“Who can keep up with anything these days?”
The New Republic, 3/10/86
“If a National Theater is to be in only one city, it should, of course, be in New York, the center of the country’s cultural life and the fount of its theatrical traditions. That’s where the acting and directing talent would most naturally gravitate.”
—Benedict Nightingale, Fifth Row Center
Despite the bad press it receives both nationally and locally. New York theater is not as comatose or as bankrupt as many now suppose. What has been its greatest asset historically, its spectacular abundance, remains its chief characteristic today. Despite the perennial prophecies of doom and the sort of wistful nostalgia that informs our contemporary viewpoint regardless of topic, New York continues to be the theater capital of the country, if not the world.
The false impression has to do with that loaded and jaded label, “Broadway,” and the notion that Broadway is synonymous with New York theater. Such an attitude remains as provincial as it ever was, and as far from an accurate portrayal of what constitutes theater in New York as it has been since the 30’s or 40’s, when the Off-Broadway venue began to expand more or less in proportion with Broadway’s ever-diminishing output. The reasons for the attitude are complicated. But what amounts to little more than a reactionary response has been all too readily seized upon by the big-time financiers and Broadway franchisers who bemoan their losses on three or four investments even while they recoup those losses on a single “hit.”
It is, after all, ludicrous to suggest that Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Houston, Louisville, New Haven, Philadelphia, or Washington, DC, with their one or two or three noteworthy theater companies apiece, can even begin to compete with the vast scope of New York theater. New York has, to name only the more prominent companies. The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, the WPA, the Circle Rep, the Hudson Guild, the American Place, the Second Stage, The Production Company, Mirror Repertory Theatre, The Music-Theatre Group/Lenox Arts Center, La Mama, Theatre for the New City, Vineyard Theater, BAM, Theater of the Open Eye, and perhaps the most significant of all, Joe Papp’s Public Theater, which alone houses numerous stages and annually introduces more than twice as many productions as, say, the Goodman or the Guthrie or the American Repertory Theatre.
Each of these companies behaves like the more celebrated regional theater companies throughout the country, and a number of them even provide the repertory situations for which the more vociferous critics of American theater apparently pine. Last year even introduced the first of what may become an annual event, unique to New York: the American Theater Exchange, a consortium of productions from American regional theater. (The first season included Faulkner’s Bicycle from the Yale Repertory Theatre, Season’s Greetings from the Alley Theatre of Houston, and In the Belly of the Beast from the Mark Taper Forum in LA.)
During the 365 days in 1985, I managed to attend 144 different plays and musicals on that narrow spot of land between the Hudson and the East Rivers; and I have no way of knowing how many such events I missed in the same area. Of course, I could tell you how many shows opened on Broadway during the 1984-85 theatrical season—31—and I could add that it was five fewer than arrived on Broadway during the preceding season, and 19 fewer than the 1982-83 season. But the Off-Broadway circuit seemed to swell simultaneously—and in more than just quantifiable ways. And that far more nebulous region which has naturally come to be known as Off-Off-Broadway behaved very much like the cosmos—i.e., in both observable and mysterious ways.
Many claim that the greatest tragedy in American drama is that there is none. Part of the mandate which critics have stipulated for the regional movement is to fill that gap, to foster an O’Neill, a Williams, a Miller. While pleading for government subsidies, its representatives compare the promise of regional theater to a garden, providing the soil conducive to nurturing theatrical talent and to generating the hybrid genius of tomorrow. But aside from Lanford Wilson (the Circle Rep in New York), and to a lesser degree David Mamet (the Goodman in Chicago), what company has cultivated a dramatist without then losing him to the more diffuse theater world at large? Most move on to larger and greener pastures—usually South of Central Park—soon after the blossom appears.
Even the Chicago-based Steppenwolf, surely the hottest theater company today (though it has yet to advance the career of a writer as it has propelled the reputations of numerous performers and directors), brings to New York as much as it possibly can: True West, and a Nightingale Sang. . . , Balm in Gilead, Orphans, Arms and the Man, The Caretaker, since 1982. But at what price? Already one hears reports of internal erosion of the spirit and the allegiance of the group. And what will become of the Goodman remains anyone’s guess, now that Gregory Mosher has assumed responsibility for the Lincoln Center Theater and commenced his programming there with two modest one-acts by his long-time colleague David Mamet.
