The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner (Library of America #203)
by Laurence Senelick
Reviewed by Justin Maxwell
A well-jeweled crown of an anthology, Laurence Senelick's The American Stage covers a wide expanse of historical and cultural territory; thanks to the book's scope and smart selection, we see the nation's theatrical scene and cultural psyche as they develop (or fail to develop) over time. The unspoken thesis of these writings when they are viewed as a whole is that in America, our problems become our idiom. Instead of leading to solutions over time, our problems become how we do things. Consequently, this anthology does exactly what good theater does: it reveals us to ourselves.
Senelick's selections frequently interrelate, creating a sense of intertextual dialogue across time. One example of this begins with Alexis de Tocqueville's 1840 essay "Some Observations on the Theater of Democratic Peoples." Senelick says that the French author "shrewdly recognized the difference between drama as literature, appreciated by the elite, and theatre as a shared collective experience available to the masses." This difference is a problem American culture continues to struggle with, and it's an important one. As Tocqueville says, "for a foretaste of what the literature of a people making the transition to democracy will be like, study its theater." This notion is validated by the book's subsequent presentation of Edgar Allen Poe and in Walt Whitman's 1846 discussion of the American stage struggling with its identity in the antebellum republic. A similar exchange occurs as Mark Twain offers a tongue-in-cheek description of his aunt and mother (and 1,600 others) at a minstrel show, which also serves to show Twain's loving jadedness of America: "They were happy now and enchanted with the novelty of the situation; all that they had needed was a pretext of some kind or other to quiet their consciences, and their consciences were quiet now, quiet enough to be dead." Philip Hone's 1849 discussion of the Astor Place riots, wherein people killed each other over rival theater performances, dovetails forebodingly: "The police force, with the addition of a thousand special constables, were employed in every post of danger . . . the fact has been established that law and order can be maintained under a Republican form of government." Even after democracy has ostensibly figured itself out, the essays carry a strong contemporary resonance. James G. Huneker's 1917 essay "Frank Wedekind" is valuable in-and-of itself but also because of the surreptitious criticism it provides of the recent Broadway bastardization of Wedekind's still-controversial Spring Awakening, by unknowingly foreshadowing: "And I wonder who would have the courage to produce his works." As time has shown, it's definitely not Broadway. In Ezra Pound's 1916 essay "Mr. James Joyce and the Modern Stage," Pound offers the conundrum dogging the theater when he says that James Joyce's unpopular play is "a 'dangerous' play precisely because the author is portraying an intellectual-emotional struggle, because he is dealing with actual thought, actual questioning, not with cliches of thought and emotion." Pound goes on to make a similar critique of the movies, with broad cultural criticism just under the surface.
One of the great assets of this collection is that the reader can watch the shift of cultural and aesthetic trends. One such example is the development of African-American theater from the complex exploitation of minstrelsy and blackface to the political ground it stands on today. Alain Locke's 1926 essay "The Negro and the American Stage" shows racism coursing through the art world just as it courses through American culture generally. Locke quotes the German director Max Reinhardt, after his visit to America, when Reinhardt sees the struggles and vast potential of the African-American community and says of "these Negro shows that I have seen," that "they are highly original in spite of obvious triteness, and artistic in spite of superficial crudeness. To me they reveal new possibilities of technique in drama, and if I should ever try to do anything American, I would build on these things."
When Locke's essay is read in relation to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s 1997 essay "The Chitlin Circuit," the cause and effect, and the successes and the failures, of the Civil Rights movement are subtly brought to light, further informing the anthology. This noted critic's essay offers lucid insight into August Wilson's work and its place in both American theater and American culture. Gates sharply engages the conundrum of Wilson's complex, contradictory views on the needs of contemporary African-American theater, stating, "Wilson revels in the black cadences of the barbershop and the barbecue, on the one hand, and pledges fealty to Aristotle's Poetics, on the other. Wilson may talk about cultural autarky, but, to his credit, he doesn't practice it." A whole review could be dedicated to Gates's essay alone, and to several other standout works in the collection as well.
This anthology also attends to what is a very broad theater scene in America. The voices that appreciate narrative are strong in this collection, and they smartly add to the collection's lushness. Arthur Miller provides excellent insight into the dynamics of the theater, while David Mamet is as surly and charming as ever. Fortunately, instead of pretending our theater is exclusively one of psychological realism and the well-made play, Senelick includes the real spectrum, from "leg-show" burlesques to experimental and innovative art-makers. Edward Albee's exploration of the Theater of the Absurd clearly and concisely opens up a post-war experimental tradition that some find alien. Albee's ideas are bolstered by Charles L. Mee, Jr.'s essay on the Living Theatre, which illustrates one methodology for producing tension in non-narrative work. And Susan Sontag's "Marat/Sade/Artaud" invites us into the seemingly impenetrable but actually accessible style often called Director's Theater, where good work is "theatrical to its core," and "full of intelligence. It contains discussions of the deepest issues of contemporary morality and history and feeling that put to shame the banalities peddled by such would-be diagnosticians of these issues as Arthur Miller."
Among these experimenters, Anne Bogart's 2001 essay "Terror" from A Director Prepares, holds the collection's secret heart when it opines, "Americans are plagued with the disease of agreement." This anthology contributes to the cure, because it honors the value of the contrarian: artists standing against bad culture, critics against bad art, performers against bad criticism. Here are two centuries of the smart and the talented saying: something's wrong. This anthology does its part to make us healthier, and does it with verve and a panoply of voices on the American cultural experience. Consequently, The American Stage is as much a work of cultural studies as it is of criticism or history. Across time our cultural problems become lifestyles, validating Bogart's insight that "theatre's function is to remind us of our terror and our humanity. . . . theatre that does not channel terror has no energy. We create out of fear, not from a place of security and safety."