There was a time, America, a time when public television consisted of more than Antiques Roadshow, women in pantsuits explaining how to feel good about yourself, and reruns of inane British sitcoms. There was a time when PBS was dedicated to bringing the best of Broadway to the small screen.
There was a time as well when Broadway was the center of American culture, a crossroads where art, glamour, wit, money, fame, and intellect all came together in one yeasty, unstable mix. The Broadway theater was one of the few places where the iron hand of American censorship was relaxed, where audiences expected to encounter serious and even “shocking” fare. But just how good was the mix, seen today in the cold light of the 21st century? A survey of recent DVD releases from Kultur Video and the Broadway Theatre Archive suggests that the magic of a live performance can hide a multitude of authorial sins.1
Worst of the four is June Moon, a 1929 satire on the music business that is limper than back-to-back episodes of One Foot in the Grave.2 The play, if you can call it that, was written by George S. Kaufman3 and Ring Lardner,4 two of the most famous writers of the time. One can only presume that their brains were pickled in bathtub gin when they cranked out this monstrosity, because it’s hard to believe that even back in 1929 New Yorkers were provincial enough to laugh at the lame gags clogging this tale of a hick in the big city. Viewers unwise enough to purchase or rent this disc will have to suffer through exchanges like the following:
Hick: I’ve just been to see the Goddess of Liberty! Did you know the Goddess weighs two hundred and twelve tons?
Sardonic piano player:5She should go on a diet.
The first-rate cast, led by Susan Sarandon and Jack Cassidy, has a fine time dressing up in vintage duds, but there’s nothing they or anyone else could do to breathe life into this turkey, which was DOA in 1929, DOA in 1974, and DOA today in 2002.
Awake and Sing!
More ambitious, but even more cringe-inducing, is a 1972 PBS production of Awake and Sing!, the second play of one-time golden boy Clifford Odets. Odets6 was one of the original members of New York’s famous Group Theatre, which premiered the play in 1935. The intention of the Group Theatre was to present real plays about real people, rather than the usual Broadway escapist fluff.
Awake and Sing! begins well, with the table talk of a middle-class Jewish family, by turns sentimental, shrewd, and suffocating. We seem to be in Chekhov territory here. Young Ralph (Robert Lipton), a “useless man,” nurses a poetic soul and feels contempt for the humdrum calculation of the acquisitive society around him, yet becomes furious and humiliated when asked to justify his expectations for special treatment.
What goes wrong? Well, just about everything. Odets’ characters are groaning clichés. Mom (Ruth Storey) is repressive and manipulative. Pop (Milton Selzer) is a well-meaning weakling, who gets stuck with the same sort of “dumb” jokes Betty White would be doing fifty years later in The Golden Girls. Grandpa Jacob (Leo Fuchs) quotes from the Talmud and Karl Marx. A boarder, Moe Axelrod (Walter Matthau), who lost a leg in the Great War, limps around the set and drops cynical one-liners about the meaning of life.7
When it came to dialogue, Odets was both overripe and tone-deaf. Ralph whines about “this cockeyed world,” where “life is written on dollar bills.” Jacob reminds us that “once, there was propaganda for God. Now, there’s propaganda for success.”
The plot of Awake and Sing! never rises above the cheapest melodrama. When sister Hessie (Felicia Farr) falls mysteriously ill, who can’t guess that she’s pregnant? When Jacob passes his life insurance policy to Uncle Morty for safekeeping and mentions that he’s leaving the whole $3,000 to Ralph, who can’t guess that something “bad” is going to happen?8)
There are times when Awake and Sing! captures the desperation of the thirties – the constant worry over money that would never go away, the cramped living quarters, and the lack of privacy, which would seem almost unendurable today. But Odets’ wretched dialogue and contrived melodrama constantly pull us away from that reality.