Terrence McNally in his satire on all things theatrical, It’s Only a Play, summarizes regional theater as “plays that couldn’t get produced in New York, performed by actors who couldn’t get jobs in New York, for people who wished they still lived in New York.” That is hardly a fair judgment, and yet it is still evident that the regional theater movement has not substantially disturbed New York’s position as the apex of theatrical accomplishment. Though regionalism has gained noticeable attention in recent years, there is a grave irony in the realization that the aesthetic impulse behind this movement has been obfuscated if not obliterated by the political double-talk and the chauvinistic debate that ensues on both sides of the Hudson River. For all the advances in the regional movement, American theater has become less, and not more, American, inasmuch as it has become more fragmented than ever before with so many centralized factions competing against each other as well as against the pinnacle they still aspire to.
Actually, regionalism is alive and well inside New York. For all intents and purposes, Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, for example, is no closer to the Great White Way than is the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, or the Goodman in Chicago, or the Yale Rep in New Haven, or the Actor’s Theater in Louisville. In recent years, these theaters respectively have exported to Broadway: Angels Fall and As Is, ‘night, Mother and Big River, Glengarry Glen Ross, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and—via the Manhattan Theatre Club—Crimes of the Heart, to name only those that come quickly to mind. Does the now 15-year-old plea for government subsidy of regional theater really arise out of an ambition to improve the quality of our theater in general, or is it merely a manifestation of geographic pride? Of course, when it is a question of “money for nothing,” who needs a reason?
I offer all this as long-winded preface to a discussion of Steppenwolf’s recent production of The Caretaker, imported to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre direct from its Chicago-based home. Having praised Steppenwolf’s output until now, the New York critics have come down too hard on this no-nonsense version of the Pinter play. It is as if the keepers of the keys to New York theater have finally awakened to the noise of a war being waged—a war in which geographical, rather than aesthetic, battles occupy the front lines. In this particular skirmish, the New York critics have overlooked some of the finer aspects of Steppenwolf’s Caretaker in their unspoken need to debunk the myth that Steppenwolf is the only exciting theater company—a myth they helped to create.
The Caretaker is not only Pinter’s most frequently produced play, but also his most controversial. When it was new in 1960, Clifford Leech wrote that it “seems now to be the most impressive dramatic writing in English since the war, but we cannot know if Pinter will go beyond it, we cannot know how even this play will look if there is a future from which it may be regarded.”
But rather than say anything about the play itself (is it too sacred at this point, or too mundane a topic?) under John Malkovich’s straightforward direction, the critics have seized the event as an opportunity to dump on Steppenwolf Welcome to the harsh glare of the limelight, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Be advised in the future to keep your grubby little hands off all material sacred and British. (Indeed, Malkovich’s last outing with a British work, Shaw’s Arms and the Man, also for the Circle in the Square, was given a lukewarm to poor reception.)
“This Caretaker is a giggly, sloppy reading of the play that dissipates its potentially absorbing drama,” be-; moaned Frank Rich. Clive Barnes agreed: “The director, Mr. Malkovich, and his quite talented actors, seemed unable to let the play speak for itself, creak for itself Less would have been more. . . . Such balance, and such overtones, never emerge from a production that is disappointingly and doggedly provincial.” Even the usually demure Douglas Watt found Steppenwolf “turning Harold Pinter’s early ‘comedy of menace’ into something more like a comedy of discombobulation.” But the greatest venom comes, characteristically, from John Simon, who opens his review by saying, “Not even a dog, not even a dog of a play by Harold Pinter, should be treated as the Steppenwolf Theatre Company is kicking around The Caretaker.”
All of this is a far cry from the reaction to the first production, which Kenneth Tynan used as an occasion to advance Pinter’s career: “What holds one, theatrically, is Mr. Pinter’s bizarre use (some would call it abuse) of dramatic technique, his skill in evoking atmosphere, and his encyclopaedic command of contemporary idiom. . . . Where most playwrights devote their technical efforts to making us wonder what will happen next, Mr. Pinter forces our wonder on what is happening now. Who are these people? How did they meet, and why? Mr. Pinter delays these disclosures until the last tenable moment; he teases us without boring us, which is quite a rare achievement.”
