IF ALL THE PLAYS at Harvard were piled on top of each other in the Adams House courtyard--actors, producers, sets, lights, everything--it would be a big pile indeed, a swarming, undulating column of histrionic people reaching to the top of Holyoke Center. Thirty or so plays a semester is not bad for a college without a drama school or even a department to support it.
But, as the officials who dole out the large gobs of money that finance all these thespian calisthenics have recently been heard to rumble in discontent, it might be wise to ask what it's all good for. After all, if it is useless, we had better find out quickly so we still have time to improve our grades or something.
Criticisms of Harvard theater boil down to three main points. It is poorly performed and boring; it is pretentious and boring; it is misguided and boring. As to inadequacy of performance, that is the price we pay for not having a Drama Department. The courses offered by the staff of the ART serve, with some exceptions, only as introductions to particular aspects of the art.
Some of the worst productions (as well as some of the best) are served up by graduates of the Dramatic Arts courses. Their effect, is, I think, minimal. Technical expertise is at a premium, as any fool can pretend to act but very few can design a light plot. The ART and the unsung hero of Harvard theater, the Loeb's Don Soule, have made an effort to educate fledgling dramatists and designers in the basics, but we must admit that for training we should have gone to Yale or Carnegie-Mellon and press on without it.
AS FOR PRETENSE and misguided productions: the main reason we do theater at Harvard is because we can. The space and money is readily available to anyone who wants it; for a month's effort you can throw up your artistic expression in front of a few hundred people. Some plays we see should have been novels, or movies, or poems, or letters home, or television shows, or honor's theses. Some are honors theses.
It's very pleasant to have such a variety of material to deal with every weekend, but if we are to survive the displeasure of the Powers That Give Money, we should define what it is we are supposed to be doing and try to do it.
Theater has always been primarily a popular entertainment, and always will be. Most plays throughout history, including Shakespeare's, were written to please the crowd. But, like the horse cart and the zeppelin, theater has suffered recently from competition. Television can take us places the theater can only imitate with painted drops, while the cinema can beat the theater in almost every area.
The finest actors can practice until the finest performance is captured and preserved on film, while the potential for sheer spectacle is unsurpassed. There are no bad seats, and no off-nights. And those who saw the Miklos Jansco films recently shown at the Carpenter Center realize that the camera can create images far more powerful and complex than even Robert Wilson is capable of on the stage.
But obviously theater is not dead, although there are those who think so. As that tall pile we left swaying in the wind still testifies, theater as an art is still around, on the strength of its one inviolable property, the one thing no film or television show can duplicate: immediacy.
What happens in theater happens right there. It is not a record of past actions but an ongoing phenomenon which at its best will grab the audience and make them live it as well. A movie deals in what has already happened. The theater's realm is potential: what may happen, to the story, to the actors, to you. Properly used, the physical proximity of play and playgoer can be exploited to create heights of humor and terror, tension and relief, of which no other medium is capable. Theater is dangerous. That is its strength.
A THEATRICAL PIECE, be it the oddest surreal composition or three hours of unstinting realism, must be the visible facet of a complete coherent reality lurking without the borders of the play. It must make sense, even if it is a sense never before seen. The job of the dramatist is to create a new world, or a new version of the world we know, and to put it in the same room with a paying audience.
As Professor Robert Chapman has said, if we wanted to see real life we'd look out the window. No one likes to be boring or to be bored; we want our entertainment to provide us with the extremes of experience that real life simply cannot produce. The power of theater is to bring these artistic highs and lows and the audience together, to make them real to each other if only for an evening. In order to survive, in order to continue to provide one hell of a night out, theater has to live and breathe, to laugh and groan and sweat right onto the people in the front row. At that range, the effect is unforgettable.