Theater this past season was too rich for a once over lightly; even the often-maligned Broadway kept opening superior shows, one after the other. The offerings, from revivals of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing; ‘big band’ numbers from Jersey Boys to Grey Gardens; new plays in record numbers beginning earlier this year with Seascape, to Rabbit Hole, to the Three Days of Rain and History Boys. Let it be said at once that New York calls on superior designers, directors, actors world wide, so that production values for recent works stand at all time highs.
That sniggering old, old clich comparing Broadway with London’s West End to our detriment has been a dead-end for some time. The West End in any case has been busy recycling our musicals. A different evidence of New York theater’s vitality lies in the phenomenon of migrating players to and from Hollywood. The two industries, film and stage, have always shared popular actors, recently including Alec Baldwin, Julia Roberts, Ralph Fiennes. But there’s more to be said about this than meets the eye.
For one, plainly, theater minds its box office receipts by hiring “bankable” stars–at this writing, Vanessa Redgrave, due to appear in March 2007 in Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, is being advertised when not outright hyped. Last season, lines for tickets to see Alec Baldwin or Julia Roberts stretched around two long city blocks. But also, keeping theater popular means anchoring it firmly in the business of entertainment, in all, preventing it from slipping along the edge of big money into a black hole of art. About this, thorny issues abide. Theater is not necessarily either art or popular, nor are these automatically antithetical.
Leaving aside the idea of theater’s grand legacy from the Greeks and Shakespeare, theater made a leap into popularity with nineteenth century music hall, mainly British but also American–the reasons insofar as known lie too far afield for recital here. That ancestry, in turn, generated America’s great contribution to theater of musical comedy, which remains our most distinguished and famous export. It thrives as well in long runs on and off Broadway in several forms from Pajama Game to Grey Gardens to Awake & Sing.
For better or worse, however, a kind of conspiracy exists between actors and audience in which the latter idolize the former without learning much about how life in theater actually works. A close look is not for the faint at heart. Consider, for instance, the economic facts of young actors’ lives while practicing their craft. Some, luckily, may live off wealthy parents; most must go where they can earn a living– and that’s not on stage, although training for the profession depends on other actors and a theater. Painters and pianists may practice alone in the back room for years until they get it right. Actors need other actors. How much practice is enough? The rule lies in the result.
This situation alone implies expensive preparations for a career hedged in uncertainties apart from those entailed in those very preparations. For instance, there is no one standard criterion satisfied by a drama school diploma and requirements for graduation vary widely from school to school. Catalogues, however, show that instruction in how to make a voice falls low on a list of requisites. Random observation of Off and Off Off Broadway turns up many actors with mild speech defects, from lisping to gurgling and grunting. How they win out over the heavy competition in this city for jobs remains mysterious. A prior question: do acting students anyway aim for careers on stage (or onstage)? Film and television examine faces and bodies more closely than voices; they are visual media after all. Machines can make voices.
As for a paradoxical order of training rarely discussed, everything begins with the text and its maker, dead and alive. Yet actors have said they deliberately avoid seeing performances especially of a work they are studying so as not to be “infected” (*) by particular interpretations. So actors stay away from theater, bizarre as that sounds? Even though the older the text the greater the likelihood of misunderstandings, great and small? How well any script will be understood may be suggested by our shockingly high rate of illiteracy; that is to say, actors may read better than the average guy. At the same time, it seems that actors consider it insulting for a director to explain the meanings of a script line by line.
To return to the point about a conspiracy across the footlights, in a sense, actors train audiences in their responses, that is, beyond eliciting a particular response to a particular role or event, after all the business of acting. For instance, there is a scene in Entertaining Mr. Sloane calling for Ed (Alec Baldwin) to show mild scorn for Mr. Sloane’s (Chris Carmack’s) confidence that he can win over and take advantage of Sloane’s sister Kath (Jan Maxwell). The audience, tittering anyway throughout the action, kept exploding at every conceivable chance into bursts of laughter that obliterated Joe Orton’s witty lines. They wanted to be entertained, and whether they understood what was going on or not–the script hardly calls for intellectual exegesis–they found chances to laugh.
Then too, laughter is infectious, so that some laughter gave way to more and then to too much. The actors paused a few times to get their bearings, or to give the audience its head. Either way, the audience intruded on the stage action, breaking the conventional decorum and turning the play into a participatory entertainment. In effect, they were egging on Mr. Sloane as if their enthusiasm might alter the course of the action onstage. Theatrically, the evening it was a disaster.
Similar events occurred in Three Days of Rain. Talk about breaking the fourth wall. An eager audience anticipated every laugh, enveloping every nuance in the action in a warm, nay suffocating embrace. It took some skill on part of actors to keep the house under control, but the audience had come for the star, Julia Roberts, and it mattered not at all what did or did not occur on stage apart from her. The pity of it was not that the script (by Richard Greenberg) otherwise would have hit the sky, but that so much of it remained unheard. The audience lusted after Ms. Roberts’ every gesture, every line, as if for manna, magic, some kind of deliverance through a dose of theater. Ms Roberts is pretty and discreet and merely had to stand and show herself, rather like a religious icon. Done.
