9/9/13 - off-broadway and off-off-broadway

In today's selection - from The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village by John Strausbaugh. In the 1940s and 50s, faced with increasing competition from movies and television, Broadway increasingly turned to lavish musicals such as The King and I, The Sound of Music, Flower Drum Song, and South Pacific. That left less room for serious drama -- and faced with this reality the actors union decided to allow its members work in small theaters for reduced pay, restricting the size of the audi­ence and the number of performances. And so that drama moved south to the smaller, disheveled spaces of Greenwich Village -- and showcased promising young unknowns such as Ed Asner, Jerry Stiller, Jerry Orbach, and Bea Arthur and works by T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and even Pablo Picasso, all chronicled by a new paper called the Village Voice:


"Greenwich Village was the birthplace of both Off-Broadway in the 1950s and Off-Off-Broadway in the 1960s. During the war, the most notable new theatrical activity in the Village had been the New School's Dramatic Workshop. The workshop's director Erwin Piscator, ... a huge figure in the inter­national theater community [who had] fled Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Moscow before immigrating to New York. Because of his reputation his students had the opportunity to perform new work by im­portant writers, including the U.S. premiere of Sartre's The Flies and the first staging of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Out of his classes would come a generation of stage and film stars of the 1950s.

"A few new companies sprouted in the Village in the first years after the war. One called New Stages took over an abandoned movie theater at Bleecker and Thompson Streets and staged work by Sartre, Garcia Lorca, and others. Another took over the Provincetown Playhouse and staged works such as Cocteau's The Infernal Machine. In 1949 Broadway and Ac­tors' Equity gave the nascent scene a boost. Broadway producers and in­vestors 'were caught in a two-way economic pinch,' the theater historian Stephen J. Bottoms explains, as 'a consumer-driven inflationary boom was driving the costs of production to unprecedented heights, while the­ater audiences were being seduced away' by film and television. Broad­way producers turned increasingly to handsomely mounted musicals to lure audiences back; the 1950s would be the epoch of grand productions: The King and I, The Sound of Music, Flower Drum Song, South Pacific. There was some serious drama on Broadway but many producers didn't want to take the risk. Work abounded for the few actors who could hoof 'n' holler; less so for the rest. Actors' Equity, therefore, decided to let its members work in small theaters for reduced pay, restricting the size of the audi­ence permitted and the number of performances.

"With the promise of affordable legitimacy, new theater companies be­gan to bloom around the Village. In 1950 the director Jose Quintero and others turned the former Cafe Society basement on Sheridan Square into the Circle in the Square. Their 1952 revival of Tennessee Williams's Sum­mer and Smoke, which had flopped on Broadway a few years earlier, was a huge success, the first big hit of the new Off-Broadway. It made a star of Geraldine Page, who went on to do the filmed version as well. Quintero had another big hit with a revival of The Iceman Cometh. The new Vil­lage Voice handed out its first Obie awards that year to Quintero and the show's star Jason Robards Jr. The show then moved to Broadway.

"In 1954 Marc Blitzstein's translation of The Threepenny Opera opened at the Theater de Lys (later the Lucille Lortel) on Christopher Street, with a cast including Lotte Lenya, Bea Arthur, and John Astin. It played ninety-six performances before it had to clear the stage for another show. Audience demand brought it back to the theater in 1955 and it ran for six years, with casts that included Ed Asner, Estelle Parsons, Jerry Orbach, and Jerry Stiller. ...

"Reviving plays by Williams and O'Neill was 'not particularly daring,' Bottoms argues. 'In effect, the serious drama being squeezed off Broad­way by economic forces found an alternative home in these smaller the­aters.' For really new and challenging work, there were the haphazard collaborations of John Myers and Herbert Machiz's short-lived Artists Theatre, and there was Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre, both closer in spirit to what came to be known as Off-Off-Broadway than Off-Broadway. In 1959 the Living Theatre produced a kind of junkie Go­dot: Jack Gelber's The Connection, the most controversial Off-Broadway play yet and its biggest succes de scandale.

"Beck and Malina had founded the Living Theatre in the postwar years and from the start had charted a singular course for it. ... Chronically broke, they staged their first performances in their apart­ment before renting Cherry Lane in 1951 to produce Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, which John Ashbery called 'one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on the stage.' In 1952 they presented an evening of one-acts: Stein's Ladies' Voices, T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, and Picasso's surrealist Desire Trapped by the Tail, best known for Gertrude Stein's remark on first encountering it that the painter should stick to painting."


John Strausbaugh


The Village


Harper Collins


Copyright 2013 by John Strausbaugh


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