But the critical response to the present version is based on previous experience with the work. I am forced to admit I have not seen The Caretaker on the stage before. But that was a kind of advantage. The full effect of a Pinter play—and particularly this one—relies on the freshness. For the audience, ignorance is primarily responsible for the menace and the ambiguity that typify Pinter’s work. In fact, Pinter’s principal contribution to the drama is not his celebrated pause (which inevitably fails to refresh), but his refusal to provide exposition as the theater had known it for 2,500 years—in short, his sadistic treatment of the audience. The menace for which he is famous stems primarily from his keeping the audience in the dark.
Before Pinter, when the curtain went up, the playwright immediately went about his business of establishing the context and supplying the background. Pinter recognized the great value of the audience’s implicit trust. He realized what was always there—the audience’s sheer lack of understanding what it wasn’t told, its total dependence on the playwright—and by deliberately failing to fill in the gaps, he turned that situation to his advantage. His effectiveness as a dramatist lies in his ability to hold our attention in an absolute vacuum of exposition. Unfortunately, the trick only works the first time, and much of Pinter is like a second-rate mystery—worthless once you know how it comes out. The taut and harrowing edge to the suspense is expended the first time around. (Ironically, Betrayal, which some consider Pinter’s most stunning achievement, is merely an inversion of this method as he divulges an abundance of exposition but releases it backwards.)
Unwittingly or not, The Caretaker itself becomes a perfect microcosm of the effect Pinter has on us. It begins when Aston invites Davies, an aging vagabond he just met, home with him. Like Pinter, Aston is a laconic, vague figure, but he has guaranteed himself the upper hand. Like Davies, we become the unsuspecting guest he has welcomed into his parlor for the purpose of knocking us around a bit, though we never clearly understand why. Of course, the circumstance becomes far more complex than that. In this case, it’s complicated by the introduction of Mick, Aston’s even more mysterious brother who, in keeping with the analogy, can be viewed as an alternate representation of Pinter designed to complement Aston, sadistic when Aston is beneficent and soothing when Aston becomes sadistic.
If anything, the Steppenwolf rendering lends itself more to such an interpretation than earlier productions in which Davies was apparently a menacing figure himself Here he is a dupe and a humbler: like the audience, a proverbial sitting duck for the darker fluctuations of Aston and Mick’s moods (which can be viewed as Pinter’s relentless ambivalence). Actually, the Steppenwolf production seems even more sympathetic with Pinter’s intentions, as revealed by his “original idea” before he finished the script “to end the play with the violent death” of Davies. From its very conception, Davies was seen as the victim in Pinter’s eyes, Aston and Mick as the predators; and not the other way around.
We are also reminded of the Steppenwolf imprint as it was demonstrated recently by Lyle Kessler’s Orphans and by Laurie Metcalf’s overpowering, extended monologue in Balm in Gilead. An identical effect shows up here in Aston’s famous speech at the close of Act II, when he reveals that years ago “they took me to a hospital, right outside of London” where “they used to come round with these . . . big pincers, with wires on, attached to a little machine.”
As Aston, Jeff Perry emerges from his laconic gloom with just the right rhythm to do justice to this pivotal speech, locating the eloquence Pinter magically achieves with an otherwise hopelessly inarticulate character. In the role originated by Alan Bates, Gary Sinise (co-founder of Steppenwolf with Malkovich) sustains the gentleness offset by unexpected volatility, as appropriate to Mick. But it’s Alan Wilder as Davies (originally performed by Donald Pleasance) who cackles and crackles his way through the three-act play, vacillating between fear and senility.
The attention devoted in recent years to a theatrical production’s point of origin has often been at the expense of a fair assessment of the work itself However else it might have been perceived, the Steppenwolf production of The Caretaker historically marks the end of the New York critics’ honeymoon with Steppenwolf Now that the battle lines have been clearly drawn, it will be interesting to see where Steppenwolf goes from here.