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The New Republic Online
Thursday, December 8th, 2005


 

The Drama Is Coming Now: The Theater Criticism of Richard Gilman, 1961-1991

by

The Prisoner on the Aisle

A review by Robert Brustein

For F. Scott Fitzgerald, the dark night of the soul was always four o'clock in the morning. For Richard Gilman, it was usually eight o'clock at night -- the hour when the curtain rose on a new production. Gilman's savage indignation over the shoddy quality of the American stage permeates his valuable new volume of collected criticism, The Drama is Coming Now. A passionate advocate for the European modernists, deeply committed to the literature of the theatrical avant-garde, Gilman reveals an equally strong dislike for most American playwriting, acting, directing, and theater reviewing during his thirty years, from 1961 to 1991, as an itinerant drama critic.

Gilman was first drawn to the theater through the example of Samuel Beckett and Eric Bentley. If Waiting for Godot taught him that a play could be just as experimental as a painting or a novel, The Playwright as Thinker persuaded him that a great dramatist was also "a great mind," and that serious critics had to be primarily concerned with analyzing intelligence. If this sounds somewhat somber and cerebral, an example of the highbrow intellectual trying to cast the elusive artist in his own image, it was an important corrective to a theater that did not have much in the way of brain, only a feverish set of nerves and spasms masking a deep sentimentality.

Previously, Gilman, like many thinkers and academics, had ignored the stage, preferring his Shakespeare in the study and his Chekhov on the page. Still, a number of smart people in the late 1950s and the 1960s, largely under Bentley's influence, began to develop an interest in theater criticism (among them Wilfrid Sheed, Susan Sontag, Richard Hayes, Albert Bermel, Elizabeth Hardwick, Stanley Kauffmann, Gordon Rogoff, and John Simon). And when the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal asked Gilman to join the staff, he reluctantly backed into a career that was to occupy him for the next three decades.

Following his early Commonweal years, he accepted a job at Newsweek, becoming the first minority critic of that period to operate within the orbit of the mass media. He left that magazine after three unhappy years, impatient with having to stuff a large vision into a little space, and replaced me at The New Republic for another two years, after I had decamped for Yale. (Stints with Partisan Review and The Nation completed his critical odyssey.) In 1967, I invited Gilman to join the faculty at the Drama School, where he proved a remarkable teacher not only of dramatic literature, but also of dramatic writing.

Among his playwriting students were such lively artists as Robert Auletta, Albert Innaurato, Christopher Durang, Lonnie Carter, Jeff Wanshel, Wendy Wasserstein, David Epstein, Ted Talley, William Hauptman, and Harry Kondoleon, all of whom benefited from his influence. (He also mentored such future critics as Michael Feingold, Alisa Solomon, Eileen Blumenthal, and Jonathan Kalb.) During the same period, Gilman spent some time as a dramaturg with the Open Theatre, where he developed a warm relationship with Joseph Chaikin and directed a few projects. He also did a couple of directing assignments for us at Yale -- a triple bill of student plays in 1969, and then Rocco Landesman's adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's Steps in 1970.

If Gilman was not a particularly inspired practitioner, as a playwriting mentor he had no peer. Writers would arrive at Yale as conventional realists, reliving their family conflicts in imitation of Miller, Williams, and Inge, and leave as fabulists, absurdists, and surrealists, which is to say, as converts to Gilman's aesthetic. He demanded that the drama keep pace with the latest technical advances in art and literature (particularly the nouvelle vague). He deplored the disjunction between "thought and activity" in our theater, and criticized the "mindless" plays of our leading dramatists (not to mention their lesser Broadway acolytes). Pointing to the Europeans, he insisted that theater be treated not as a depository for evacuated emotions, but "as a way of knowing," a path that could be reached only by abandoning plot and character. An anti-Aristotelean rejecting both catharsis and mimesis, Gilman demanded that the playwright be not just a thinker, but even a philosopher and a metaphysician.