There are some odd touches to the production. Robert Lipton’s torso-hugging, preppie ensembles seem more suited to a male model than a nice Jewish boy starting out in the thirties on sixteen dollars a week.9 And somehow Moe and Hessie can conduct their love scenes at the top of their lungs without waking the whole family. But, for the most part, directors Robert Hopkins and Norman Lloyd deliver the play as earnestly and as humorlessly as Odets wrote it.10
The Human Voice
The Human Voice is a kitschy 1930 tour-de-force by Jean Cocteau,11 starring Ingrid Berman and a telephone, about a middle-aged woman desperately trying to hold onto her younger lover (gasp!) who is (gasp!) about to marry a much (gasp!) younger woman!12 The Human Voice is an exercise in antique pure theatre, the sort of thing that went out of style when people starting taking off their clothes on stage. If you like that sort of thing, you will like this play, definitely. When Ingrid tells her boyfriend that she’s been good and has only smoked three cigarettes all day, the camera makes a deadpan pan to the ashtray, which is littered with dozens of butts. When he asks her to send him his driving gloves (how continental!), she says she can’t find them, but she’s holding them in her hands! That’s irony, baby.13
The Journey of the Fifth Horse
By far the best of the four performances reviewed here is The Journey of the Fifth Horse,14 a play by Ronald Ribman based on Ivan Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man. This 1966 black-and-white production takes us far back into 19th-century Russia, with everything as it should be: dreary provincial towns; pompous local officials; grasping landladies; drunken, good-natured peasants; terrible winters; hopeless poverty; heartless military officers; bitter petty functionaries; awkward, “beautiful-souled” landowners; trembling, magical girls; and there, like a star on the horizon, so close you could almost touch it, love. It is a very special place, and no matter how old or how clever you become, you must always go back there from time to time.
Dustin Hoffman has the lead as Zoditch, the self-important and self-loathing “first reader” at a publishing house, who unwillingly confronts his own life as he reads “the diary of a superfluous man,” a diary kept by a landowner facing both death and the knowledge that he has never had the courage to live.
The Death of Broadway
In 1966, when PBS began its “Best of Broadway” series, the big street was still riding high. Shows ranging from Hello Dolly to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? demonstrated that Broadway still offered the best of everything, from popular entertainment to high art. Only a few years later, Broadway’s reign, which predated the 20th century, would collapse in ruins.
The sources for this fall were varied. The continuing economic expansion, which really started in World War II, was emptying the cities of the middle class. The steady stream of departures would turn into a flood under the impact of the 1968 riots, which turned the old downtowns of most big cities into wastelands.
People who lived in the suburbs did not go to the theater. They sat in their air-conditioned houses and watched TV. As television became the dominant vehicle for popular entertainment, films began to target a new audience. In 1966, Mike Nichols brought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the screen virtually unchanged from Broadway. But if a shocker like this could be brought directly to the screen, who needed Broadway?15 Why not move to L.A., where the sun was warmer, the booze cheaper, and the girls prettier?16 Nichols, a quintessential New Yorker, helped render his beloved Manhattan obsolete.
But the biggest change of all occurred in popular culture itself. By 1966 the rock revolution, which scarcely existed as recently as 1964, had reached gale force. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones were leading a cultural revolution whose ambition and lack of inhibition went beyond anything anyone could remember.17 The rock stars of the sixties used the new electronic media to reach a global audience that gave them undreamed-of fame and riches overnight. They were the first generation of celebrities who did not need the approval of the Establishment. Instead, they attacked the Establishment, from all sides, with a single message: “No Limits.” Broadway sophistication was suddenly 1,000 years out of date.
In the seventies, it seemed axiomatic that Hollywood was the new Broadway. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Oliver Stone were all but deified. But twenty years after, the “new Hollywood” is a shadow of its former self. Nobody makes “passionate” films any more. What buzz exists in Hollywood seems to have migrated to HBO. But what is The Sopranos but the nth reincarnation of The Godfather, and what is Sex and the City but the Seinfeld that can say “fuck”? These shows are scarcely less market-driven, and market-tested, than Spider-Man. The music business remains the one refuge of the private sensibility in popular culture today. Whatever you think of acts like Alanis Morissette or Eminem, they represent excitement and a point of view, and that’s damned hard to find.18
Despite my generally jaundiced comments, some of the performances preserved in this series are classics. See the review of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in this issue. For more options, consult the Broadway Theatre Archive’s website, which offers 91 theatrical videos, on either VHS or DVD. The site is also offering pay-for-view current performances. Kultur’s website offers a wide variety of live performance videos, in ballet, modern dance, opera, and other fields. A third site, My Broadway Videos, allows you to search for all home video versions of plays. (But the site is hardly perfect; it lists only three of the seven Hamlets available.)
