The Year in Drama (Vol. 99)
The Year in Drama by Julius Novick
In recent years many people have worried loudly about the decline of the American musical theater. Broadway and the road have been dominated by long-running behemoths from Britain, and by loving revivals of classic American shows—the kind of shows nobody seems to be able to write anymore. Recent American Broadway musicals have tended to be uninspired recyclings of movies: Beauty and the Beast (the long-running Disney extravaganza, which opened on Broadway in 1994), Victor/Victoria (a crass vehicle for the indefatigable Julie Andrews, 1995), State Fair (warmed-over Rodgers and Hammerstein, albeit with beautiful songs, 1996), and Big (a 10.5-million-dollar flop, 1996). But 1996, a lacklustre year for spoken drama in America, was a year in which the Broadway musical, that proud but aging creation of specifically American genius, was invigorated by new energies from noncommercial off-Broadway institutional theatres. Perhaps the important thing is not to try to write 'em like they used to, but to find different ways of writing 'em, so as to have a better chance of connecting with the young audiences of the '90s. That seemed to be happening in 1996.
Unquestionably, like it or not, the great event of the year in drama was the arrival of Rent, with words and music by Jonathan Larson, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Best Musical, Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score, and just about every other award this side of the Nobel Peace Prize. Until Rent opened at the New York Theater Workshop in New York's East Village (after four years "in development" there), Larson was totally unknown, working as a waiter while struggling to make it in the theater. Greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by critics and audiences alike, the production was moved intact to Broadway, where it immediately became a huge hit; the first touring company opened in Boston before the end of the year, and others are planned. The movie rights were sold for a goodly sum. Bloomingdale's even opened a Rent boutique. But Larson was unable to enjoy his success; just hours after Rent's final dress rehearsal downtown, he died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. (Two New York hospitals are being sued for failing to realize the seriousness of his condition.) He was ten days short of his 36th birthday.
What has made Rent so popular (aside from the publicity bonanza generated by its creator's death) is its wonderfully adroit combination of the here-and-now up-to-date with the eternally traditional. For excellent reasons, it struck many people as the nineties' answer to Hair, the off-Broadway-to-Broadway surprise-hit musical of the sixties. Both are rock musicals about a group of young people, alienated from respectable consumer society, living hand-to-mouth in New York's East Village (where both shows were first produced), trying to evolve a new way of living, a new sort of community that will replace the constrictions of conventional families. Both shows feature sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and a big protest meeting. And as Hair did in its time, Rent lights up the stage with the galvanic energy and winning charm of young, previously unknown performers who, if hype is to be believed, feel themselves to be a new-style "family." (Michael Greif, the director of Rent, has received less credit for this than he deserves.)
But the mood in Rent is much darker. Instead of radiant optimism ("This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius"), there is pessimistic malaise ("You're living in America/ At the end of the millennium"). Hair is a fantasy of impudent yet sensitive, high-spirited adolescence; the young people in Rent are adults, worrying about the rent; the innocence is gone. The East Village in Hair is Bohemia as Arcadia; in Rent it is a place of cold, poverty, homelessness, crime, sickness and death. Dope in Hair is the source of euphoric visions; the heroine of Rent is on heroin. For the kids in Hair, sex is like a new toy; among the things young lovers in Rent have in common is HIV infection. Welcome to the nineties.
The acknowledged source of Rent, however, is not Hair, but another "musical" about ardent young people living without money on the margins of society: Puccini's La Boheme, which Larson has artfully adapted, creating a story more complex and coherent than that of either Hair or Boheme. Rodolfo the poet has become Roger, the creatively-blocked songwriter; Marcello the painter is now Mark the film-maker, who hides from life behind his camera; Schaunard the musician is Angel Dumott Schunard, street musician and drag queen; and Colline the philosopher is Tom Collins, still a philosopher. (Angel and Collins fall tenderly in love, a possibility which did not occur to Puccini's librettists.) Mimi, Rodolfo's neighbor and then his lover, becomes Mimi, Roger's neighbor and then his lover, but instead of Puccini's shy seamstress, she is an HIV-positive junkie who dances in an s&m club. Musetta, Marcello's flirtatious mistress, is transformed into Maureen, a flighty performance artist who has left Mark for Joanne, a civil rights lawyer. Welcome, once more, to the nineties.
