Where are the Eugene O’Neill’s, Lillian Hellman’s, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Millers, or for that matter, the August Wilson’s of today?
In fact, we have heard little from such playwrights as Sam Shepard, Marsha Norman, Beth Henley or Caryl Churchill in the last several years – all of whom might well have suffered from the lack of inspiration to write, perhaps due to the lack of well-enough trained and inspiring actors to perform their works.
During the recent Broadway season, I found only two original American plays that have had any staying power – “Hand to God” by William Askins and “Fish in the Dark” by Larry David. What is the cause of this?
One certainty is – with the loss of the American playwright becoming more and more prevalent – the theatre has been lacking its most central force.
Going all the way back to Ellen Terry – the great muse of George Bernard Shaw, through the Moscow Art Theatre and Anton Chekhov, to the revolutionary and standard-setting Group Theatre with Clifford Odets and William Saroyan, playwrights have written for actors, just as composers wrote for musicians.
Whether it was Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt writing for themselves, or Shostakovich writing for Rostropovich, the same is true in the theatre. Odets wrote for the Group Theatre. Tennessee Williams wrote every play up until “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” in hopes of enticing Marlon Brando back into the theatre. When David Mamet wrote “American Buffalo” it was first fashioned on Robert Duvall, and later revised for Al Pacino.
The sad truth is the lack of craftsmanship from today’s actor. As celebrity permeates every aspect of our lives by the efficiency of technology, the skill and craftsmanship of the gifted actor has been pushed aside for the sake of immediate naturalism and pictorial clarity replacing skill.
The musical theatre has made serious adventurous exploration in the last few years, bending the limits of that genre and made its validity in the theatre all the more significant, especially with “Hamilton” and the recent arrival of “Fun Home” on Broadway, and the long running “Kinky Boots.”
After reading this, one might think this a terribly pessimistic piece. In fact, it is anything but.
I believe there are large quantities of young people hoping to learn their craft, working on their craft, who simply are not being pointed in the proper direction. They’re entering universities with an idea that they will walk out of these institutions completely skilled and schooled in their profession.
In fact, the purpose of a university is to give the student there a circular understanding from a professional view that subjects them to many different theories and concepts of theatrical experience.
Truth be told, even the most expert of university theatre programs cannot provide the young actor within the framework of an institutional curriculum a truly concrete and complete foundation. This can only be attained through an unswerving devotion to substantiating one’s talent through the arduousness of a professional training process, where the young apprentice learns the necessary tools of their trade without being rushed to performance before they’re ready.
Because of the enormous cost of an education in this society, after college the immediate pressure to go and work becomes necessary instead of gaining a real and complete foundation of their craft that will allow young actors to survive in a very harsh business through the integrity of their work.
Today’s young actors no longer seem to pursue the dedication to their craft that William Hazlitt, (English literary critic/essayist, and the first critic to champion the acting talent of Edmund Kean), spoke so eloquently of as: “the stem of excellence being pulled from the earth every thirty years or so.”
Hopefully, the tide will change…
If so, we will have the re-birth of the American playwright writing for specific actors to convey their ideas because what is still most essential to a genuine theatrical experience is the playwright – the actor – the audience.
Even Off-Broadway could be thought of again as a sacred ground of new thought and exploration. Certainly there still exists some sense of exploration in many of our major regional theatres and institutional theatres, such as, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the Public Theatre in New York, as well as, Playwrights Horizons, and many regional theatres where new work is encouraged and dependent upon the inventiveness of the actor.
The theatre has a proud historical line of actors inspiring playwrights. It is of paramount importance that this not be lost.