“The American Stage” 1963-present

I have finished another volume of The Library of America and I find my last post’s pessimism somewhat contained.  I still look around at American culture today and find it dominated by Hollywood and Broadway.  I still find most of its fighting words toned down.  No longer is it a working-class, participatory event.  Theater going is certainly not a time for the community to come together (although we still have carnivals, Renaissance fairs, and the like).  I have only gone to two Broadway shows and each time I had to wait to purchase tickets in a place in Southern Manhattan, on the day I intended to go, to have any chance to afford it.  Both time, the audience was polite and entertained.  I guess the best we can do is a series like Spartacus, which can actually present quite radical themes of class inequality, exploitation, resistance, and consciousness-raising, but has to do so through an onslaught of mind-numbing violence and sex.  The Wire, is a better model, using local actors, drawing from local themes, with a deep social, economic and political critique.  One of its creators, David Simon, said that it was always hard to build an audience.  Since its ending, its popularity has grown but I guess it still pales before the typical mass culture offerings.  It does seem to me that Adorno was mostly right that mass culture tended toward homogeneity and interchangeable parts.  Culture is, for lack of a better work, scientifically managed.

What is the anarchist alternative?  Certainly in the short term would be a varietn of life-style anarchist cultures, where people create, sustain, and nourish alternatives.  Much of this has been going on, of course, without a sizable impact on capitalist culture.  The sustaining of these alternatives will have the same value as intentional communities do.  Murray Bookchin’s vision of a post-scarcity anarchism would suggest the potential to have people invest more of their time in cultural creation – including community theater.  In his, “Forms of Freedom” Bookchin argued that democratic systems (his model was the Athenian polis) could be run by amateurs.  I suppose it make sense that culture could be sustained by amateurs as well.  There is historical evidence for this happening.  In the early days of film, working class organizations made films, but this vibrant sub-culture was crushed by the rise of the studio system (see Working Class Hollywood by S. J. Ross).  Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism made a compelling case for an artistic world independent of the government and of popular demands.  “Art should never try to popular.  The public should try to make itself artistic. . . . The one thing that the public dislike is novelty.  Any attempt to extend the subject matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter. . . . The fact is, the public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art.  They degrade the classics into authorities. . .  The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.”  In a less egoist description of the role of the artist, the anarchist Jean Grave describes the artist needs to be an equal and companion of the people to avoid co-option by the ruling elite.  “To live their dream, realize their aspirations, they, too, must work–for the moral and intellectual elevation of the masses.  They, too, must understand that their own development is made up of the intellectuality of all; that, whatever the heights they believe they have attained, they belong to the multitude.”  (Both of these are quote from Robert Graham’s Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas).  Whether the artist is a radical Nietzscheian individual immune from the whims of the masses or a Maoist-style comrade of the masses, the mass culture, dominated by a handful of studios catering to the vulgar desires of the “public” is not suitable to anarchism.  In this, the mainstream of American culture may have little to teach us.

Now back to the final pages of The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner.  I actually little more to say.  I think the major themes of the text are articulated in the earlier entries.  I do want to give a shout out to the attempt during the counter-cultural years to create alternatives to Broadway and Hollywood, promoted by different radical or counter-cultural groups.  Most famous might be the Black Arts movement, sustained in larger part by the Black Power movement and its ideas. Some nostalgia for the 1930s attempt at community-based theater is reflected in John Houseman’s memoirs (Run-Through).  He discussed in great detail a production of The Cradle will Rock, which was a WPA/Federal Theatre Project-funded musical telling the story of a union-drive.  Enjoy a clip from a later production:

Even Broadway had become, by the 1990s, a shadow of its former glory, becoming a tourist site, not a place for innovative artistic creation.  “If Broadway’s musical menu is beginning to be almost as antiquarian as the Metropolitan Opera’s, the reasons are no further away than your radio and your cable-TV screen.” (767)  This is according to writer and critic Thomas M. Disch.  I would add here that it seems Hollywood is not much better, choosing the safe over the innovative and challenging.  We are in for three more years of Tolkien at Christmas-time.  If you have not seen Les Miserables on Broadway or a local production, it is coming to the silver screen, but do not worry there will be no new songs.  Spielberg is coming at you with another great man story – in case we were running out of super heroes we have Lincoln to fill the void.  For the kids, Monster’s Inc. is being re-released in 3-D.  In a time when audiences deserve a series reflection on inequality, debt peonage, and the serious imagination for the future, we are being told by the culture industry that there is nothing new for you to imagine.


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