Slings and Arrows: Theater in My Life by Robert Lewis, Stein and Day, Briarcliff Manor, NY. 369 pp, $18.95 cloth.
A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actors Studio by Foster Hirsch, W.W. Norton & Co., New York and London. 367 pp, $18.95 cloth
If history is little more than memory with footnotes, we have a number of choices when it comes to remembering this century in American theatre: The old reliable The Fervent Years by Harold Clur man is now joined by Robert Lewis’ Slings and Arrows and Foster Hirsch’s A Method to Their Madness.
Of the two new books, Lewis is the more appealing. He is a writer of wit and sharp intelligence, and he has a sound perspective on success and failure (his own and that of others). Born in Brooklyn at the onset of the century, he drifted through just about every important theatre to appear from the ’20s to the ’50s. His account ranges from the Civic Repertory Theatre (begun in 1929) through the Group Theatre in the heady ’30s, his own productions of Saroyan, his war years in Hollywood, the Actors Studio (beginning in 1947, with Elia Kazan), on to a full career at Yale School of Drama and his memorable “Method…or Madness” lectures, ending with some pungent comments on criticism. That’s quite a span of theatre, and Lewis is enlightening and entertaining about all of it.
The Actors Studio brouhaha (also dished up in Hirsch’s book) seems an endlessly fascinating saga, perhaps because nearly everyone who had anything to do with it saw what happened differently. Lewis’ bête noire was the man who eventually became most closely identified with the Studio: Lee Strasberg, who not only distorted Stanislavsky but (according to Lewis) autocratically mesmerized actors and dismissed challengers to his authority; the result was incoherence, quite literally, on the stages of America.
Such pointed criticism aside, Lewis deals with his wonderful cast of characters with candor and good humor, and he can be hilariously funny. My favorite moment is during an audition when he confused Leora Dana with Cloris Leachman (don’t ask how), and insisted to the actress that she was not Leora Dana. Ms. Dana meekly replied, “I’m not?” “You are Cloris Leachman.” Lewis thundered. “I am?” poor Ms. Dana rejoined.
Lewis does not hesitate to name names and call the shots the way he sees them: Robert Brustein is a brilliant critic and dramaturg but a vacillating administrator and a dreadful actor; Kazan was disloyal to causes and to friends; critics, quite naturally, are for the most part a bunch of ninnies. He also takes on the breed of new directors who “find difficulty in differentiating between imaginative interpreting of classics and crude tampering with them; he knows the difference between “creative interpreters and slavish interpreters, and damns the director who is on “some smart-assed ego trip …pasted onto the text and destroying it.”
Hirsch’s A Method to Their Madness can’t match Lewis for wit and entertainment, but it is nonetheless a valuable telling of an oft-repeated tale, with variations. I was a bit put off when Hirsch announced early on that the Actors Studio “is in fact the longest-lived, the most important and probably the most controversial theatrical organization in the history of American entertainment.” There are exceptions to that overstatement from Barnum and Bailey to the Shuberts. But never mind. The writer goes on to deliver a particularly fine version of the end of the last century in Russian theatre, and a very fair picture of how “the system” evolved and eventually arrived this country.
Hirsch is at his best on those odd bedfellows Chekhov and Stanislavsky, “a colossal mismatch that resulted in wonderful theatre [and] has echoes of Chekhovian comedy.” Then along comes Strasberg, making his own autocratic way, reversing things right and left and, voilà, producing Star Actors! It could have been productive had Lewis and Hirsch compared notes on their accounts of the Studio, but they apparently did not and we are left, after the two occasionally divergent accounts, to judge for ourselves: Was the Studio the genesis or the stumbling block of American acting? Or was it both? Or neither? (My own suspicion is that Studio actors do what actors have always done: take what they can use and forget the rest.)
But wouldn’t it have been fun to have been there in 1897 when Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko sat in a cafe talking from 10 a.m. one day to 3 a.m. the next? Or the day Lewis, Cheryl Crawford and Kazan got the bright idea of classes for professionals? Or the time Lee Strasberg told off just about everyone in sight? Hirsch documents much of these goings-on—the excitement and the acrimony—and even when the times were stormy, he strives to be fair. One wonders, though, about Hirsch’s stated conclusion that the Studio indeed did “honor” the Stanislavsky System, when much of his own reportage would indicate the contrary. Although he seems to labor at making Strasberg into a major figure, ironically, the one man who does emerge from the book as a giant thinker, visionary and theatre practitioner is Harold Clurman. Hirsch and Lewis concur, not surprisingly, that American theatre would not be what it is without Clurman.
A Method to Their Madness has proof-reading deficiencies (“Jacks Gelber”?), and one could quarrel with many of Hirsch’s judgments (Jessica Tandy was “weak” in Streetcar?). But the book has a terrific cast and the writing is forthright and frank. If it eventually drifts off into star-gazing at some of the prominent names later associated with the Studio, it remains finally a readable, opinionated and caring attempt to record what all that American madness was (and maybe still is) about.
Arthur Ballet is a critic, teacher and contributing editor to American Theatre.