Borrowing only a few notes from Puccini (Roger picks out the theme from Musetta's Waltz on his guitar), Larson has managed to catch the quality that has made La Boheme so beloved for a hundred years: the sweet pathos of youth, full of yearning for life and love, helpless in the face of disease and death. Paradoxically, for the musical of the Nihilistic Nineties, Rent is even more extravagantly sentimental than its famously weepy source. (That is another key to its popularity.) More even that Boheme, Rent takes place in the shadow of death. In the opera, only Mimi is infected (with tuberculosis, the great youth-killer of nineteenth-century Europe), and the opera ends with her death. Almost at the beginning of Rent, HIV-positive Roger sings of his hope to write "One song/ Glory/ One song/ Before I go/ Glory/ One song to leave behind." (This, of course, takes on extra poignancy in the light of Larson's own early death.) Sweet-tempered Angel dies, and Collins mourns him with a heart-breaking reprise of their love duet. But at the same time, Rent preaches an inspirational optimism. In her performance piece, Maureen calls for a "leap of faith": "Only thing to do is jump over the moon." "How do you measure—measure a year?" asks the company in the opening number of Act II, and answers, "Measure in love/ Seasons of love." At the end, Mimi, like her predecessor, is desperately ill, but Roger is able to sing her his one song—and it revives her! She doesn't even die! And the brave bohemians, defying all the forces ranged against them, sing of seizing the moment: "No day but today."
In its own way, then, Rent is heir to the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein tradition of strenuous affirmation. Most people (myself included) have found it irresistible; some consider it pretentious, soft-centered kitsch. These latter tend to prefer the year's other up-from-off-Broadway innovative musical: Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, created by the dancer-choreographer Savion Glover and the director George C. Wolfe. Noise/Funk began its career in the fall of 1995 at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, of which Mr. Wolfe is the producer, and moved to Broadway in April, '96; it is an attempt to evoke the African-American experience, from the slave ships on down, by means of tap-dancing, with some assistance from words (by Reg E. Gaines) and music (by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesnay). "I wanted to see how tap could not just tell stories," said Mr. Wolfe, "but how it could really convey really complicated emotion." The phenomenal Mr. Glover and his tap-dancing colleagues proved that the emotional range of tap is wider than most people would have expected. The agonies and ironies and frustrations of African-American history were not trivialized. But it seemed to me that they were not deeply explored or vividly rendered, either, by all that endless, brilliantly percussive footwork. (To my mind, the best number was a wryly parodic evocation of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and his saccharine dance with Shirley Temple, in which little Shirley was represented by a large doll held by Mr. Glover—a number specifically about tap-dancing.) On this subject, however, mine was distinctly a minority view.
One more American musical deserves mention in this chronicle, one very different from any previously discussed: a tiny, three-character chamber musical entitled Bed and Sofa, with music by Polly Pen and words by Laurence Klavan, which opened off-Broadway, at the Vineyard Theater, and did not move to Broadway (where it would have been totally out of place). Bed and Sofa was adapted from a film—not, however, a Hollywood film, but a silent Soviet film, released in 1927, about the Moscow housing shortage—well, actually about a woman and two men sharing a very small apartment. Ludmilla is married to Kolya, but that doesn't keep her from having an affair with Volodya. Bed and Sofa is the fourth Polly Pen musical to be produced at the Vineyard and directed by Andre Ernotte; Ms. Pen, Mr. Ernotte, and their colleagues have distilled their own economical, graceful, sweetly whimsical aesthetic.
No outstandingly important work of spoken drama burst upon the American theater in 1996, but established playwrights and new ones were trying to confront, with varying degrees of success, the issues of our end-of-the millennium lives. As befits the state of the nation, their plays tended to be somber, full of anxiety, short of hope. Comedy had a bitter edge; high spirits and playfulness were not abundant.