The one show actually exploiting the idea of theatrical performance as a kind of salvation was Faith Healer (by Brian Friel), also the one where the movie star actor, Ralph Fiennes, did not supercede the material. Faith Healer is an intense work beautifully played by Fiennes (as Frank Hardy) wearing a coat and fedora of the period, the ‘fifties. His prop, a large flag saying “Faith Healer” tells that he is a street performer reminiscent of buskers, though unlike them he has nothing to do with song and dance. The plot hinges on the confession of this charlatan who performs no miracle of healing, unless it is to seduce his listeners into belief. Some lines are exquisite, telling a strange tale that structurally is all middle, without a beginning and obviously without an end.
The tale unfolds in four monologues by Mr. Fiennes, Miss Cherry Jones, Mr. Ian McDiarmid, and then Mr. Fiennes again. The piece in this sense is anti-dramatic; there is no interaction among characters and no plot. Frank Hardy tells his story, taken up by the wife, Grace, who loved him. Her memory amounts to a romantic lyric before mentioning him; thereafter it grows tough and harsh as he fills her thoughts. “I never believed him,” she cries out, denying him and exonerating herself from complicity in his game.
Yet he had a “fantastic” hold over her, performing a “fantastic” act when half drunk and convincing people that he could deliver a magic cure-all. He insists on trying to succeed with a miracle that may have worked once, unaccountably, of straightening a “crooked finger.” The symbolic image is psychologized; she blames herself for expecting his failure and egging him on to attempt the impossible. Then she grows ecstatic while telling the marvelous effect of his performances. (We discover eventually that she has a breakdown and dies, putatively from the strain of lying about him). There is a chilling moment when the police ask Hardy to identify her in the morgue and he denies her. He protests that his relationship to her was “purely professional”; he is not the reputed Faith Healer. It is a despicable betrayal on his part. He even expresses the odd idea that he would have liked a child instead of his gift, that he does and does not recognize as fraudulent. Only at the very end is he humanized by a sobering recognition that he too will die.
The staging is brilliantly minimal. That gigantic space at BAM is empty but unlit in a clever disguise of all but the playing area. It is the pub where the Faith Healer exhorts his companions to delusion through drink. It also is an interior space, a lower-middle class living room through the addition of a battered easy chair and a stand lamp. Production elements pared down seem to be a keynote this season.
For fun, there was History Boys (Alan Bennett), total ephemera as only British comedy can be. Eight rightly horrid teen-aged boys possess a grammar school (private= “public”) with all the irreverence born of class and privilege. They don’t merely attend the school, they define it. Ostensibly, they are completing their A-level classes and preparing to apply to university, Oxford or Cambridge. To the comic grief of their teachers, especially Hector (Richard Griffiths), they barely repress their exuberance and rebelliousness, far from merely schoolboy acting out since they are as intellectually precocious as they are socially exceptional. They are the play. The eight of them joke, talk, rag each other and the teachers, cause minor mischief and generally get through their A-levels by the end of the term. The thin plot hinges on accusing Hector of sexual misconduct, actually merely the automatic gesture of placing his hand on a boy’s shoulder. The problem is that Hector must defend himself though it implies his guilt. The episode captures the stink of academe and a reminder that it does not automatically make comedy. Nicholas Hytner directs impeccably, his pacing and timing are exquisite.
New plays, good and bad, tend to attract more media attention, but repertory theater, the living equivalent of a museum, keeps the past alive. Theater does not pay royalties on a work in repertory and in days of financial pinch, that matters. Beyond works conceived in the English language, those presented in translation present a host of problems. Ibsen provides a good example since he “feels” like repertory, has been adopted by theater in English as have all the canonical high modernists, as they are called. This season offered Rosmersolm.
Ibsen’s Rosmersolm is a dark, spooky play featuring one Rebecca West, arguably the most demonic heroine in all dramatic literature, including Lady Macbeth. Set in a ghostly, old manse near a flooding millrace where the former Mrs. Beata Rosmer leapt to her death, the action moves forward in play time by moving backward in remembered time until the dead woman’s story is told. By then, Johannes Rosmer– formerly a minister, and his platonic companion Rebecca West–have succumbed to the ghastly spirits brooding over the house: his guilt for rebellion against his god and embrace of political “free thinking”; Rebecca’s guilt for the “soul murder” of Beata, whom she lured to suicide, and her flaunting of “free love” by living openly with Rosmer. Rebecca is the more dimensional of the two characters and receives the fullest portrayal among Ibsen’s women. Her crime repeats the pattern of an “Oedipal” incest with her mother’s second husband, Dr. West, after her mother’s death. Yet, although Ibsen’s repeated belief in “self realization” lends some ambivalence to Rebecca as a villain, Rosmer and Rebecca in the end go hand in hand to find their punishment at the millrace in a double suicide.
