Did anybody catch the 2013 Tony Awards?
I thought so.
Actually, I didn’t watch the whole thing either. And I don’t think we missed much. The spectacle was largely banal and the nominated plays and players, for all I knew them, could have come from the Kabuki Theater. Kinky Boots, a musical adaptation of a less-than-renowned 2005 film about a drag queen who comes to the rescue of a shoe factory, won the award for best musical, while Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a Christopher Durang comedy about three emotionally stunted siblings having a hard time growing up, won the award for best play. Among the other nominees were the usual revivals (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and Pippin), and adaptations (The Trip to Bountiful, Matilda the Musical).
All in all, my brief exposure to this year’s Tony Awards did not convince me that the American theater is in terribly good form.
In response to which you may well be thinking: “Does it really matter? When I want entertainment I’ll go see Star Trek or watch Game of Thrones. Broadway is for Manhattan elites and tourists. Movies and television killed whatever vitality it used to have. It’s dead. May it rest in peace.”
But I think we should care that the mainstream American theater, concentrated on Broadway and the shows it can afford to send on the road, is in rotten shape. The political implications of its failure are serious ones.
Am I being alarmist?
Well, consider philosopher Mortimer Adler’s argument in his unjustly neglected minor masterpiece, Art & Prudence. Taking his cue from Aristotle, Adler maintains that those entertainments favored by all or by the majority, those that have the widest and deepest impact upon common life, are of concern to politics, because it is in the context of such entertainments that the polity gathers as a single community to contemplate its collective self-understanding. Popular entertainment, in other words, is where a polity goes, as a group, to do its philosophizing. Thus it is necessary for those concerned with the political good (which means everyone, not just politicians) to seek richly satisfying popular entertainment.
Writing in 1937—interestingly, two years before Hollywood’s annus mirabilis of 1939 when it released Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, and The Wizard of the Oz—Adler declared that the cinema was “the theater of democracy.” Already by the mid 1930s, the cinema had replaced the stage as the most popular medium of mass entertainment. Accordingly, Adler devotes hundreds of fascinating pages to a close discussion of the impact of the cinema upon morals and politics.
So why, then, am I not recommending that those concerned with the political good pay attention to cinema? For surely, the cinema’s dominance of the stage today is even more complete than it was in 1937, and television’s is arguably now more dominant than both.
My answer is that we should pay attention to cinema and television. But at the same time, we shouldn’t let the traditional theater go to seed. As late as 1967, as David Mamet reports in his book, Theater, “there were seventy-two new Broadway plays produced. In 2009 there were forty-three, of which half were revivals.” There are reasons in the economics of Midtown real estate, as Mamet notes, that make it difficult these days to mount a successful Broadway play. But I believe the chief reason, the most significant political and moral reason, why the traditional theater is ailing is that it has lost the sense of its essential power.
In the preface to his 3 Plays, Thornton Wilder confesses that in the late 1920s he began to lose pleasure in going to the theater. The theater seemed to him awash in sentimentalism. It continually failed to draw upon its “deeper potentialities.” Wilder explains those deeper potentialities this way:
“The novel is pre-eminently the vehicle of the unique occasion, the theatre of the generalized one. It is through the theater’s power to raise the exhibited individual action into the realm of idea and type and universal that it is able to hold our belief.”
Wilder in his dramatic work famously eschews conventional staging and narrative expectations. In this he is not so unlike Shakespeare (“Have you ever noticed,” Wilder asks, “that in the plays of Shakespeare no one—except occasionally a ruler—ever sits down? There were not chairs on the English or Spanish stages in the time of Elizabeth I.”) Wilder’s, and Shakespeare’s aim, as it is the essential aim of all theater, is to place the individual action starkly against the backdrop of the transcendent so that we might see and understand its significance the more clearly. Stage furniture and other realistic props, not to mention mindless spectacle, root us in place, and keep our minds from ascending to that communal contemplation that is the glory of the stage.
Movies and television, at their best, can inspire a similar contemplative magic. But there is nothing like the kinetic energy of live actors treading the boards to excite the mind’s passion. That is why we cannot leave the theater to its decline.
The American theater here in the early 21st century is still awash in sentimentalism, and even more in spectacle and the posturing of progressive politics. Those concerned with our political good—and again, that means all of us—should not neglect it. I’m not advocating censorship. What I’m advocating is simply the encouragement and promotion of works that will inspire a healthier self-reflection than is typically seen on the contemporary American stage.
I will leave it to you to consider what forms that encouragement and promotion might take.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.