New ‘Vantage Point’
Vantage Point: Issues in American Arts, a new magazine devoted to the arts and cultural policy, debuted in September in a 44-page, full-color issue.
Published by the American Council on the Arts, a national service organization, and funded by InterNorth, Inc., an energy-based corporation headquartered in Omaha, the magazine will publish six issues a year, each containing thematically related articles.
The generously illustrated inaugural issue centers on “The New,” with articles covering developments in the various art forms. Theatre is represented by a survey of the state of American playwriting and new play production, entitled “Fear of Closing: An Unhealthy Climate for New American Plays.” Author Gary Stern finds that regional theatres are “running scared” and playwrights are finding it hard to build careers.
Regular departments include book reviews, letters, reader surveys, schedules for the Arts & Entertainment Network cable TV service and “Panorama,” a column by Arts Management newsletter publisher Alvin Reiss. David Kuhn is editor.
The new magazine succeeds ACA’s bi-monthly American Arts, which also covered the spectrum of art forms. What is new about Vantage Point, in addition to its thematic editorial approach, is its targeting of an “influential, upscale” audience; readers have been specially selected “for their active involvement in the arts and their ability to influence cultural policy.”
Àmong the 60,000 households that will initially receive the magazine gratis (compliments of InterNorth), 48 percent are arts contributors, 41 percent managers and 12 percent artists. Their yearly income, according to ACA’s advertising materials, averages $77,390 and average net worth exceeds a half-million dollars. Vantage Point is available initially by invitation only.
Dictionary of the Black Theatre: Broadway, Off Broadway, and Selected Harlem Theatres by Allen Woll, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1983. 359 pp, $39.95 cloth. This reference work documents black theatre in New York from 1898’s A Trip to Coontown to the 1981 premiere of Dreamgirls. Part I is devoted to the shows, with approximately 300 entries including dates, number of performances, complete list of artistic personnel and a brief synopsis, while Part II includes biographical entries for major performers, writers and directors and notes on black theatre organizations in New York City. Also included are a chronology, a discography and a selected bibliography of studies related to black theatre history and criticism.
Drumbeats, Masks and Metaphors by Genevieve Fabre, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1983. 268 pp, $20 cloth. Fabre documents and analyzes contemporary Afro-American theatre from 1945, placing it in a historical and cultural context in order to look at the entire movement as one guided by a single political spirit. After a brief but comprehensive survey of early black theatre in the 20th century, she divides Afro-American theatre into two movements: the militant theatre, observed in the work of Amiri Baraka, Douglas Turner Ward, Ted Shine and Sonia Sanchez, and the theatre of experience, as seen in the work of James Baldwin, Ed Bullins, Melvin Van Peebles and Edgar White.
See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts 1976-1983 by Ntozake Shange, Mom’s Press, San Francisco, CA. 72 pp, $5.95 paper. Illustrated by Tom Feelings, this collection of essays on poetry, travel, politics and black theatre includes the preface to For Colored Girls…, a foreword to three of Shange’s theatre pieces (Spell #7, A Photograph: Lovers in Motion and Boogie Woogie Landscapes) and an essay entitled “How I Moved Anna Fierling to the Southwest Territories” concerning the development of Shane’s adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors by Errol Hill, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA. 224 pp, $20 cloth. Hill constructs a comprehensive record of black Shakespearean actors and productions in America and abroad from 1820 to 1970, documenting the “genuine and perennial” enthusiasm of black actors for Shakespeare despite “frequent disparagement from within and without the race.” Relying on historical records and theatrical criticism, Hill’s work covers a great deal of territory, ranging from the careers of Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson to “Novelty” productions like 1939’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Louis Armstrong as Bottom the Fireman, Butterfly McQueen as Puck and Jackie “Moms” Mabley as Quince the Midwife.
History and Criticism
Contemporary Theater: Evolution and Design by Christos G. Athanasopulos, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, 1983. 341 pp, $60 cloth. Translated from the Greek by Loucas Delmouzos, this work traces the evolution and style of theatre architecture from its birth to modern forms and attempts to provide a methodology for modern theatre design. The author studies the social, aesthetic, philosophical and political components that have shaped the work of the most influential designers, including Appia, Craig, Reinhardt, Gropius and the Bauhaus designers. Also included are a chronology of theatre forms and trends, and a brief bibliography.
The Theatre Duke: Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen and the German Stage by Anne Marie Koller, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. 257 pp, $30 cloth. In detailing the forces that shaped the ideals of the Meiningen and the transference of those ideals onto the 19th-century German stage, Koller constructs a detailed and extremely well-documented profile of this influential forerunner of, among others, André Antoine and Constantin Stanislavski. Based on Georg’s letters and on material collected in the Meiningen State Archive, the book includes the Meiningen’s own set and costume designs.
Contradictory Characters: An Interpretation of the Modern Theatre by Albert Bermel, University Press of America, Lanham, MD. 308 pp, $12.75 paper. In an attempt to break out of the modern trend toward biographical criticism, Bermel chooses 14 plays of the modern theatre and analyzes them solely from the point of view of characterization and relationships, since, according to the author, the characters of a play determine its content. The plays that Bermel chooses to “free from dated and stiffened critical attitudes” range from Ibsen’s Ghosts and When We Dead Awaken to Artaud’s The Fountain of Blood and Beckett’s Happy Days.
