In preparation for a lecture on the Group Theatre, I have been reading Wendy Smith's fantastic Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940, and Harold Clurman's even-more-fantastic Fervent Years. Of the dozens of quotations that have me inspired, here is one that particularly resonates with what I have been thinking about and writing lately:
"To what human beings, one might ask, were theatre ideas to be valuable. First, to the theatre artists themselves -- to actors, since they were the theatre's crucial factor; actors were citizens of a community before they took on their dubious connection with 'art.' Second, theatre ideas were to be important to an audience, of which the actors were a focus, for it is the audience (seen as a 'community') that has given birth to its artists. The criterion of judgment for what is good or bad in the theatre -- be it in plays, acting, or staging -- does not derive from some abstract standard of artistic or literary excellence, but from a judgment of what is fitting -- that is, humanly desirable -- for a particular audience." (italics mine; from Fervent Years)
Clurman condemned the board members of the Theatre Guild: "They had this fixation on pessimism. If you felt BADLY and said life stinks! it STINKS! you were really an advanced person. There'e something about pessimism that gives people an aura of grandeur. If you think everything is hopeless and down and wretched and dirty, then you really are an exalted person. I've never understood why." (quoted in Smith, p 24)
"If theatre is an art, if it has any value beyond decorating the emptiness of our existence, it too, collective art thought it be, must have an analogous singleness of meaning and direction. It too must say something, it too must create from the chaos which is the common experience of its members, an expression that will have, like that of the individual artist, an identity and significance with which people, sharing the common experience, may sense their kinship and to which they can attach themselves." (italics original; quoted in Smith, p 7)
Clurman taught at CUNY back in the 70s, and a good friend of mine, Alvin Goldfarb (co-author of The Living Theatre and expert in Holocaust theatre), had classes with him. It must have been extraordinary! To warm your mind and soul through the heat of a man with a vision of what theatre should be, and who spoke those ideas in words of passion and intensity -- I can think of few things that could nourish the artistic heart more fully.
I am reminded of Jimmy Porter's plea in Look Back In Anger for "a little ordinary enthusiasm," and his frustration with the fact that "Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm." Clurman had enthusiasm, he thought, he cared, he believed. He was not afraid to look silly because of his passion, he was not afraid to not be cool.
Is there someone who carries on that tradition? I sometimes feel it when I read some of Kushner's essays. Are there others that you can point me toward -- other visionaries who are putting forward a passionate, committed vision of today's theatre that echoes Clurman's 75-year-old prophecies? If I wanted to inspire my young students with a contemporary vision of theatre's power and potential, where should I look? Is there anyone who has transcended the hip postmodern cynicism to propose something that can be believed in? Is there somebody who embodies enthusiasm?