Theater awards -- do they really prove anything?
New York — The rites and revels of the 1982 theatrical awards season are now ending. The season began April 12 when the Pulitzer Prize jury bestowed its drama laurel on Charles Fuller's explosively stirring ''A Soldier's Play.'' The first Sunday in June saw the televised hoopla of the commercial theater's self-celebration, the annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards. The industry's 620 voting professionals selected ''The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'' as the season's best play and ''Nine'' as the best musical, and conferred honors in 17 other categories.
The New York Drama Critics' Circle continued the awards season June 17 by presenting scrolls to ''Nickleby'' as best play and ''A Soldier's Play'' as best American play. The critics spurned the season's musicals by giving no award in that category.
Besides the Pulitzer, the Tonys, and the Critics' Circle prizes, there were also the Drama Desk, Obie, and Outer Critics Circle awards, to mention the most representative. The New Drama Forum Association will ring down the curtain on the 1982 prize givings later this month with its Rosamond Gilder Award.
Such honors admittedly do less than justice to all that may have been achieved in a given season. But they at least acknowledge the achievement itself. They create a momentary sense of triumph, accompanied by a permanent memento. And they stir plenty of lively debate.
Take, for instance, the case of ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' the Royal Shakespeare Company's 8 1/2-hour, two-session, $100-a-ticket spectacular. There was some feeling in the theatrical community that a special Tony Award would recognize its vast accomplishment, at the same time placing it above the general competition. Such a move would have cleared the field for widely praised but more conventional works like Ronald Harwood's ''The Dresser,'' Athol Fugard's ''Master Harold . . . and the Boys,'' or Beth Henley's ''Crimes of the Heart.'' (The Deep South Henley comedy had already received the 1981 Pulitzer and Critics' Circle Prizes.)
But the Tony administration decided to include ''Nickleby'' with the other best-play nominees. And when its turn came, the Critics' Circle arrived at the same conclusion. Meanwhile, the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle had gone the other route by honoring ''Nicholas'' with special citations.
Such are the diversities and dilemmas of prize giving. One of the basic difficulties in any effort to choose the ''best'' or the ''outstanding'' lies in the necessity to make comparisons among excellences that are not really comparable. Tony voters were faced with choosing the outstanding performance from among Tom Courtenay's sharp, devoted valet in ''The Dresser,'' Milo O'Shea's humorous yet troubled priest in ''Mass Appeal,'' Christopher Plummer's incomparable Iago in ''Othello,'' and Roger Rees's deeply affecting Nicholas in ''Nicholas Nickleby.''
Mr. Rees won the Tony. But it would be hard to argue that these four superb actors appeared in roles that were histrionically comparable. I voted for Mr. Plummer, not only for his excellence in a major Shakespearean role, but because he also happened to be the finest Iago of my particular playgoing experience.
Other illustrations of the problem could be cited. Such moot points aside, the Tony Awards this year offered no more than the usual opportunities for disagreement and dissent. ''Nine'' and ''Dreamgirls'' were the only significant contenders in their category.
Other winners: Zoe Caldwell of ''Medea'' (outstanding actress in a play), Jennifer Holliday of ''Dreamgirls'' (outstanding actress in a musical), Ben Harney of ''Dreamgirls'' (outstanding actor in a musical), Zakes Mokae of ''Master Harold'' (outstanding featured actor in a play), Amanda Plummer of ''Agnes of God'' (outstanding featured actress in a play), Cleavant Derricks of ''Dreamgirls'' (outstanding featured actor in a musical), Liliane Montevecchi of ''Nine'' (outstanding featured actress in a musical), and Trevor Nunn and John Caird of ''Nicholas Nickleby'' (outstanding direction of a play).
The frantically produced Tony telecast can usually be counted on for at least one flap, and the 1982 show was no exception. Because of last-minute mix-ups, several awards presented before the program went on the air did not enjoy the brief mention intended for them in the course of the broadcast. The board of directors of the Dramatists Guild immediately scheduled a meeting to consider a reaction to the omissions.
The real villains of the piece, if there are villains, would have to be the CBS television network executives who insisted that producer Alexander H. Cohen streamline the award giving. Mr. Cohen has advised the Dramatists Guild in writing that, if he and Hildy Parks (Mrs. Cohen) decide to produce the 1983 Tony show, and if CBS exercises its option to carry the broadcast, ''we will notify the network that we insist that all awards in every category be aired and treated equally. . . .''
The Tony show has become so subservient to television's demands that every aspect - from content to choice of ''name'' participants - is geared to mass audience ratings. Whether or not this plays in Peoria or sells tickets in Toledo , the Tony broadcast is less a celebration of theater than a slick, sometimes lively TV special.
From a Tony telecast, Mr. and Mrs. America could well conclude that Broadway is concerned primarily with producing musicals. Perhaps the promotional gain compensates for the artistic loss. Perhaps cable TV will be the answer. Meanwhile, what price commercialism?
On a more positive note, the Tony Awards demonstrated once more the vital role of the nonprofit institutional theater in American playmaking. One way or another, its influence was felt in virtually every category. The nominations and awards reflected the direct or indirect contributions of Off and Off Off Broadway, theater workshops, and institutional producing groups.
In 1976, the Tony administration began acknowledging theaters outside the Broadway world with a special award. The winner is chosen by vote of the American Theater Critics Association. This year it selected the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis. The inaugural 1976 winner was the Arena Stage (Washington), followed in successive years by the Mark Taper Forum (Los Angeles), the Long Wharf Theater (New Haven, Conn.), the American Conservatory Theater (San Francisco), the Actors' Theater (Louisville, Ky.), and the Trinity Square Repertory Company (Providence, R.I.).
What was once known as the tributary theater has become an unmistakable part of the mainstream.