‘The American Stage: Writing on Theater From Washington Irving to Tony Kushner’

‘The American Stage: Writing on Theater From Washington Irving to Tony Kushner’
The pitfalls of judging a play by the production, not the script. (Elvis Swift / For, Elvis Swift / For)

The American Stage

Writing on Theater From Washington Irving to Tony Kushner


Edited by Laurence Senelick

Library of America: 850 pp., $40

Talk about not catching a break: Eclipsed by movies on the pop culture front, the theater also gets shunned at literary functions. Now the Library of America has thrown salt in the wounds with "The American Stage," a mishmash of more than 200 years of theater writing.

A grab-bag sensibility is probably unavoidable, but by including not just criticism but also memoir, journalism and other varieties of scribbling, editor Laurence Senelick — a professor of drama at Tufts — practically ensures the book's lack of usefulness. Reports of rowdy audience apple-throwing are in; Gertrude Stein is out. The result is a collection only a theater professor at war with his more textually oriented English department colleagues could love.

"Whether it is a playgoer complaining of the hardness of the seats or a critic comparing interpretations of Hamlet, the most vital accounts are by eyewitnesses," Senelick writes in his introduction. He announces that the book isn't a documentary history or a series of scholarly appraisals or a collection of playwriting voices. What he fails to consider, however, is how his anti-literary corrective to theater studies can so easily reinforce anti-intellectual biases.

Theater as show trumps theater as art. Melodrama, particularly a 19th century blockbuster adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is the subject of much attention, including recollections by Mark Twain, Henry James and Willa Cather. Senelick, in one of many fuzzy formulations, contends that melodrama "was congenial to the American temperament" and that it has gone on to have a life in the works of "the most honored American playwrights, from O'Neill, Maxwell Anderson and Elmer Rice, to Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams to Sam Shepard and David Mamet."

What he fails to consider adequately is that it was the dominant 19th century form of theater in Europe as well. And while vestiges of melodrama can be found wherever a dogged scholar seeks them out, a more instructive model for understanding 20th century American playwriting exists in the European rebellions against melodrama waged by such seminal figures as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw.

America's colonial past has played a role in the culture's cowering subservience to English theater. It's hard, though, to countenance Senelick's imprecise remark on the transatlantic relationship: "Even today, a ‘think play' from the West End is transferred to Broadway each season as the theatrical equivalent of the coffee-table book." But then, Senelick doesn't want to consider the impact of our government's anemic support of the arts on substantive drama. In fact, he has the temerity to complain that American funding organizations are prejudiced against " ‘mere' entertainment." (Would he have the NEA support road companies of "Legally Blonde: The Musical"?)

"The American Stage" offers a good deal to savor, from the gold dust of praise for great actors (Stark Young on John Barrymore, John Mason Brown on Lee J. Cobb, Gore Vidal on Kim Stanley) to diamond-sharp insights into master dramatists (George Jean Nathan on Eugene O'Neill, Harold Clurman on Clifford Odets). But to find it, you have to pick your way through piles of detritus.

I found it difficult to understand the short shrift given to avant-garde performance, which along with musical comedy and our domestic brands of Method acting is the most original American contribution to world theater. ( Elizabeth Hardwick's desultory "Notes on the New Theater" barely scratches the surface, and how can there be no sustained discussion of the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman or Robert Wilson?)

But harder to justify is what has been included.

The two selections of James — one a roundup, the other an excerpt from his memoir "A Small Boy and Others" — offer virtually no indication that his theater criticism represents some of the most resplendent in the English language.

Mary McCarthy, notorious for getting it wrong when covering drama for Partisan Review, makes a cameo with a ludicrous attack on Tennessee Williams as a commercial hack. John Simon's "Boredom in the Theatre," riddled with peremptory potshots at Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder and Harold Pinter, offers a polemic destined for the trash bin not marked for recyclables.

Perhaps these critics could have been better represented, but why not substitute in the more expansive Richard Gilman and Robert Brustein, both inexplicably exiled? Frank Rich has to be considered the best theater reviewer at a daily newspaper in more than a generation, yet his only appearance is a lightweight piece on an aged Carol Channing reprising her turn in "Hello, Dolly!" And what do we make of the single piece by Walter Kerr, one of the 20th century's most dashing journalistic stylists? His middlebrow aesthetic led to some obtuse verdicts (he was immune to Beckett), but there are far more dazzling jewels in his oeuvre than the tidbit titled "Barns," a parasol-twirling paean to summer theater.


"The American Stage" succeeds perhaps only in reassuring us that the problems of the commercial theater are perennial. (Thomas M. Disch's "The Death of Broadway" and a selection from William Goldman's classic "The Season" make this depressingly clear.) Although it's disappointing how little interest the book has in what's going on outside New York, no one should be surprised that John Lithgow was asked to write the foreword. The star system is alive and well — and not just on the Great White Way.

McNulty is The Times' theater critic.