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Stanley Kauffmann on Theater

Stages of Discussion

By program count, I went to 81 theater productions in the 1976-77 season lately concluded. I reviewed about 20 of them. Some others I might have reviewed, space permitting, but most were beneath comment. At season's end, here are some notes on theater matters worth discussion.

I saw one production twice, Serban's Agamemnon at the Beaumont. The second time, four weeks after my first visit, I sat on the stage, in one of the two bleacher sections that were moved about. (TNR, June 11.) I enjoyed it more than I thought I would: it was a fairly good approximation of following Serban's Trojan Women on foot, which I had done four times. At one point the bleachers were shoved far upstage, and I could see all the stage mechanisms behind the proscenium arch as I watched the Argive world in the center. This, paradoxically, helped. I got an added sense of immediate imaginative creation, rather than pretended actuality, as I watched Apollo descend and ascend in his cart and also saw the stagehands over against the wall tugging at Apollo's ropes.

What I had disliked in the production the first time, I disliked more intensely the second time—like the miming of the Trojan war and the bathtub murder of the king. The clean line of Aeschylus' play was certainly zigzagged by Serban. But the individual zigs and zags were well composed. And the (many) elements I had liked the first time, I liked even more.

As I had hoped, Jamil Zakkai, Agamemnon/Aegisthus, had firmed his grip on both roles. Some of Serban's best touches were even more thrilling the second time: e.g., the Watchman, who has spent years on the palace roof waiting for the signal of Troy's fall, beginning his speech in an immense stage whisper, then gradually finding his voice; the doubling of the Herald who tells the story of the victory—the role is done by two actors, one behind the Chorus Leader, one facing him, speaking in unison.

And, which I had praised but not enough, Priscilla Smith's Clytemnestra. (I regret even more deeply that she also plays Cassandra: the point of this completely eludes me.) The sheer size of Smith as the Queen, the size of the imagination and self and technique implied in her performance, soars. Soars. She made me think of Flagstad in the first act of Tristan und Isolde, in the passage that ends "Rache! Tod! Tod—uns Beiden!" Smith's Clytemnestra went through to the end in that vein—"the avenger, ancient in anger." I'll never forget it.

Agamemnon has now closed at the Beaumont, but it will be done in Central Park this summer, free, from Aug. 2 through Aug. 27. Serban will have to adapt his production to a new environment, but he's an old hand at that. If you are going to be in New York during August and can get in, you will be lucky. This leads naturally to the producer, Joseph Papp, and his recent announcement of withdrawal from Lincoln Center. He says his primary reason is money troubles, about which there can be no argument, only sympathy. But he quickly cancels that sympathy by saying that, even if money troubles were solved, he would still withdraw because he doesn't like the uptown "essentially middle-class audience" and he wants to work with unorthodox playwrights on new plays downtown at his Public Theater complex.

This anti-middle-class business is an old act of Papp's. Odd that this wildly unorthodox man has sent up to Broadway and the Broadways of the world, from his Public Theater, such smasheroos as Hair and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and That Championship Season. Odd how this fiery anti-middleclass rebel keeps pleasing the middle class. Two of the biggest current Broadway smashes, A Chorus Line and For Colored Girls, were transferred from the Public. In fact, one of this rebel's objections to doing classics is that they can't be Broadway hits like those “anti- Establishment" plays. "There's no way Agamemnon is going to go to the Winter Garden, that's for sure," he said at the press conference announcing his withdrawal.

 Besides, anyone who has been often to the Public and to the Beaumont or Newhouse must have seen that the audiences are virtually interchangeable. Uptown and down, there are a lot of middle-aged and older people, certainly middle-class, and a lesser but substantial number of younger people who may be non-Establishment or may just be wearing their non-Establishment costumes after work.

The new-playwrights motive is more credible, though Papp has not presented a new play in some time, (For Colored Girls and Streamers were not his original productions.) I've heard of some workshops downtown this season, but the only productions at the Public were by other companies to whom Papp gave space.

When he extended himself uptown in 1973, it seemed to me that he was fixing those two Lincoln Center theaters at the top of a hierarchy to which he would funnel new plays from downtown. Every new production of his own that he moved through that funnel was a failure (as against the ones that he moved to Broadway). Every new play he did directly at Lincoln Center was a failure. (His successes at the Beaumont have been his revivals,) It seems at least possible that his own defective taste in new plays had at least as much to do with the Beaumont failures of those plays as did the "essentially middle class audience." He would be on firmer ground if he stuck to the money reason for his retreat.

Papp's career continues to trace a graph of great energy, huge and sometimes productive ambition, but feeble taste and talent. That's why his record is jagged with abrupt switches, each of which is announced as a vision of new policy but each of which usually signals a new failure and a new grab.

The saddest aspect of the season was that, on or off Broadway, I saw no American play of real consequence. Evidences of interesting talent, yes, but usually from those who had evidenced it before and seem to be making careers of evidence, rather than plays. Of the productions I saw, 31 were new American plays, and not one was really satisfactory.

One of the least for me was Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box. I saw it on its second night and thought it so negligible that I didn't want to review it. It has since gone on to win the Pulitzer, plus a Tony award. Thinking about it post-Pulitzerly, I can't change my mind. Still, for the record…

Cristofer's play is set in a somewhat mystical rest home, in the California countryside, where people, apparently with cancer, go to die. Cristofer presumably began with that idea, then (he's an actor) got the clever stage-wise idea of using one cottage for three simultaneous stories. But then, alas, he had to get the stories. He chose, as from a kitchen shelf, his ingredients: one working-class story, one intellectual-homosexual story, one domineering-old-woman story. Stir and bake. Or half-bake.

 None of these stories has a glimmer of intrinsic interest, originality or insight. None of them is written with anything more than (at best) an imitative glibness. Cristofer had nothing to say about his characters or his subject: he just got the idea of the form, then worked out enough of a lightweight erector-set construction to fill the space from first curtain to last.

Variety and The New York Times, those pals in Broadway boosterism, have been chortling over the good season. They cite the figures to prove it. Quite apart from figures and including off-Broadway as well, I agree that it was good. Any theatrical year in which 1 can see Richardson and Gielgud in No Man’s Land; Ashes (a Papp import from the Manhattan Theater Club); Nightclub Cantanta: the Schiller Theater's Waiting for Godot directed by Beckett; and Serban's Agamemnon is a blooming miracle, despite the 76 other duds and quasi-duds.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine