Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Herbert Blau on "The Impossible Theatre"

In 1964, Herbert Blau published The Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto. This is how the book began -- the first two paragraphs that set the tone:
The purpose of this book is to talk up a revolution. Where there are rumblings already, I want to cheer them on. I intend to be incendiary and subversive, maybe even un-American. I shall probably hurt some people unintentionally; there are some I want to hurt. I may as well confess right now the full extent of my animus: there are times when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like the lunatic Lear on the heath, wanting to "kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.

My friends, wanting to spare me my murderous impulses and practicing a therapy I respect and despise, tell me to calm down, give it time, things are happening. Things are happening: I want to look at them and see what's really happening. And to those who share my view of what the theater might be but defer to the sluggard drift of things, I want to say what Brecht's Galileo said to the Little Monk, temporizing in pity for those who, fixed in the old routines, scrape a living somehow -- on the premise that if whatever is is not right, it is at least unalterable -- "I can see their divine patience, but where is their divine fury?"
Nearly a half century later, I regularly hear the same advice: calm down, give it time, things are happening. It used to be that one could say that change in the theatre was glacial, but these days even glaciers change faster than the theatre does. And while I do not feel quite the level of hostility as Blau-Lear, I do often wonder where the divine fury is.

The New York Theatre Workshop fires its entire production staff and there is some level of outrage, but most of it is pretty muted and expressed in terms of disappointment rather than condemnation. Some of the responses to my question about anonymous reviews revealed the source of this lack of fire: a wish to avoid offending someone lest your opinions lessen your employment options.

And yet I return to Blau's words, and to the fact that it was because of those words, because of his book The Impossible Theater, that he was asked to take over Lincoln Center from Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead in 1965. The wife of one of the members of the Lincoln Center search committee read enough of the book to recommend Blau, and the rest is history. The deader the air surrounding an art form, the more sweet is the smell of the fresh air that blows in as a squall. Blau did not mince words in his book about his disdain for Broadway:
To talk about Broadway is mainly to carp; but we must carp and carp louder, not for Broadway's sake, but because it remains the chief referent for theater in this country and, more outrageously, the chief aspiration for young actors, directors, designers, and playwrights. Bless Broadway, it will survive, if anything does. And nobody would spend his good time beating a dead cow if there weren't so many who still held it sacred, or fed up to the theeth, still buzz like dumb flies around what they tell you is a carcass.
He was a revolutionary, a reformer, and he wasn't afraid to speak truth to power, to rail against what Brook called the Deadly Theatre, to thunder about the waste of talent and potential. He didn't worry about who he might offend, in fact he wanted to offend them. And the result was not that he was shunned, but rather he was invited to clean out the encrusted stalls of New York.

As Willy Loman says in Death of a Salesman, "The woods are burning!" Who will call the alarum? Who will risk raising their voice in order to draw our attention to the imminent danger?

This is a time for the Harold Clurmans and the Herbert Blaus of the theatre to be heard. They have been warning us for almost 3/4 of a century. Isn't it time to abandon our reserve and set up a howl that could be heard from one end of this country to another?


John Clancy said...


Remember how quick they fired Blau's ass? Because he did what he said he would do?

The first step is not to go into the ballroom where the aristocracy are screaming for you, the first step is to invite them out to the fields.

We have to build it on our own, man.

No one was going to save the Titanic. No one.

Travis Bedard said...

See. And I think that you are less right here than you are in your central thrust, and I agree with John...

We can rage. But I have no power over the NYTW or over anyone who does, or anyone who sees their work. Let it be on their head.

And let our work not be done in the same way. But the fact of the matter is that I can rail against NYTW for making a collosally bad move, but I didn't pay my actors on my last show. Didn't I make the same choice in miniature?

We inform others as best we can, learn from the mistake and we build our own.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott - this might interest you. Here in Australia we've got a chance to change the arts environment at the federal government kevel. I (and 999 others, including 100 under the monicker "Creative Australia") have been invited to Canberra for the Australia 2020 Summit, a huge government chinwag. I've been cogitating on what kind of things would make art more possible, given that we're also heading for recession. My ideas, and those of some others, are up at this wiki. We'll see what happens this weekend...

Scott Walters said...

John -- You are absolutely right, of course. A while ago, I wrote about Guthrie's betrayal of the regional theatre. There was a second betrayal, and that was when Blau accepted the Lincoln Center job. He had spent most of The Impossible Theatre calling for Decentralization, and then he headed for NYC. His motivation was missionary -- he intended to show them how it was done. Instead, as as you note, he was chewed up by the Broadway hit machine. There are the bones of a Greek tragedy in that story.

Travis -- yes, I do see. And I think we need to be clear on the purpose of railing: it isn't to change the powers that be, but rather to bring to the forefront the issues that we want to change through our own actions. We must keep in the forefront of our imagination exactly why there is a need for a new approach, a new value system, so that we do not follow the same path the regional theatre took in its capitulation to the commercial theatre.

Allison -- thanks so much, I will definitely see what you are up to. What a great opportunity for the artists of Australia to be heard. Good luck!

Nick said...

Scott and all,

There is more right than wrong in what NYTW did.

Imagine if NYTW had replaced the six production staff with an ensemble of four actors, one playwright, and one director. That’s essentially what they did. Bare bones would get rid of all “production value” and those charged to care for that.

Anonymous said...

And five years later, where are we now?

Scott Walters said...

Same place, different day. The polite continue to tell the impatient to stay calm, and another generation kicks the can down the road.

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