The strategy of revealing the past through gradual, incremental disclosures, Ibsen’s famous technique, works with marvelous efficiency in Rosmersolm. The plot, typically simple yet diabolical, hinges on visitors from the outside world. At the play’s opening, the couple have been living an Ibsen ideal of individual fulfillment. Rebecca West works at her vocation as an amateur photographer unperturbed by the villagers’ views of her impropriety. She has some of Hedda Gabler’s imperiousness, but none of her neurotic wilfulness. She and Rosmer share a “beautiful, pure friendship.” Rosmer, one of Ibsen’s semi-autobiographical characters, intends to profess his belief in morality beyond law or religion; for his own life provides others with proof in the possibility of the ideally free man. He hopes they will join him in creating a “new democracy.”He fairly “glows” with this mission, says his brother-in-law Professor Kroll, nonetheless shocked by Rosmer’s plan to surrender his ministry.
This much should have given audiences a good chill and an Ibsen headache from carrying the weight of words unsaid. Typically, an Ibsen sentence carries at least one level of meaning casting a pall of dread on the spoken fact. One member of the audience was overheard to say, “It only lasts ninety minutes, not enough time for me to get depressed.” Nor did the acting project any hint of gloom or darkness–more of this momentarily. Pleasant-looking people moved about chatting and fluffing up cushions in a dull, provincial parlor. Revisiting the past is precipitated by the visit of Professor Kroll, who tries to enlist Rosmer as chief editor of a new, conservative journal to fight the excesses of growing political radicalism. Kroll complains that a younger generation, including his children, is championing a nearly anarchical movement. Rosmer declines the position as he rejects taking any role in public life. He must attend to perfecting his mind and soul as a newly free man. During Kroll’s visit, Rosmer’s former teacher arrives for a stay in the neighborhood, one Professor Brendle, who can afford neither new political principles nor a decent suit. He hints at a grand mission still to come; everyone expected him to accomplish great things, so now he claims he will require a large public hall, also some borrowed clothing and pocket money.
The significance of Brendle’s indigence now as against his former position as intellectual guardian, and the rebellion of Kroll’s children together imply that the country’s cultural legacy has collapsed into bankruptcy.Still another layer of lies come unraveled on the following day, as if change were prompting more disturbing memories, this again typical of Ibsen moving backward into the past yielding up discovery in the present. Kroll returns to Rosmer the next day: “Until last night I had no idea you were an atheist and that the woman sharing your home was a free-thinker.” And finally he arrives at his true question: he probes for certainty that the cause of his sister Beata’s suicide was indeed her madness.
Each fragment of new information in their talk breaks down poor Rosmer’s reserve. A year before, his wife had written to her brother hinting about mischief at Rosmersol. Apparently towns-people were gossiping even then about Rosmer’s menage a trois and his imminent renunciation of his ministry. (The tight-lipped, superstitious housekeeper offers the only dramatic evidence on stage of the town’s attitude.) Rosmer feels the hold of the past and his dead wife reaching out to him. What tips him into abject despair is Rebecca’s disclosure of “soul murder”–that she baited and lured Beata to her death. At one point Rosmer asks Rebecca if she loves him enough to chop off her pinky finger for him. Strindberg’s Miss Julie goes to the chopping block with her canary, but the echo is a tease about the relationship between the two playwrights. Love is not at stake in Rosmersolm.
Nothing like Ibsen had been seen since the Elizabethans; the 19th century in any case produced mainly novels. Thomas Hardy saw and admired three of Ibsen’s works in London 1893, Rosmersolm, Hedda Gabler and Master Builder, and as is well known Hardy’s heroine Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure bears a kinship to Rebecca West. Probably a larger role in bringing Ibsen to London stages was played by William Archer, translator and entrepreneur. For about twenty five years Ibsen had been writing plays featuring his Norwegan mythology of trolls and giants. Then he adapted historical themes with heroic models, before he finally turned to realism, to provincial characters, and to women, especially their inner worlds, staged for the first time. Ibsen’s women synthesize strange, demonic imaginings, a catalogue of neurotic behaviors that came from his own depths, figurations of the “id” well before Freud described such a thing. Not to imply a negative judgement here about his men, terrible enough. Rather that in the dozen plays beginning with Doll House (1879), Ibsen takes the conventional male and female characteristics and wrings them dry: hers the inner world made dreadful, his the public life gone bad.
