This will be a short post, more of a required progress report on the next 150 pages of The American Stage. Most of the selections are by or provide commentary on the 20th century “greats.” It does not take long to learn that the Federal Theatre Project’s most transformative initiatives died. Harold Clurman makes this point explicitly in his 1959 article “The Theatre of the Thirties.” “Looking back from the vantage point of 1959 we may say that although admirable work still continues to be done on our constantly harassed and considerably shrunken stage, there are two virtues which may be claimed for the theatre of the thirties conspicuously lacking today. The theatre of the thirties attempted to make the stage an instrument of public enlightenment through the passionate involvement with the national scene. It made valiant and, to a remarkable degree, effective efforts to bring order and discipline into the helter-skelter of our theatre’s artistic and financial organization.” (513) He argues that the best aspects of 1930s democratic and publically-invested theater were undercut by fears about radicalism or claims by the intellectual elite that the adventures of the 1930s were “juvenile simple-mindedness.” He calls for a return to the social, political, and economic critique of the 1930s rather than “wallowing in hit-or-miss showshop opportunism.” (512)
Sometime Clurman did not quite mention that I will point out was the gigantism of the authors and directors of the 1950s. Rather than being put on by communities, where the name of the author is often less important than the mind that penned the words, we have Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. No longer on the government dole with the Federal Theatre Project, we have people making it big on Broadway, creating plays of mass appeal. (Of course, I will look at these people in the future and hopefully give them a more fair reading in line with American anarchic traditions.)
Another casualty of the gigantism of the 1950s seems to have been vaudeville, that most popular, participatory, and dynamic genre. One attractive thing about vaudeville seems to be the centralism of the “act” and the “show” rather than the author or director. It was also controlled by wanderers, who were never of the community but could speak to its concerns and bring it together. “The vaudeville actor was part gypsy and part suitcase. With his brash manner, flashy clothes, capes and cane, and accompanied by his gaudy womenfolk, the vaudevillian brought happiness and excitement to the communities he visited.” (567-568) This comes from Fred Allen’s 1956 article on the death of vaudeville. Allen was a vaudevillian himself but failed to make the transition to new mediums in the post-war period but managed a successful radio career.
It is a fascinating article exploring both the life of vaudevillians, their strange beliefs and superstitions, their working lives, and training. In a few pages, Allen opens our eyes to this rich world. But “vaudeville is dead.” “For fifty years vaudeville’s minstrels found their way into all lands, preaching their gospels of merriment and song, and rousing the rest of the world to laughter and to tears.” (584-585)
Well, what are we left with then? I guess I will find out when I complete this volume today and write on it tomorrow. My guess is an America is two stages – Broadway and Hollywood.