Hope finally prevails in Golden Child by David Henry Hwang, but it does not come easily. Mr. Hwang, most celebrated as the author of M. Butterfly, is writing about both of his great concerns as a dramatist: the impingement of the Western world on the Chinese, and the struggle of Chinese immigrants and their descendants to make lives for themselves in America. In this play, a young Chinese-American, uneasy about becoming a father and thus taking his place in the great, fraught succession of ancestors, dreams of his Chinese great-grandfather Eng Tieng-Binh, who comes home to his village, circa 1917–18, after three years away "trading with monkeys and devils." Mr. Hwang vividly creates the Eng household as a nest of intrigue, hypocrisy, and cruelty, with bitter animosity crackling back and forth among Tieng-Binh's three wives, who are constantly piercing and repairing the joint facade of harmony, humility, and elaborate good manners that tradition obliges them to maintain. The contrast between facade and feeling is often sharply funny.
Tieng-Binh feels burdened by the traditions he has inherited:
It's not that I want to forget my family, quite the opposite. But to be Chinese—means to feel a whole web of obligation—obligation?—dating back 5,000 years. I am afraid of dishonoring my ancestors, even the ones dead for centuries. All the time, I feel ghosts—sitting on my back, whispering in my ear—keeping me from living life as I see fit.
He longs to be "modern," to be an "individual"—to have only one wife, the third and youngest, whom he loves. But he is enmeshed in contradictions. When his first wife demurs at his order to unbind their daughter's feet, he finds himself shouting, "I'm still the master here." Influenced by a bumbling missionary, he becomes a Christian. And his efforts cause terrible suffering. His traditionalist first wife cries,
I have never stood in the way of change. But tell me, Honored Husband, how much change can people endure? How much progress can you shove down their throats before they rise up, screaming "Bring back the past! Nothing is more terrible than this constant turning of the wheel!"
But by confronting this turning-point in the lives of his ancestors, Tieng-Binh's American great-grandson is reconciled to handing on their legacy to his child.
In writing about the agony—and the irony—of the transition from traditional to modern ways of life, Mr. Hwang is writing about his own ancestors—the play took its origin from family stories told by his grandmother—but he is also writing about something that is part of the heritage of almost every American. Golden Child was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory of Costa Mesa, California. Beautifully staged by James Lapine, it opened off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theater, transferred to Costa Mesa, and is scheduled for Broadway.
Jon Robin Baitz, author of The Film Club, The Substance of Fire, and Three Hotels, reworked an early play called Dutch Landscape into A Fair Country, produced off-Broadway by the Lincoln Center Theater. Mr. Baitz, an American, spent some years of his boyhood in South Africa; his play concerns an American family living in South Africa in the 1970's—the father is a diplomat—whose members are too sensitive to be comfortable in the land of apartheid. The elder son, a leftwing journalist, is furious at his mother for having called the police when their Xhosa maid went berserk; the mother is barely holding herself together. To save his family, the father makes a deal that gets them out of South Africa; like Mr. Hwang's paterfamilias, he has good intentions which lead to irreversible disaster. A Fair Country diverts itself into a not-quite-clear examination of the homosexual younger son's relationship with his mother, but Mr. Baitz writes with intensity, shrewdness, and wit about a fraught point where the political and the personal intersect. Apartheid is gone, but America is still unsure how to respond to foreign struggles, and family tensions, conflicting claims, devil's bargains, are all still with us.
David Ives made his name with All in the Timing (1994), a highly popular and widely produced sextuple bill of six witty short plays, mostly about language. His experiments with plays that last longer and go deeper have fared less well. Don Juan in Chicago, reviewed last year, is a lamely facetious comedy in rhymed verse. In 1996, Primary Stages (off-Broad-way) presented Ancient History (a completely revised version of a play first produced in 1989), in which Mr. Ives uses a device from All in the Timing—a bell which signals the characters to go back and play the scene again, with a difference—to probe a complicated romantic/sexual relationship. There is snappy repartee (along with some tiresome persiflage), but there are also touching moments; Ancient History does not quite cohere, but there is a sense about it that Mr. Ives is on to something. (A long one-act, Ancient History was presented on a double bill with English Made Simple, a characteristic David Ives language playlet that might have been part of All in the Timing.)
