Echoes Down the Corridor Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Steven Centola’s collection serves as a companion to The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller (1978; rev. ed., 1996). While most of the pieces in the present volume treat other subjects, Centola has included several that deal with the stage, and these consistently entertain and inform. One of the themes that recur in these essays on the theater is the dominance of money on Broadway. Miller imagines, perhaps unrealistically, a time when financial considerations were not paramount. In “Notes on Realism,” he observes that The Crucible (pr., pb. 1953), his most frequently produced play, never would have seen the white lights of Broadway had he first offered it to a producer in 1999. The play requires twenty-one actors and four different sets, making it too expensive for any end-of-the-century commercial theater. All My Sons (pr., pb. 1947) or Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949) could be mounted for under $40,000 in the 1940’s. A playwright could thus convince a few friends to provide enough capital to give a work a chance. By the end of the century, such a play would cost at least a million dollars.

The influence of money also manifests itself in ticket prices. Whereas in 1949 the most expensive seats cost less than five dollars, fifty years later the prices begin at seventy-five dollars. A producer will therefore not take a chance on a work that might prove controversial or even stylistically challenging. Indeed, the ideal play for a Broadway theater in 1999 is one that has proved itself successful in London, thus involving little risk. Nor are producers the only ones driven by money. Film and television offer higher pay and greater recognition. Lee Cobb left the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman for the less-challenging but higher-paying role of a sheriff in Hollywood.

Miller’s solution to this problem is a subsidized theater. He acknowledges that actors and playwrights at the end of the twentieth century could sometimes turn to off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.The Crucible, however, would be no more acceptable in these venues than in the high-priced theaters because the play requires a larger stage than off-Broadway could provide. The imports that so delight the money-minded, Miller notes, often begin life in London’s subsidized theaters. Writers Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Michael Frayn and actors Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud got their start in such government-funded playhouses. Miller’s experience with subsidized theaters in Sweden and China reveals problems, particularly of bureaucracy. Still, the work he has seen in those countries surpasses anything he has witnessed in money-driven New York. Miller does not want to abolish commercial theater, only to supplement it in order to revitalize what he sees as drama’s moribund condition.

As Miller’s 1956 “Concerning the Boom” reveals, his image of the golden days of theater may contain an element of myth. Here he already laments the triumph of commercialism over aesthetics and claims that audiences come to see performers, not performances. Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (pr. 1954), one of the best plays of the year, succeeded with the public, Miller argues, only because of Ruth Gordon’s presence in the piece. When Paul Muni temporarily left Inherit the Wind (pb. 1955), many ticket-holders asked for a refund. Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams hated the commercialism of the theater of their time but still wrote critical and popular successes. (One of the most moving pieces in this anthology is a 1984 tribute to Williams that first appeared in TV Guide.) Even Death of a Salesman had its doubters; director Josh Logan withdrew $500 of his $1,000 investment after reading the script, and others pressured Miller to change the title. The Crucible was indeed produced on Broadway, but initially failed commercially. The mid-twentieth century was thus not as bright as Miller sometimes implies, and the end of the century was not so bleak. In 1999 Helen Hunt, despite her extensive television and film work, undertook the role of Olivia in the live Lincoln Center production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (pr. c. 1600-1602). Tony Danza, noted television actor, appeared in 1999 in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (pr., pub. 1946), and Judith Light from ABC’s Who’s the...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)