the commercial stage and the loss of a central platform for aspiring American theater artists. This left our New York-based critics with very little to write about, apart from the inferior quality of Broadway stagecraft. And how often can you write about that without falling into rage or repetition? Frank Rich is often assailed for destroying Broadway, and there's no question that sour critical judgments in the Times directly affect the barometric pressure of theater economics. But it's not necessary to agree with his opinions, or even his aesthetics, to conclude that his only critical alternative to ferocity is mendacity—or finding a less damaging place to express his views. Largely for money reasons, Broadway has degenerated into an arena for the tried-and-true: huge, numbing musicals; Neil Simonized comedies; or, at best, imports from Britain and transfers from American resident theaters. The new American play—once the proud staple of the commercial theater in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—has virtually disappeared from producers' agendas, unless it can be marketed as a variant of affirmative action, alleviating liberal guilt toward minorities or the handicapped. And the day of the genuinely original American musical is over, too, eclipsed by such grinding British juggernauts as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.

Ticket prices are clearly the main issue. The high level of producers' greed, artists' royalties, expensive theater-leasing arrangements, and union featherbedding has made a couple of seats to a Broadway show—if you count in transportation, restaurants, parking, and baby-sitting—cost as much as a couple of shares of IBM; and when the evening's over, you don't even have a dividend to show for it. At such prices, any theatergoer is going to stay home unless he's promised a blockbuster. Consequently, what was once the theater center of the world no longer has a regular theater audience. Look around the Majestic or the Winter Garden the next time you visit Broadway and see if you can recognize anybody you know. It's an audience of tourists and expense accounters, commuters traveling via bridge and tunnel. The gabby, feisty, noisy, demanding New York audience that used to mob the Broadway box office is a thing of the past. Oh, you'll probably see a few natives at the revival of Gypsy or at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But most commercial producers recognize that they haven't the slightest notion who their customers are.

And it's for that reason, I think, that so much of the current Broadway product is trite and banal. Where the criterion for staging shows once was originality and surprise, now it is the capacity to repeat successful formulas from the past. Sometimes this works. All of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's big mechanical musicals sound exactly alike to people like me, but every one of them somehow manages to start a box-office stampede. The same is true of Neil Simon, each of whose recent hit plays is just another chapter in his romanticized autobiography, tinted with rose-colored water and studded with contrived gags. It is more likely, however, that any theater work based on some previous success will seem desiccated and tired, unless it has an infusion of new artistic energy. And that energy is just what frightens conventional Broadway producers these days. You don't risk four to ten million dollars on the unknown.

But in failing to trust their audiences, the Broadway producers have been encouraging audiences not to trust them, with the result that living-room conversation these days is never about the latest play; it's about the latest movie or mini-series. Attendance is down, though box-office income continues to rise, inflated by astronomical ticket prices. Each new season is pronounced more horrible than the last. For these reasons—and because there's so little youth, vigor, excitement, or new ideas on the Broadway stage—the theater as a whole is now considered moribund. And because the intellectuals have deserted it as well, no strong voice in this country is calling attention to the fact that, far from being dead, the American theater throughout the nation may today be more advanced and more dynamic than at virtually any other time in its history.

I realize this is a large and unsupported claim. But it might seem less preposterous once it is recognized that the idea of theater has undergone a profound change during the past two decades—in its definition, its structure, its purpose, its geography. Being a market for proven commodities rather than a source of new forms, New York has been among the last areas in this nation to acknowledge this fact. Until recently, the new theater has been seen only around the city's periphery—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or at Ellen Stewart's La Mama or at the Kitchen—though the presentation of performing artists at Lincoln Center called "Serious Fun" suggests a growing awareness at its midsection.

