38 / CHRONICLESnSTAGEnIn Search of anPlaywrightnby David KaufmannA Lie of the Mind; Written by SamnShepard; Premiere at the PromenadenTheater (December 1985); NewnYork.n”That ever recurring topic, the dechnenof the drama, seems to havenconsumed of late, more of the materialnin question than would havensufficed for a dozen primenministers …”n—Edgar Allan Poe, 1845n”[The 1922-1923 Season is] the firstnseason in a generation not to havenbeen described as the ‘worst innyears.n—Burns Mantle, 1923n”As another season sprouts taprootsnin American soil, the managementsnand critics will again declaim on anfavorite topic—the need for newnAmerican playwrights.”n—John Gassner, 1954n”But what about the thousand playsnwe actually saw? . . . We are surenthey are destined for oblivion, certainnthey represent a falling-off fromnsome vague earlier excellence, evernready to proclaim the new season wenhave just sat through as ‘undoubtedlynthe worst within the memory ofnliving man.n—Walter Kerr, 1970nWhen it comes to American Drama,nour lack of a respectable literature is anmuch more perennial and chronicnlament than wc imagine. With whatnwould appear to be a perverse relish,neach generation proclaims that today isnworse than yesterday, perpetuating thenstrain of pessimism and unjustifiednnostalgia that pervades the record. ThenVITAL SIGNSnt ‘^txin*V.iai1 .ifc-n^^JV,nailment is not as new as each generationnprefers to think. There is muchntoo little recognition that, like the restnof us, Broadway has been dying sincenit was born.nThe irony in all of this, of course, isnthat the obstinate pessimism fosters annunrealistic hope. The constant statenof desperation encourages the critic tonsettie for nothing less than the newnmessiah of American Drama. Our bestnprospects—indeed our best playwrightsn—have been crippled by the pressurenthat comes from premature, extravagantnpronouncements. To study thenchronicles of American Theater is tonnotice these two, seemingly opposite,nstrains at work: the nagging frustrationnthat there is no longer a worthwhilenplaywright as there used to be (finally,nwe have to ask. When? Accordingnto Foe, such was the prevalent complaintn100 years before O’Neill) andnthe attendant impulse to locate one.nUnsurprisingly, each age appears tonhave its own potential savior. Besidenthe persistence of this art-form-insearch-of-an-authornmentality, eachnage has a vested interest in electingnsomeone to the pantheon, to declarenits own importance in the great marchnof theater history. But this tendencynhas inherent side effects which worknagainst the desired end. So that, withncharacteristic dispatch, TennesseenWilliams is seized very early in hisncareer as the country’s first, pure dramaticnpoet. (To this day, even O’Neill,narguably our best playwright, is consideredna flawed writer who consistentlynstrove for greatness but achieved itntoo rarely, producing cumbersomenlanguage instead. As eady as 1929,nRobert Benchley wrote that “It takes angreat deal of concentration on ThenEmperor ]ones and The Hairy Ape tonkeep alive the thought that Mr.nO’Neill is America’s greatest dramatist.nOf course, if he isn’t, the questionnarises, ‘Who is, then?’ and wc scurrynright back to Mr. O’Neill, with apologies.”)nSomewhat later, EdwardnAlbee, even earlier in his prime, isnnnapprehended as the genius whose arrivalnwas expected.nBoth Williams and Albee were consumednby an unfulfillable promise thatnhad been imposed upon them by thenincandescent welcome they initiallynreceived. In some bizarre twist of circumstance,nperpetrated primarily bynthe critics, they later competed notnagainst their mentors or the best ofntheir contemporaries, but rathernagainst their younger selves. (Albee didn”get some of his own back” with hisnlast Broadway entry three years ago.nThe Man Who Had Three Arms, aboutna has-been freak who achieved internationalnattention when a third armnappeared on his back, only to lose allnthe attention when his third arm disappearednas unaccountably as it hadnarrived. A metaphor for his own genius.nThe Man Who Had Three Armsnwas as much a curiosity as a criticalnand financial disaster. It was also annembarrassment for the audience it implicatednno less than for the once-greatnplaywright who has not had a realnsuccess in over 15 years.)nIn his summary of theater in 1985nfor the New York Times, Frank Richnmanaged to fit into one sentence thentwo major tendencies of Americanntheater criticism, a cause for rejoicingnin the midst of ongoing pessimism:n”Sam Shepard was the year’s mostnspectacular reminder of the durabilitynof the theatrical impulse, regardless ofnthe theatrical industry’s hard times.”nRich devotes the first third of his discussionnto Shepard’s newest drama, AnLie of the Mind. “Even if there werennothing else to recommend the past 12nmonths in the theater—and there isnmuch more—A Lie of the Mindnmight lift 1985 above the undistinguishednyears that have characterizednthe decade.” He continues to arguenpassionately: “Mr. Shepard, it’s increasinglynclear, is an artist who hasnhis country in his blood and just can’tnprevent its spirit from pouring out, innever more poetic and exuberant formsnof expression.”n