The Red Address, another new-old play by Mr. Ives, first produced by the Magic Theater, San Francisco, in 1991, was presented off-Broadway, in a revised version, by the Second Stage Theater. Its protagonist is a hard-driving, macho young businessman named E. G. Triplett, who, at times of stress, likes to "go to the red address," which means donning lacy black panties, black stockings, a flame-red dress, and matching pumps—with the enthusiastic assistance of his wife. But this is not a play full of drag gags, nor of any other kind of gags. It is written with tough authority, very different from Mr. Ives's usual style, and it is about a man who is fighting for his life. But what is the point? What does E. G. Triplett's secret transvestism have to do with the mysterious Joe Driver's threat to E. G.'s milk company? Why, after his wife is brutally murdered, does E. G. undermine himself by wearing the red dress when he goes to meet Driver? Some statement about masculinity seems to be intended—not just that even a macho businessman might want to wear a dress, but something more complicated, more interesting, richer—but what? Still, The Red Address suggests that there is more to Mr. Ives's talent than I would have otherwise suspected.
The New York Drama Critics Circle gave its award for Best Play of 1995–96 to Seven Guitars—the sixth play by August Wilson to win a Circle Award. Like all Mr. Wilson's plays, it forms part of a cycle that dramatizes the African-American experience in the twentieth century, decade by decade; this is his play of the 1940's. Like all except one early play, it was directed by Lloyd Richards, and came to Broadway after a long march through the regional theaters.
Though not a musical, Seven Guitars as its title implies is haunted by music—by the blues, which Mr. Wilson acknowledges as a primary influence on his work. Set in a backyard in Pittsburgh (the city where Mr. Wilson grew up, and where most of his plays take place), it examines the last days of a young bluesman (magnetically played on Broadway by Keith David) called Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton. Floyd's guitar is in a pawnshop and his "manager" is arrested for selling fake insurance. Nevertheless, Floyd is determined to get to Chicago, where a record company is waiting to put a recording studio at his disposal:
I know what will make a hit record. I leave here on the Greyhound and I bet you in one year's time I be back driving a Buick … I am going to Chicago. If I have to buy me a graveyard and kill everybody I see. I am going to Chicago. I don't want to live my life without. Everybody I know live without. I don't want to do that. I want to live with. I don't know what you all think of yourself, but I think I'm supposed to have. Whatever it is.
That sense of deprivation, and the determination to be deprived no longer, is something Mr. Wilson (and other African-American playwrights) have dramatized before, and better. Seven Guitars unfolds sluggishly. Characters are not deeply probed, nor—except for one muttering, poultry-slaughtering, crazy old man—are they sharply individualized. Mr. Wilson's trademark virtues—the sense of authenticity, the enveloping atmosphere, the vernacular eloquence—are amply present, but he has evidently been seduced by his own talent. There is a lot of just sitting around chewing the fat in this play. The characters trade familiar schoolyard rhymes ("One bright morning in the middle of the night/ Two dead boys got up to fight"); one even favors us with a disquisition on how to cook greens. When they do have something of interest to say, they tend to take a great many words to say it. Mr. Wilson seems to have mislaid his blue pencil.
A number of distinguished American playwrights produced relatively (or absolutely) undistinguished work in 1996. Christopher Durang, the author of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, Beyond Therapy, and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, gave us an uncharacteristically crude satiric comedy entitled Sex and Longing. To satirize the moral watchdogs of the religious right, as Mr. Durang does, by showing a sanctimonious, crusading minister raping the woman he is supposed to be praying for, is easy, obvious, cheap. Lulu, Mr. Durang's heroine, is initially presented as someone who needs sex every fifteen minutes; poor, game Sigourney Weaver, who played the part on Broadway (under the non-commercial auspices of the Lincoln Center Theater), was thus forced to spend much of Act I interminably repeating the play's title, in a tone of desperate moaning, while throwing herself at strangers. At the end of Act I, Lulu is attacked by Jack the Ripper; barely prevented from murdering her, he does manage to sever her arm muscles. In Act II comes the rape, while she is in a wheelchair, unable to move her arms. The high jinks of Act III are punctuated by the screams of Lulu's homosexual friend Justin, who is tortured (onstage) by electric shocks in the midst of a Senate hearing, after which the Ripper returns to finish off Lulu. Ho, ho, ho.
