Circling the Island
Whether success will spoil off-Broadway or not, the downtown stage has seemingly relinquished its role of presenting experimental and original theater, and seems to be settling for a rehash of old material, plus a scattering of pseudo avant-garde plays. While this pattern has proven disappointing to those who still seek new blood and fresh ideas off-Broadway, it provides a comfortable combination of tried theatrical works (Strindberg, Ibsen, and Shaw most conspicuously), with thin, spicy plays designed to quench a respectable suburban thirst for Evil.
There was a time not long ago, when businessmen would entertain visiting clients by taking them to a Broadway show (naturally there are other, even more traditional modes of entertainment which needn't be discussed here). About two years ago, however, incoming clients began expressing a desire to visit "a coffee house in the village." The role of the coffeehouse is now being pre-empted, for the off-Broadway theater, has become mildly entertaining, fulfills a visiting salesman's notion of "the Village" and the scene of nothing terribly serious.
Sean O'Casey's Drums Under the Window is a lilting work that makes golden use of the English language. With this exception, however, the downtown offerings generally range from pretentious to overtly sheckel-minded. An example of a play with static ideas and superficial newness is Genet's The Balcony, one of off-Broadway's biggest hits. Despite its pretensions of originality, it bogs down in a miasma of unreality and philosophical despair. The play first states that men patronize brothels not for sexual satisfaction, but in order to fulfill self-illusions; to try to translate their dreamworlds into some sort of physical actuality. Genet then projects his whorehouse onto a political plan and asserts that Change on this planet can never amount to progress, for it is merely illusion. He equates change to the sham and artificiality of the brothel in a perplexing and unconvincing way. Jose Quintero's direction is generally sloppy, and does little to clarify or enhance Genet's work.
Perhaps after Jack Gelber's Career went successfully from television to off-Broadway, other authors subsequently decided to skip the first step. The result is a cluster of television plays attitudinizing on live stages. But until any valid equation between Trendex potential and good theater is proven, plays which aim at the Bell Telephone Hour level of art ought to be kept off or swept off the boards. A good case might be made for these shows, though, on the grounds that plays with any dramatic pretensions are preferable to those which are explicitly commercial. A monstrosity entitled Greenwich Village, U.S.A. opened this fall with a few girls who looked like walking dairy bars; the salesmen loved it, but it would be a shame if the theater were reduced to a means of legalizing burlesque in New York City.
The unhealthiness of this year's season is all the more tragic because off-Broadway represents the main hope for original theater in America. It costs too much to fail on Broadway; the risks make creativity too expensive. Off-Broadway, however, a production can be launched economically, and thus financial criteria needn't be the ultimate standards for new work. The loss would be great if the box office became more important than the stage off-Broadway.
Ironically, the one outstanding play of the season has been O'Casey's. In its dignity, freshness, and language, it is the antithesis of stilted and mechanically "avant-garde" off-Broadway. Hopefully its success will indicate that tourist theater cannot totally swallow up decent theater downtown.