Loeb's Function, 'Plays for Audiences,' Not Inconsistent with Artistic Integrity

Speaking a year ago at the New York Harvard Club, the director of the Loeb Drama Center spoke hopefully and eloquently of the future of theater at Harvard. He considered it possible and even probable that Harvard, given the means, might become center to which the young and talented would repair to train themselves for the stage as they have in the past to train themselves for the bar or pulpit or the scholar's life or the director's or the politician's. But at the one time that he expressed this hope, Chapman accepted and supported the faculty view that there should be schools or department of drama at Harvard and that no formal teaching dramatic arts and should be offered.

The result, to some, was paradox--a paradox which still survives even in the physical presence of the superb theater Hugh Stubbins has designed had the gift of the Loebs has constructed. Indeed, the completion of the theater has, if anything, increased the doubts. To those who once asked new drama could be taught if there has to be no one to teach it, there are new added those who wish to be told new drama can be learned in anything as perfect as that! They can understand a man knocking sense into its own head by hammering a stage together at the end of a dining hall or the bottom of an empty pool but they see no possibilities of instruction in a handsome auditorium built or the purpose with mechanically adjustable stage levels and electronic light controls.

And then, too, there is the matter audiences and, specifically, the fact directive laying it down that the Drama Center is to be used "for the production of plays for audiences." If you are producing plays for audiences you can't be producing them for your own uninhibited instruction. To produce plays for audiences is, by inescapable implication, to produce plays audiences will like, and if the purpose is to produce plays audiences will like, then success becomes the criterion art when success is the criterion art is out the window and where is your instruction then?

Add all this together--a theater which may well be the best in the country, audiences sitting in the theater and an obligation to please those audiences--and the obstacles in the way of the young and talented become almost insurmountable. Better the dining hall in Lowell House. Better far the cellar room in Massachusetts Hall.

It is an impressive position and one which is not undermined by answering that the dining hall in Lowell House and the cellar in Massachusetts, or its equivalent, are still there. House drama groups will flourish in the future as they have in the past and the young man who feels happier working as his own carpenter can always find the lift and the lumber, but it is irrelevant to say so, for if our faith is grounded on do-it-yourself stagecraft, why did we build the Loeb? And neither, and for the same reason, is it an adequate answer to point out that the Loeb contains an experimental theater which can equal any cellar for bareness and surpass it in adaptability, for why then the big stage and that lovely auditorium.

The real answer, at least to me, is the direct answer. "Plays for audiences" are planned for the Harvard Theater because there are no other plays. It is possible for poets to write letters to themselves (though Emily Dickinson, who was perhaps the most private poet who ever wrote, called her poems her letters to the world). It is possible also for painters to paint possible for their agents. It is even possible for novelists to write novels only the initiated can decipher. But a play without a participating audience is simply not a play. The stage, even in its proscenium days, was never comprehended within the three inward dimensions but always had the fourth of the attending consciousness--a fourth dimension which the Noh play symbolized by the brooding figure waiting at the bridge. The young man of talent who thinks he can teach himself to be a playwright or a director or an actor by writing or directing or acting for himself as audience has misconceived his tasks--and perhaps his talents.

That being so, the possibility that success will become the criterion in the Loeb to the neglect of art is not as terrifying as it sounds. Plays are not "for" audiences in the sense in which rings are for fingers or America is for the Americans. The relation is not one of possession or even one of pleaser and pleased: to Brecht, for example, whose plays are "for" audiences in the most explicit sense, the last thing de- sired was that the audience should be "pleased" in any fashion Broadway understands. The playwright's task and the actor's and the director's and the designer's is to hold that necessary attention, not to gratify it in other ways. And to learn to hold it is, in a very precise sense, the heart of the dramatic problem. For unless the audience is held it will not participate in the play and unless it participates in the play, lives the play, nothing dramatic will have happened.

Actually, of course, the fear of success, though understandable enough in a civilization like ours which worships that shifty goddess, is an ignoble fear, and can become ridiculous, as in the pronouncements of those who revolt against the age by reversing its values. We are doubtless a contemptible generation, but it is not true that whatever succeeds with us must be bad. Frost and Eliot and Faulkner and Joyce and Brecht and O'Neill are and were enormous successes--far more successful than the great of other generations have been in their lifetimes. And it is not inconceivable at all that the big stage at the Loeb, by dedicating itself to "plays for audiences," may some day present a truly and wholly successful play by a young man now unknown which will not only hold its audience but open to it a new perspective on the world. I for one, should not be unhappy if it did