Mr. Durang has written that as he worked on one of his early plays, "the extremity of suffering made me giddy, and I found the energy and distance to relish the awfulness of it all. This 'relish' is something that audiences do not always feel comfortable with, and I find that some people, rather than simply disliking my work, are made furious by it." In Sex and Longing, the balance between suffering and "relish," finely held in Mr. Durang's best work, falls seriously out of whack, and—in spite of some flashes of Mr. Durang's deadpan wit, and an exquisitely hilarious performance by Dana Ivey as a moral battleaxe—even his admirers (of whom I am one) were appalled.
Fewer people were appalled by Fit to Be Tied, a comedy by Nicky Silver (produced off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons), which might also have been called Sex and Longing. But there were those who found it distasteful. Mr. Silver's protagonist, a youngish man named Arloc, has fallen in love with Boyd, who plays an angel in the Christmas show at the Radio City Music Hall. Arloc entices Boyd to his house, ties him up, gags him, and refuses to let him go, while insisting, "I will never hurt you. I love you." But though these are clearly the acts of a dangerous psychopath, Mr. Silver evidently wishes us to regard his hero as a charmingly neurotic, charmingly bumbling ne'er-do-well. He asks us to laugh under circumstances where laughter implies our complaisance toward, if not our complicity with, ugly deeds—ugly not because they violate sexual codes, but because they violate another person's freedom. Then he asks us to feel pity for poor Arloc, sinking the wacky goings-on (Boyd spends a lot of time in his angel outfit) under an emotional weight that they are too flimsy to bear. Raising the question of AIDS seems particularly gratuitous. Mr. Silver, who made his reputation as the author of Pterodactyls and The Food Chain, has an entertainingly antic imagination, but he too has trouble, less acutely than Mr. Durang but more consistently from play to play, with the balance of suffering and "relish."
Other disappointments of 1996:
• No One Will Be Immune: A bill consisting of a monologue and four playlets by David Mamet, produced off-Broadway by the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Fragmentary minor works.
• Missing/Kissing: Off-Broadway at Primary Stages (after a previous production by the Actors Theatre of Louisville), "Missing Marisa" and "Kissing Christine," two arch and vacuous one-act plays by John Patrick Shanley, author of the screenplays for the films Five Corners and Moonstruck.
• Janusz Glowacki, an emigre from Poland, is the author of Hunting Cockroaches (1986), a wry comedy, full of pointed ironies, about two Eastern European emigres, an actress married to a writer, struggling to establish themselves in New York. His new play, Antigone in New York (which reached New York by way of Arena Stage in Washington, D. C. and the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn.), is also a wry comedy about emigres: two homeless men, bear-like Sasha and nervous little Flea, a Russian and a Pole. The two have an interestingly contentious relationship—Mr. Glowacki's quirky comic talent is still evident—but though the play began (off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater) at 8:04 P. M., the plot did not get under way until 8:47, and turned out to consist of borderline-tedious to-ing and fro-ing in search of a corpse.
Compensating for these disappointments was some promising work by newer or lesser-known writers. Below the Belt by Richard Dresser, for instance, which had a short commercial run off-Broadway after a previous production at the Actors Theater of Louisville: an acrid comedy, with a lot of Pinter, a little Kafka, and something original, about three men, two "checkers" and their supervisor, obsessively occupied with jockeying for position and catching each other off-guard. "Hanrahan—what have you got against me?" asks the youngest of the three. "You're alive on this planet at the same time I am," is the reply. The arena for their struggle is a walled factory, by a polluted river, that makes an unknown product. They live on the premises, separated from all other relationships, like scorpions in a bottle—vulnerable, intermittently sympathetic scorpions. The same sort of things—challenges, betrayals, quibbles over tiny points, sudden changes of attitude—happen over and over. Still, Mr. Dresser's play is a witty nightmare-fantasy of a desperately competitive future, with troubling implications for our lives in the present.