Major Modern Dramatists Rita Stein and Friedhelm Rickert, eds, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York, NY. 586 pp, $65 cloth. The first volume of this series includes selected critical excerpts for 35 modern dramatists from the U.S., Britain, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Selections are listed chronologically by authors and include early commentary as well as recent criticism in an attempt to provide an overview of each dramatist’s career and reputation. Although a few omissions are evident and the inclusion of some authors is questionable, the selections offer a quick and comprehensive summary of each dramatist’s work.
Tennessee Williams by Felicia Hardison Londre, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1983. 219 pp, $12.95 cloth, $6.95 paper. Londre’s introduction to Williams’ body of work for the stage starts from the assumption that the playwright always identified with the misfit, the deformed and the damned in society and thus always wrote from the point of view of the outsider. The author supports her thesis with a thorough analysis of all of Williams’ one-acts and full-length plays, paying particular attention to the theatricality of each work and revealing Wil-liams’ sensitivity to the “ultimate performance.”
French Theatre Experiment Since 1968 by Lenora Champagne, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, MI. 185 pp, $39.95 cloth. Analyzing the developments in French theatre from the absurdists up to the present day, Champagne points to the student revolts and strikes of 1968 as the moment of conception for modern French activist theatre committed to social criticism and cultural analysis. The work examines in great detail the political themes and theatrical innovation of, among others, Armand Gatti, Andre Benedetto, Antoine Vitez, Georges Lavaudant and Ariane Mouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil.
The Actors Studio: A Player’s Place by David Garfield, Macmillan Publishing, New York, NY. 318 pp, $9.95 paper. Opening with a brief history of Lee Strasberg, Maria Ouspenskaya, Richard Boleslavsky and the Group Theatre, Garfield (a member of The Actors Studio since 1970) documents the history of this influential workshop. This new edition includes an epilogue describing the activities of the Studio since Strasberg’s death in 1982 as well as a brief chapter on the controversy over the Studio’s Method system.
Guides and Directories
Theatre Directory 1984-85 Gregory Leaming, ed, Theatre Communications Group, New York, NY. 76 pp, $3.95. This annual publication provides complete contact and season information for the 242 nonprofit Constituent and Associate member theatres of TCG, as well as information on 36 arts-related organizations in the U.S. Theatre entries include personnel, addresses, business and box office phones, performance schedules and Actors’ Equity Association contract information. Also included is a regional index listing theatres by state. Available from Theatre Communications Group, 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017.
20th Century Theatre Vols. I and II, by Glenn Loney, Facts on File, New York, NY, 1983. I and lI, 521 pp, $60 cloth each. Arranged chronologically, this two-volume set attempts to list every major theatrical event from 1900 to 1980 in Britain and North America, including productions (premieres and revivals), theatrical developments and economics, personalities and criticism. Listings for each year are arranged under the subheadings American Premieres, British Premieres, Revivals/Repertories, Births/Deaths/Debuts, and Theaters/Productions. Volume II includes a bibliography, also arranged chronologically, and a comprehensive index.
Playwright’s Guide to Canadian Nonprofit Professional Theatres Curtis Barlow and Shirley Gibson, eds, Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, Toronto, Ontario. 77 pp, $7 paper. Designed to help playwrights direct their plays to the theatres most likely to produce their work, this guide lists each theatre by region and size along with contact information, season information and submission procedures. Also included are chapters on resources, associations and organizations, government agencies and useful publications. Available from Playwrights Canada, 8 York St., Toronto, Ontario, M5J 1R2.
We Will Not Be Disappeared: Directory of Arts Activism Susan R. McCarn, ed, Cultural Cor-respondence, New York, NY. 160 pp, $5 paper. The directory contains entries for a wide variety of individuals and cultural organizations labeled according to their respective disciplines, including theatre, music, dance, film, publications, writers, video, radio, interdisciplinary artists and service organizations. Entries are catalogued by region and include contact information and a brief statement of purpose. Available from Cultural Correspondence, 505 West End Ave., 15C, New York, NY 10024.
Festivals Sourcebook Paul Wasserman and Edmond L. Applebaum, eds, Gale Research, Detroit, MI. 721 pp, $110 cloth. This sourcebook compiles addresses, dates, phone numbers and brief descriptions of more than 4,200 festivals, fairs and community events held in the U.S. and Canada, all arranged under such areas as antiques, the arts, dance, ethnic, film, folk, food, music, state fairs and wildlife—135 U.S. festivals and 8 Canadian festivals are listed in the theatre and drama section.
Front Row Center: A Guide to Southern and Central California Theatres by Jack Brooks, 101 Productions, San Francisco, CA. 245 pp, $10.95 paper. Brooks catalogues some 200 theatres throughout Southern and Central California with a brief history of each of the seven regions listed, theatre addresses, business and box office phone numbers, management and artistic heads, and an informal description of the stages for each theatre. Available from 101 Productions, 834 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103.
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