Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Betrayal of the Regional Theatre Movement -- The Guthrie

Back at the end of last May, I did an interview at Theatre is Territory where I said, among other things, that Tyrone Guthrie "hijacked the regional theatre movement." I wrote about this more fully in a post called "What Might Have Been" back in September. In the latter post, I quoted the matriarch of the American regional theatre movement, Margo Jones, who said in her brilliant book Theatre in the Round, published in 1951, the following:

I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.

Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.


Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best
way in which they can learn to write better plays.


The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.
Compare this to Guthrie, who wrote the following in his 1964 book A New Theatre about the founding of the Guthrie Theatre:

It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations [ital mine], to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice.....

Now the American theatre has not been long enough in existence to have developed its own classics. A distinctively American, as opposed to merely English-speaking, theatre only began to develop around the end of the First World War, at the beginning of the nineteen-twenties. Before that there certainly had been plays, written by American authors for American audiences, such as the works of Clyde Fitch. These, however, were heavily derivative from European and, naturally enough, especially from English-speaking sources....

If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic [ital mine], then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.

All the same, many excellent dramatists have developed between 1920 and the present time. Several of these, it is reasonable to suppose, may be of potential classical status. In planning a theatre which we hoped to establish in an American city, and hoped might have a perceptible cultural influence in a particular region of America, it seemed neither sensible nor tactful to take such a doctrinaire view of classical status that American plays would have -- for at least another ten years -- to be omitted from the programme.

Moreover, Americans get exasperated by Europeans who point out how brief American history has been. That is is true does not make a fact more agreeable. Europeans use the seniority of their culture to give maddening little lectures intended of course for the betterment and instruction of a crude, young and, of course, totally materialistic society. The British, I am afraid, are the very worst offenders. We use the fact that Britain and America write a similar language, and that the British have been writing for a few centuries longer, to take an absurdly patronising attitude towards our young cousins, not only in cultural matters but in everything where so-called "maturity" of outlook and behaviour might be valuable.

We certainly did not want it to appear as if once again Britain were trying to instruct the colonists. It therefore seemed to us essential to include each season one American play of what we considered to be potential classical status; and to let it take its place in a programme of established classics.
Wasn't that nice of Uncle Tyrone to let an American play be performed in an American theatre? Sheesh. There are several attitudes that must be drawn attention to in the above quotation.

1. That there is no way to tell what a good play is unless at least fifty years have passed. First of all, that is sheer cowardice and laziness -- let other people sift through the contemporary plays and take the chances, and then Guthrie will come along and pick up the gold that has been separated out by others' efforts. And has he not thought that if others followed his example, as they in fact did once the Guthrie opened to fanfare in the national press, that nobody would actually be doing this sifting?

2. This fifty year rule turns theatre into a museum whose main purpose is preservation rather than creation. This makes theatre into a dead art form that looks back to the past and has no truck with the present. It is the exact opposite of Jones' view that the theatre should reflect our own age. Instead, the mirror should be turned to reflect our grandparents' age at best, and preferably ages long before theirs.

3. Despite his stated desire not to seem to be instructing the colonies, there is a Eurocentric snobbery in Guthrie's attitude that is offensive in the extreme. It turns the Guthrie into a Trojan horse, an elaborate gift from the Old Country that completely ignores and undermines the value of the native theatre. In fact, he dismisses Eugene O'Neill, America's Nobel Prize-winning playwright, for his "ponderously repetitive style, his limited vocabulary and occasional very purple patches" which he believes will "ultimately keep him out of a place anywhere near the first rank." But he'll produce Aeschylus, whose style is every bit as ponderous and purple as O'Neill's, without blinking. Pure snobbery.

And the American regional theatre swallowed it. Prior to the opening of the Guthrie, Jones was the model for what a regional theatre should be. Her book was taken as a bible, and artistic leaders such as Nina Vance, founder of the Alley Theatre in Houston, and Zelda Fichlander, founder of the Arena Stage in Washington DC, demonstrated a deep commitment to the production of new American and European plays. No fifty-year rule there, they were committed to the creation of a theatre that reflected American life. But once the Guthrie opened in 1963, according to Joseph Wesley Zeigler in Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage (published in 1973), the regional theatre took a major turn. According to Zeigler, "it further legitimated the movement and gave it national weight. It gave hope to all regional theatres that they too could become known on a national level, that the Times might soon cover their openings, and that actors like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy [and George Grizzard] might soon set aside a season for them." This desire for recognition by the New York theatre establishment -- the quest for fame -- led other regional theatres to blindly follow the Guthrie artistic policy. Whereas before new work was mixed with the classics, after Guthrie regional theatre seasons came to be dominated by the classics.

The result was the slow draining of vitality from the American regional theatre movement and the hampering of the development of American drama. While a few years later, when the Arena Theatre achieved much recognition when it transferred The Great White Hope to Broadway, there was a resurgence of interest in new plays by the regional theatres, it came not from a commitment to American plays and playwrights, but rather to the desire, once again, to be recognized by the theatrical establishment in New York.

In summary, the opening of the Guthrie theatre in 1963 represents the colonialization of the American regional theatre, a colonialization from which it has yet to fully recover.

5 comments:

Bilal said...

First of all, that is sheer cowardice and laziness -- let other people sift through the contemporary plays and take the chances, and then Guthrie will come along and pick up the gold that has been separated out by others' efforts.

Would it be too clever to suggest that this idea is very similar to George Steinbrenner's penchant for buying players that other clubs had cultivated to create his Super Yankee teams of the late 90s?

And that eventually this practice led to several years of playoff failures in the early 2000s?

I feel like there's a more clear parallel I'm trying to make, but it's not coming. Sorry, it's late.

Tony said...

But now the Guthrie has it's own $125 million Shopping mall. . . so they must make great art . . . :)

Sure Guthrie laid down a path, but the current (and past) generation of managers has been more than willing to take that path and narrow it even further.

I think that to some extent placing the blame on Guthrie for the current state of LORT houses, passes the buck from those who built them and currently run them.

Scott Walters said...

You are right, Tony, and I wouldn't say that Guthrie is somehow "responsible" for everything in the ensuing 35 years. However, I wanted to describe a fork in the road that happened in 1963, one that Guthrie's fame made much more attractive to other theatres that followed. Because of Guthrie, it was much easier to get where we currently are -- a LORT scene that supports few new play productions.

Scott Walters said...

bilal -- It is very, very similar, and shows the same level of lack of caring for the game as a whole. Irresponsible in both cases.

Louis Broome said...

Pre not-for-profit theater knew a good play when it sold seats. The commercial theaters of the past knew how to manage risk. They produced a huge number of new plays, risked as little capital as possible mounting each, and when they got a hit, they optimized its earnings over time.

Not-for-profit businesses are inherently risk adverse. That's why all of the theaters do the same few plays each season, and why almost all of those plays come with a NYTs stamp of approval.