The Waiting Room, by Lisa Loomer, came to the Vineyard Theater after previous productions in Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island. Borrowing a technique from the English playwright Caryl Churchill, Ms. Loomer brings together women from widely separated places and times. Forgiveness from Heaven, an eighteenth-century Chinese lady, is having trouble with her tiny bound feet: her toes are falling off. (Along with Golden Child, The Waiting Room makes 1996 a banner year for bound feet in American drama.) Victoria Smoot, a nineteenth-century English matron, wears a corset that hurts, she says, "Only when I breathe." Unfortunately, "The pressure from the corset's forcing my uterus out through my vagina." Wanda, breezy, outspoken, and very late-twentieth-century American, has three sets of breast implants, and breast cancer. The three meet in a doctor's waiting room. At first, all cheerfully spout the values that have induced them to reshape their bodies (and minds) for the sake of men's satisfaction, and cheerfully make light of the sufferings this has cost and is costing them. As the play goes on, each, in her own way, rebels.
At times, The Waiting Room seems like an anthology of feminist grievances, and some of its points get repeated all too often. On the other hand, Ms. Loomer's gift for satiric exaggeration yields sharp comedy (if sometimes a little too grisly for my taste); moreover, the evolving relationships among these three so-different women, and their stalwart nurse, are unsentimental, unsanctimonious, and pleasantly comic. With her men, Ms. Loomer is less successful. She tries to be fair to them (the doctor is conscientious, and he has cancer too), but her heart doesn't seem to be in it. "If there's a villain in my play," she told an interviewer, "it's certainly not men, it's greed." Oddly enough, however, it's only men in The Waiting Room who are greedy. But if Ms. Loomer falls prey to the men-are-pigs syndrome (and bogs her play down in a tendentious drug-company-conspiracy subplot), she does manage to disprove the canard that feminists have no sense of humor.
Old Wicked Songs by Jon Marans is a two-character play built around a series of singing lessons. A tense, edgy, arrogant young American pianist named Stephen Hoffman has come to Vienna for advanced study, and is not pleased to discover that he will have to begin by studying singing with Professor Mashkan, a wry, puckish, echt Viennese teddy bear. As they go to work on Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe, the audience seems to be in for another go-round with the old story of the brash, callow young American and the charming, worldly-wise old European who teaches him about Life. But what about charming Professor Mashkan's anti-Semitic remarks? As Stephen becomes less tense, less guarded, less hostile, more and more cracks appear in Mashkan's facade. The time is 1986; the ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim is campaigning to become president of Austria. Gradually it becomes clear that Mr. Marans is concerned with the great paradox of Germanic culture, seedbed of classical music and Nazism.
The Holocaust is a big subject for this small play; the climax, in which Mashkan reveals his big secret, is melodramatic. Moreover, the ups and downs, the moments of anger and of friendliness between teacher and pupil, succeed each other sometimes arbitrarily. But the moments themselves, the fluctuating clashes and rapports between two men so removed from each other in age, nationality, and temperament, are entertaining in themselves, and artfully interwoven with the varying moods of the Dichterliebe. Hal Robinson, who remained with the play from its first production in Philadelphia, through its engagement off-Broadway at the Jewish Repertory Theater, to its open-ended commercial run off-Broadway, was the definitive Mashkan, making it easy to forgive the play its sentimentalities, its implausibilities, its unearned happy ending.
As for the new foreign plays that reached us in 1996, most of them, as always, were from England. The Skriker by Caryl Churchill was a major disappointment, though it was sumptuously produced by the Joseph Papp Public Theater / New York Shakespeare Festival. This newest play by the author of Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and Serious Money is an incomprehensible tale, set in present-day England, about a supernatural being who for unknown reasons persecutes two working-class young women. But in the fall, two English plays came to Broadway in which great matters were not only dramatized but discussed, argued—in which the clash of conflicting beliefs could be clearly heard.