Most of these positions are succinctly stated in the title essay of the book, "The Drama is Coming Now" (the words are Pirandello's, in Six Characters in Search of an Author). And if Gilman sometimes sounds there like Sir Philip Sidney berating drama for being a poor stepsister of the arts, he nevertheless makes a noble effort to bring this shabby orphan into the wider creative family. Clearly, he has more affinity with the literary members of that family -- among them, Barthelme, Gass, Updike, Mailer, and Sontag, the subjects of an earlier book called The Confusion of Realms -- than with the prodigal children of the American theater. Like Chekhov, another of his heroes, Gilman embraced literature as his wife, while treating the theater as his mistress.

Judging by The Drama is Coming Now, the theater proved a very slovenly mistress indeed. The wanton jade is continually being dressed down for infidelity to his standards and indifference to his precepts. Gilman admires the technical prowess of the English stage; he is overwhelmed by the ensemble power of the Berliner Ensemble; he is wowed by Jerzy Grotowski. But when it comes to the American theater, all Gilman can usually see is "ineptitude" -- a word that he uses over and over in its several variants.

However brilliant and eloquent on the subject of dramatic literature, Gilman has a curiously limited vocabulary when it comes to describing process and performance. True, he has cogent things to say about the "terrifying righteousness" and "verbal ineptitude" of the Living Theatre upon its return to America, but his judgments on acting and directing otherwise often seem bald and unsupported. Actually, they often sound like irritable opinionating: "David Fulford's staging ... is so inept and destructive as to constitute an act of embalming"; Mike Nichols's Uncle Vanya is an "artistically criminal work"; "One [actor playing Peer Gynt] is shockingly inept, another totally nondescript, the third has some talent and a bit of stage presence," and so on. Instead of evoking the living presence of a performance, as Kenneth Tynan did preeminently, Gilman is content to rail against it -- "a cultural disaster" (The Changeling), "the worst production of any play by any important contemporary since Lorca's Blood Wedding" (Hop Signor), "the evening ... was unendurable" (the APA Seagull), "Ralph Waite ... isn't an actor" (The Father), and so forth. One can understand Gilman's rage against shoddy theater; but while the typical American stage product can sometimes drive one to tearing programs and chewing ticket stubs, what distinguishes a critic from a "Himalayas" opinionator ("Did you like the Himalayas?" "Loved him, hated her") is the capacity to describe what one sees, and possibly suggest a better alternative.

Gilman is much less general about his dislikes in an essay that he wrote for The New York Times in 1977 called "How the New Theatrical Directors are Upstaging the Playwright." There he castigates such avant-garde heroes as Andrei Serban, Richard Foreman, Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Andre Gregory, and Robert Wilson for "directorial arrogance" in making themselves "stars" of the show. (Eric Bentley has also expressed considerable unhappiness with the auteur stage director.) Given Gilman's predilection for the new, it is odd to find him criticizing directors for the same creative daring that he urges on playwrights, especially when he so admires Peter Brook's stripped-down King Lear and Grotowski's radically reworked The Constant Prince (not to mention the plays of Brecht, which are often freewheeling directorial adaptations of earlier classics by such as Shakespeare, Gay, and Marlowe). Was it not Artaud, another of Gilman's idols, who first opened the floodgates with his barbaric yawp, "No More Masterpieces"?

While exhorting playwrights to be "great minds," Gilman expects directors to be obedient servants. He scorns their impulse to seek fresh insights into familiar classical texts; he rejects their notion that "every production has to have an 'idea' behind it, that texts have to be interpreted, or reinterpreted"; he insists that a classic be "simply placed literally, faithfully on stage." This is a prescription for deadly theater. In the act of re-visiting a play, the stage director is merely claiming the same intellectual privileges as the scholar-critic. Each new classical production is as much a dispute with a previous interpretation. No one can deny that some of these classical re-interpretations have been abysmal exercises in ego. But nothing in the theater is written in stone. The next stab at the play can always be a corrective.

