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The diminished stage

By August Heckscher / April 9, 1982



An older friend of mine found himself attending the theater with ever greater infrequency, and when I asked him the cause he responded vehemently. He would not attend any play, he said, where the scenery shook every time one of the characters slammed a door. The sets were getting flimsier and flimsier, and finally he resigned himself to staying at home. I wonder what he would have thought about the present-day theater, where actors appear and disappear on stage without ever passing through a door at all. They exist for the most part on bare platforms or within a universe of pipes and scaffolding and of stairways going nowhere.

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What disturbs me and inhibits my play-going is not the flimsiness of the scenery in modern drama, but the paucity of the characters. Before laying down the considerable sum required for a ticket, I am inclined to ask how many actors will be taking part. More and more often the answer is two - sometimes three, and sometimes only one. Now there is nothing I enjoy more than a quiet evening with one or two friends, but when I go to the theater I enjoy having a crowd on the stage. I want to see people coming and going, acting and reacting; and I always feel better about the third act if the program indicates that some character still waits to put in an appearance. There is suspense in having someone entirely new enter the charmed circle of the stage.

I had supposed the prevalence of two-character plays had something to do with economy. But in a recent article the eminent critic, Walter Kerr, commenting on this same phenomenon, assures us that extra actors are a relatively small expense for the producer compared with other costs in putting on a play. My second assumption has perhaps greater validity. It is that television has accustomed us to the dimensions of its screen and made us familiar with life compressed into face-to-face encounters. Having drained from drama much of its panoply and heroism, television imposes its own standards upon the theater. Writers schooled in the restrictions of TV are the same who turn their talents to Broadway; actors who have never had to project their voices or move in a crowd step warily and two-by-two before the theater going public.

Before making television the villain, however, we should consider another possibility - namely that modern drama has assumed its diminished form because life itself has been diminished. It has become shrunken to a point where men and women act out the crises of their lives without a supporting cast. Mr. Kerr, in the article I have referred to, is inclined to take this view. What has happened , he asks, ''to that whole busy, buzzing world of social connections we used to maintain and that playwrights used to manipulate? . . . Have we really retreated to the 'private sector' so exclusively that we can no longer imagine intimate acts having vast, reverberating consequences?'' In a jail cell, in the sealed-off isolation of a deserted cottage, in a guarded penthouse, and most often in that ultimate private retreat, the bedroom, the little actions take place which form the ''two-hour traffic of our stage.''

Once I wrote a book called The Public Happiness; it argued that life could not have its full meaning or its ultimate joy unless a dimension beyond the purely personal and private was given to our acts. We are part of a big world (even the smallest village can be big in this sense); we are one with a society that watches and applauds and is in some way or other affected by all we do. The great playwrights have always known this, and the stages of the greatest of them have been crowded with characters waiting to make their entrances and to play their parts. In life, as in the theater's stalls, the ear of humanity has been attuned to the sound of sleighbells across the snow, announcing (as so often in the works of Russian dramatists) the arrival of a whole new contingent of actors prepared to give their impetus to the everlasting plot.

And there have been the scenes of departure, too: the trunks being brought down into the draughty hall; the family assembling; the tears and laughter, and the final farewells. Some very important people made their exits, bound upon one adventure or another, and those they left behind were changed forever by their having come. When they went out the door, the scenery didn't shake either