Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Death of Theatre

Today I want use this Playback Tuesday to talk about the death of theatre or as John Gassner once wrote, "Entropy in the Theatre." Entropy, a gradual decline into disorder. The Best American Plays, fourth series 1951-1957, was written at a time when the game of theatre was beginning to be forever changed by two entertainment competitors, film and television.

In the first paragraph of his introduction, And Still It Moves, he states that theatre, "...according to reasonable expectations should be gasping out its life by now instead of enjoying better health than those giants of mass-communication, the motion pictures and television." Looking back and reading those words made me grimmace. If such a statement were ever true it certainly is not the case now. Film and television are the giants and most theatres have become the naughty younger sibling trying to immitate it's bigger siblings success, the spectacle trying to justify the costs of tickets, or the social rabble raiser. I personally have nothing against any of those, but as I look down the list of the best American playwrights of 1951 to 1957 I am left wondering where did the plays all go? What wasteland houses them?

I will question aloud whether or not the newest generation of playwrights that find themselves in the unfortunate position of writing straight plays or comedies have found a new home in the very places that were once the enemies of the theatre, film and television.

Judging by the productions of a lot of theatres I doubt there is much that can be done to stop the constant trickle of new writers fleeing to more stable (and often more welcoming) waters.

Thus the question remains, Can American theatre survive in the 21st century? Or is it now gasping out it's last breath as the across the country theatres keep going dark, forever.

Does still it move?


  1. This is a question I've found myself asking. The only answer the comes into my head is a quote from Moon Over Buffalo...and in my head, it's spoken by this tiny spitfire of an elderly Jewish woman I know who said the line in the production I was in:n

    "The theatre may be dying. The glamorous invalid may be crawling through the desert with but a single lung in its feeble chest, but it is still breathing, and it's all we've got. It is our lifeline to humanity."

    I always take heart in remembering that line, for some reason, because I believe theatre is a much more human thing than film or television. Theatre, in some form, has existed for thousands of years. I personally believe there will always be theatre. It may lose favor commercially, but it will still exist somewhere. There will always be that need to create and be part of creation that can only exist in a theatre. The theatre might be past its prime, might have already had its heyday, might not be the glamorous place it was. But I don't think it can die.

  2. I really enjoyed your comment. I am glad that there are people in theatre who are continuing to question what the purpose of theatre is and it's overall role in society. I personally believe that the commercial profitability of theatre, specifically outside of large hubs has been in jeopardy for a long time, and that theatres across the country continue to find themselves walking a tight rope of pushing theatrical limitations and trying to attract an audience. The audience for theatre continues to morph, and quite frankly age. A lot of our parents generation stepped through more movie theater doors than playhouse doors, and our generation tends to do the same. Also, films seem more apt at morphing to the demands of technology. (i.e. Netflix is bringing more and more foreign, independent, and limited distribution films into reach. You Tube and blogs allows filmmakers to self broadcast their ideas and their work.) Theatre seems to have a hard time making those transitions because it seems as if we are moving more and more into a world that relies less and less on face to face human interaction.

    To me that is where Theatre could continue to carve out a niche. Yet, a niche is what I think it would be. I've been looking a lot at what regional theatres are putting on, and for the most part it does seem that for the summer season more emphasis is strictly on entertainment or on remounting the shows that were successful on big marques in Broadway.

    I hope theatre as an art form never dies, but do you believe that theatre as a commercially viable entity is losing blood?

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.