I think Gilman is conflating his dislike of particular productions -- chiefly Serban's legendary The Cherry Orchard, which he describes as "dragooned animation" and "arty capers" -- into a shaky general principle. (He chides Serban for adding "a note of menacing industrialism when Chekhov implies no such thing" -- incorrectly, since Chekhov clearly hints at this in his second-act stage direction: "In the distance a row of telegraph poles, and, far away on the horizon, the dim outlines of a big town.") And although Gilman is correct to say that updating a classical text is usually a superficial way to make it "relevant," it is not "always the wrong way" to do Shakespeare: for example, Ingmar Bergman's jackboot Hamlet and Jonathan Miller's Victorian Merchant of Venice, following the tradition of Orson Welles's black-shirt Julius Caesar, have greatly increased our understanding of those plays.

However traditional the usually unconventional Gilman may seem in persecuting adventurous directors, he is nowhere more deeply engaged with the practice of theater than in this essay, which makes it a pleasure to argue with him. Where he is most comfortable, however, is in his treatment of playwrights, as he already demonstrated in The Making of Modern Drama, his groundbreaking study of eight European dramatists. Beckett, Genet, and Ionesco remain his holy trinity, but he is also able to able to welcome into the sacred circle Jack Gelber, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Sam Shepard in the United States; Franz Xaver Kroetz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany; and Harold Pinter, John Arden, and Caryl Churchill (reservedly, though she is the best of them) in England. These writers, rather than any comedy compères or musical-comedy maestros or tragedy troglodytes (certainly not O'Neill or Miller or Albee), are who he celebrates in his theater notices. But the playwrights he admires most -- namely, the classic modern European dramatists -- are those given the most extended treatment in his book reviews and in the section that Gilman calls "Profiles and Legacies."

There he says much that is fresh and illuminating on the theme of Ibsen's contradictory spirit. He is wise on the issue of Brecht's ambiguous Marxism. He is knowing about the style, the language, and the erotics of Tennessee Williams, a playwright he reluctantly admires, despite falling short in "the clarity of his thought or the depth of his philosophy." He is illuminating regarding the relationship between the homoerotic and the aesthetic in the plays of Jean Genet. And he is remorseless, in his review of the autobiography Timebends: A Life, on the subject of Arthur Miller's bad writing: "Time and again language fails him, metaphors go awry, clots form in the prose." Some of us, pitying Miller's fall from critical favor, had relented in our attacks on him in later years, preferring to celebrate his role as moral witness; but while we were busy praising his integrity, Gilman was watching his prose. We were more charitable. Gilman was more honest.

On the other hand, Gilman is unusually warm, collegial, and non-competitive in evaluating other critics (this writer included, whose Theatre of Revolt receives a cordial review). He is admiring of George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy, despite its failure to appreciate modern drama. He proves how Lionel Abel is often "interestingly wrong" rather than "dully right" in Metatheatre. He is aware that Martin Esslin's The Theatre of the Absurd makes all postmodern drama seem as if it were written by the same person. He is capable of praising Herbert Blau's "clumsily written" The Impossible Theatre for its "devastating honesty." And he is reverent toward Eric Bentley's The Life of the Drama for its insights into the several forms of dramatic composition.

The Drama Is Coming Now is divided under a number of headings, according to nationality and genre, each covering the whole period of Gilman's career. Although this schematic span sometimes makes the book's nine sections look as if they are beginning and ending in the same place, it does give a sense of the breadth of Gilman's interests and the depth of his mind. Not as genial as Shaw or as original as Bentley or as witty as Tynan, Richard Gilman is nevertheless always a pleasure to read, both for his supple, unadorned, and resonant prose, and for the uncompromising nature of his aesthetic. And also for those personal qualities that Rogoff aptly describes in his preface as "a sense of balance and sheer common decency" -- qualities he resolutely maintained throughout his thirty-year sentence as a prisoner on the aisle.


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