Like Old Wicked Songs (discussed above), Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood contrasts the sublimity of Germanic music with the horror of the Holocaust—but does so more directly, with less charm but more force. Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886–1954) was a real person, a celebrated conductor who chose to stay in Germany when the Nazis came to power, which put him in trouble with the Allied authorities after World War II. In Taking Sides, Furtwangler is interrogated by a fictional American officer. "Why did he stay?" Major Steve Arnold wants to know. "Why did he play for them? Why was he the flag carrier for the regime? Why was he their servant?" In the course of the play various possible reasons emerge, some honorable, some not. What is the responsibility of the artist in such a situation? Mr. Harwood refuses to take sides, but the question is intensely posed, not as a matter of abstract ethics but as a question of overwhelming personal importance to the prosecutor as well as the accused. On Broadway, the play was driven by the raw, straightforward energy of Ed Harris's Major Arnold; Daniel Massey's Furtwangler, arrogant but pathetic, feeble, almost spastic, made a vivid contrast.
What is most disturbing about the play is Major Arnold's prosecutorial zeal. He contrasts himself with another officer: "He was interested in justice, evidence, facts. I'm interested in nailing the bastard—" Arnold claims to be impelled by "the smell of burning flesh" at a just-liberated concentration camp, but in that case, as his subordinate asks, "Why Dr Furtwangler? Why him?" Surely there are far guiltier Nazis than Furtwangler could ever be. And how can he dismiss as "totailly irrelevant" all the evidence that Furtwangler helped many Jews to escape? Arnold goes out of his way to insist on his contempt for culture-talk and his hatred for classical music; he delights in calling Furtwangler a "band leader." It seems as if he hates Furtwangler less for being a Nazi collaborator than for being an eminent conductor—as if he hates Hitler less than Beethoven. Are we seeing the Revenge of the Philistines disguised as a de-Nazification proceeding? That cannot have been Mr. Harwood's intention, but it is not the least of his play's fascinations.
Skylight by David Hare appears at first to be a "relationship play," abjuring the political for the personal. Kyra went to work for Tom and his wife Alice when she was just eighteen. She became part of the family, a dear friend to both spouses; she and Tom were also lovers for six years. When Alice found out, Kyra simply left, cutting off all contact with Tom. Now Alice is dead, and Tom comes knocking at Kyra's door. Between night and morning they talk, probing their relationship, challenging each other, testing to see whether they can have a future together. There are some inconsistencies here, most notably that Kyra, presented as a woman of rigorous principle who genuinely loved Alice, seems totally without remorse for six years of deceiving her. But there is a density to the relationship between Kyra and Tom, an urgency, that (most of the time) compels attention—especially when the lovers are played, as they were in London and on Broadway, by Lia Williams and Michael Gambon.
What distinguishes Skylight the most, however, is Mr. Hare's awareness of how people's beliefs about the public world can stem from who they deeply are, and how the resulting complex of beliefs and feelings can be crucial to the success or failure of even—especially—something as personal as a love affair. Tom is a businessman, and proud of it. "I'm an entrepreneur, he says, "I'm a doer. I actually go out, I make things happen. I give people jobs which did not previously exist." He enjoys creating, expanding, making money, and surrounding himself with what money can buy; it validates him to himself. Kyra is a teacher, working with tough, dangerous kids, making very little money, living in a shabby, chilly flat. "I can't think of anything more tragic, more stupid," says Tom, "than you sitting here and throwing your talents away." "I'm helping them because they need to be helped," she says. He accuses her of "ridiculous self-righteousness"; she thinks he is monstrously self-indulgent, and accuses him of treating people like objects. Each thinks himself/herself to be in touch with a reality that the other ignores.
Tom is the perfect New Man of the Thatcher Era in Britain; Kyra is an old-fashioned, consecrated leftist, intensely angered by social injustice, a do-gooder, a bleeding heart. What is amazing is how justly Mr. Hare, well-known for many years as a man of the left, holds the balance between them. Some have found the play schematic. To me, its fusion of public issues with personal passions makes Skylight both urgent and resonant. Tom and Kyra are not just mouthpieces; their lives depend on the outcome of their argument.
What, then, do we conclude from all this? Clearly, Broadway is now almost totally obsolete as a source of theatrical creativity, though it still has its usefulness in enabling dramatic works developed elsewhere to have larger audiences and longer lives. But even in this year of meager harvest, promising new works, with and without music, are continuing to emerge from subsidized, not-for-profit, resident professional theaters, off-Broadway and all over America (not to mention England). How long our society will continue to support these theaters remains to be seen. But American drama will have little future without them.