But what a provincial village New York has become in regard to the arts. This is clear enough in opera, where the Met continues to roast old chestnuts and the City Opera is devoting more and more of its repertory to light opera and musical comedies of the past. If you want to see a new American opera, you have to fly to Chicago, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, Houston, St. Louis, Louisville, or—this is a bigger scandal—to the Netherlands and Germany, where most of Philip Glass's work has been premiered. The first-string music critic for the Times, who seems to believe that opera consists of divas clunking downstage, facing the audience, and warbling arias in situ, will invariably attack any operatic methods that depart in any way from conventional practices of composition and production. This may explain why a recent issue of the magazine Daedalus was wholly devoted to asking why New York has lost its place to Europe and regional American cities as a hospitable arena for new musical expression.

What is less commonly noticed is that the same thing is true of the stage. Decades ago, a number of theater leaders—Tyrone Guthrie and Zelda Fichhandler were the first—recognized that if theater were going to survive in this country, it was going to have to be decentralized and based on a system motivated by art, not profits. Fichhandler went to Washington and founded the Arena Stage. Guthrie—rejecting Boston because it was too close to New York—went to Minneapolis, where he not only founded a fine theater, but helped to make that city into the most progressive in the land for philanthropic support of the arts.

The earliest resident theaters in this country were formed on such British repertory models as the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the National Theatre, staging staple classics mixed with the occasional new play, performed in an acting style influenced by the great English performers (Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson). But some of the newer companies were later to explore other forms of inspiration. The Theatre of Living Arts, founded in Philadelphia by André Gregory, developed a radical, boisterous approach to the works of Beckett and Anouilh; Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theatre, especially in their early days, encouraged new American plays and began experimenting with a peculiarly American Shakespeare, based on rough-hewn styles borrowed from broad movie farces. And, if I'm permitted to mention it, the Yale Repertory Theatre, after its founding in 1966, was turning to a blend of Brecht and cabaret in approaching little-known classics and satiric new works. At the same time, the Open Theatre and, later, Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group—performance groups reflecting the influence of the Living Theatre—were exploring a whole new approach to acting in their evolution of new works for the stage.

The 1960s and early 1970s were a high point for the resident theater movement, though it must be acknowledged that after a time—largely as a result of a funding crisis caused by dwindling private foundation support and the too-slow growth of the National Endowment for the Arts—many of these theaters began to grow stale and conventional, losing their initial radical thrust. One of the proudest things about this movement in the early stages was its independence from the commercial New York stage. Now many were returning to an old role as tributaries, generating products for Broadway. Of course a good play deserves a longer life in many different venues, and there's no reason why New York should not be one of the pit stops. But this is different from actually choosing plays in order to move to Broadway, or restaging past Broadway and off-Broadway successes. A Chorus Line, though it saved Joe Papp from bankruptcy and enabled him for a while to preserve his dedication to unpopular new plays, was an early harbinger of the misalliance between nonprofit theaters and the commercial stage. Before long, resident theaters would be trying out the comedies of Neil Simon, or circulating productions of August Wilson and Into the Woods to other resident theaters as tryout stations on the way to New York.


Excerpted from Plays, Movies, and Critics by Jody McAuliffe. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction / Jody McAuliffe

The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven / Don DeLillo

Reinventing American Theater / Robert Brustein

The Seagull: Art and Love, Love and Art / Richard Gilman

The Late Beginner: Bernard Shaw Becoming a Dramatist / Stanley Kauffmann

Fascist Discourse and Pirandellian Theater / Mary Ann Frese Witt

Shepard's Split / David Wyatt

Between L.A. and New York: An Interview with Roberta Levitow / Mame Hunt

Cinema and Theology / Andre Bazin

The Passion of St. Charles: Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets / Jim Hosney, Jacquelyn Wollman, and Jesse Ward Engdahl

The Church of the Desert: Reflections on The Sheltering Sky / Jody McAuliffe

What the Streets Mean: An Interview with Martin Scorsese / Anthony DeCurtis

An Interview with Stanley Kauffmann / Bert Cardullo

Afterword: The Critic as Humanist / Jonathan Kalb

Notes on Contributors


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