Whether in dramatization or representations she is death bound: the Dying Woman trapped in the rocks in painting of the artist Lyngstrand in Lady from the Sea.; or the eerie woman Ellida in the same play; or mysterious sprite Hilde, in Master Builder, who may be a psychic projection of Solness. Or Hedda Gabler where “id” is dispersed throughout the action of Hedda playing with her father’s pistols before turning one on herself. Regine in Ghosts quite capable of murdering the sick Osvald, though the task falls to poor Mrs. Alving, who has no “id” at all; nor has the little girl Hedvig in Wild Duck., led to her suicide by her innocent imagination. In Rosmersolm Rebecca, the master psychologist, murders the mad Beata and then turns executioner of Rosmer and herself.
Ibsen’s heroes to the contrary are public figures, either measured by or failing to take a responsible place in their communities: Helmer versus Nils Krogstad in Doll House; Lynstrand the artist in Lady From the Sea; Hjalmar, the indolent, lying ne’er-do-well in Wild Duck (maybe the greatest play after Hamlet); the dangerous neurotic Gregers in the same play, with his quest for absolute truth; indeed all the feckless boarders in Wild Duck, for that matter, who eat up substance and pay no rent, like Penelope’s suitors. But they are not death bearers, possess no rancid spirits. They fail because they are busy playing the reformer, like Stockman in The Enemy of the People, or like the mean-minded, righteous Helmer in Doll House; or even the spiritually myopic Tesman in Hedda Gabler, who tries to transform Hedda into a provincial wife. Or they fail simply because the model of success supplied by the first generation of men in these plays is unattainable in the second: Captain Solness (Master Builder); Capt Alving (in Ghosts); old Werle, the dead god (Wild Duck). The many social-political discussions in the first group of plays named above dominate the action, leading critics to see Ibsen as a banner-waving activist and champion of self realization. Well, activist, perhaps not; but he developed the theme of self realization with ever greater subtlety from first to last. Even socio-political talk in the early plays never suppresses the essential Ibsen: the idea of the romantic rebel, prefigured in Lovborg, who grows steadily stronger and more mystical in the dozen plays after Doll House, until he takes over completely in When We Dead Awaken –the theme demands an essay of its own.
The situation is more ambiguous when a ghost hovers over the present, the dead Captain in Ghosts, perhaps rehearsal for the haunting by the dead wife in Rosmersolm. As may be inferred, however, from earlier remarks, the style of this production lacks the power of Ibsen’s ghostliness. The back wall receding for two levels and leading off to the mill race is lighted in lovely sky-blue lavender. The acting tends toward the anti-theatrical: neither a high nor a low style, just disengaged from the subject. Far too many times, the couple, talking about setting out in life anew, might have been planning a trip to the dentist, a mildly disagreeable but necessary event. Meanwhile, the housekeeper rightly reflects an awareness of something weird or abnormal in the atmosphere, thus making the direction of the whole oddly incomprehensible. It raises the obvious question about why the house chose to produce this play. True, it had not appeared in recent memory, and so might summon up an Ibsen audience. True, some of the subject matter could “relate” (according to the playbill) to small town America where private life still remains apart from public consumption except through sensational headlines. (The playbill indeed finds a “close resemblance” between Ibsen’s and America’s town life, but surely that’s a stretch).
Ibsen’s characters suffer from appalling guilt for unnameable crime. This Rebekka’s best moment occurs as she tries to articulate her motive for baiting Beata and comes up helplessly with a kind of justification for her own suicide as just punishment. Her self- searching leads to a conventional equation, whereas Ibsen’s point may be more subtle. She is not shown as sinful, or willful and imperious. Sin is her nature, which means free-spirited, otherwise identified as assertive, courageous, daring, ready to brave any consequence. When the pastor frets, briefly, about “public opinion”, Rebekka snorts: “who cares about that”? If Rosmer is in sin, so be it. The irony is that he, the apostate who made a complete about face, comes closer than Rebekka to sin seen as a moral pole of life, for he cooly reversed yesterday; nothing subtle about that, after all.
Nor, again, did a mood of morbidity, or malaise creep into the tone of the brisk pastor when even the newspaperman is shocked by him. Having the newspaperman, registrar of public opinion turn to the pastor for a charitable handout underscores the metaphor: the source of good, practical as theoretical, has fallen. When asked about the lack of dread in this production, one of the company said, “there is hope.”
Rosmersolm by Henrik Ibsen. Originally translated by William Archer Edmund Gosse. Translated and adapted for this production by Anna Guttormsgaard and Bridgette Wimberly with Oda Radoor. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Featuring Anna Guttormsgaard (Rebecca West); Mike Hodge (Brendel); Neal Lerner (Prof. Kroll); Lizan Mitchell (Mrs. H); J. Paul Nicholas (Peter Morton); Charles Parnell (John Rosmer). Dramaturgs, Marie Louise Miller and Oda Radoor. Costume by Courtney Logan. Set by Lauren Helpern.