- “Everything dates except Shakespeare,” says my Aunt Catherine, who’s been going to the theater for 75 years. Snob that I am, I’d like to put in a good word for the Greeks, but she’s probably right. What can I say? The guy was a genius. [↩]
- Bad as it is, June Moon was twice made into a film during the thirties, as June Moon (1931) and Blonde Trouble (1937). Neither version is available on video. [↩]
- George S. Kaufman, who wrote or cowrote over forty Broadway plays and musicals, many of which were made into films, clearly had the magic touch, although, in my opinion, he rarely rose above the second-rate and often fell short of it. For a more sympathetic perspective, go here. [↩]
- Ring Lardner’s novel You Know Me Al is a classic of American vernacular prose. It can be accessed here, although you might want to immerse yourself in pre-WWI baseball lore beforehand. A number of Lardner’s works were made into films, but only two are available on video, Champion(1949, VHS & DVD), an early Kirk Douglas vehicle, and The Golden Honeymoon (1980 VHS only). Lardner’s son, Ring Lardner, Jr., won two Oscars for his screenplays (Woman of the Year, 1942, and M*A*S*H, 1970) and also did a stretch in the big house for refusing to tell the good folks at the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his days as a communist. [↩]
- Is there any other kind? Art imitates life, or something, in this production because Stephen Sondheim (yes, that Stephen Sondheim) is at the keyboard as the suspiciously fey Maxie Schwartz. [↩]
- Odets’ youth, good looks, and success made him a very hot property in the mid-thirties and he quickly moved to Hollywood, writing his first screenplay (The General Died at Dawn) in 1936, although he continued to write for Broadway as well. Odets was a very active communist as a young man, but he somehow weathered the McCarthy era much more easily than most Hollywood leftists did. A number of his plays were turned into big-budget films during the early fifties, including The Country Girl (1954), which won two Oscars. Odets wrote the screenplay for The Sweet Smell of Success in 1957 and both wrote and directed The Story on Page One in 1961. He ended his career as scriptwriter for the television show Have Gun, Will Travel. [↩]
- Awake and Sing! is not good drama, but the theater does need more plays with characters named Moe Axelrod. [↩]
- Worst of all, when Odets seems to be on the verge of giving us a real conflict – when it looks as if Ralph will have to directly confront his mother to win his independence – the play takes a dive and lets everyone off the hook. Mom gets a “once, I had a heart full of dreams, too” speech. Ralph gives the $3,000 to the family and decides that he’ll forge his fate by living at home, working at his day job, and reading Grandpa’s books. He couldn’t do that before? (The play ends with Ralph sitting down to read a book. Marx, maybe? Odets doesn’t even have the nerve to say. [↩]
- Robert Lipton, brother of Mod Squad Madonna Peggy Lipton, parleyed his chiseled cheekbones into a six-year stint on As the World Turns as Dr. Jeff Ward. He’s probably glad to forget his role in the infamous 1977 stinker Chatterbox (about a woman with a talking vagina, or “wise crack”), which also starred Rip Taylor and Prof. Irwin Corey. [↩]
- Am I too hard on Awake and Sing? The Los Angeles Times definitely had a different slant: “A fine, ferocious production . . . wondrous theatrical intensity and drive. Impressive performances to treasure . . . it is impossible to conceive the parts better played.” [↩]
- Jean Cocteau, poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, director, and actor, did more than anyone to invent the permanent avant garde that still shapes culture today. The Blood of a Poet and Beauty and the Beast, his most famous films, are both available on DVD. Cocteau also wrote the libretto for an operatic version of The Human Voice, which he liked to call La Voix Humaine. This opera has been filmed but is not currently available on home video. [↩]
- This same plot was used by Truman Capote in twelve of his fourteen short stories. Can you say “Albertine strategy”? [↩]
- In 1948, Cocteau’s play was incorporated into a once-notorious Italian film, L’Amore, now available on VHS only. Anna Magnani plays “the woman.” After the phone call ends, Magnani goes out and has sex with a tramp, somehow under the impression that he is St. Joseph. When she finds herself pregnant, she believes that she is going to give birth to Jesus Christ. Only the second half of the film made it out of Italy, under the name of The Miracle. The Catholic Church, which never has much of a sense of humor about these things, got very upset. Marcello Pagliero directed the La voce umana portion of the film, while Roberto Rossellini directed Il Miracolo. Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir both had bit parts in Il Miracolo. [↩]
- What is the “fifth horse”? The fifth horse is not part of the team that pulls the sleigh. It has no role and no purpose, yet must make the journey anyway, and it is goaded and whipped like no other. [↩]
- The real shock today is seeing Elizabeth Taylor deliver a great performance. Sadly, Liz has joined Michael Jackson in that strange realm that lies beyond self-parody. In fact, she’s starting to make Mike look normal. [↩]
- And the boys too, of course. [↩]
- By 1966 the Beatles, recovering from the brief softness of their Help! period, had released both Rubber Soul and Revolver, reestablishing themselves as the unchallengeable gods of rock. Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde made him the unchallengeable rock poet, while “Satisfaction” made the Rolling Stones the unchallengeable bad boys of rock. [↩]
- Does excitement still exist on Broadway? Well, that depends on whether you find The Vagina Monologues exciting. [↩]