Where Have All the Classics Gone?

My Essay, ‘Where Have All the Classics Gone?’ was published by Banango Street.

 Where Have All the Classics Gone?


Gary Beck

In the early 1970’s, Off-Off Broadway theater expanded rapidly, fueled by hordes of recent theater majors seeking performance outlets.  Dozens of small groups presented an incredibly diverse scope of productions of highly mixed quality, from the imaginative to the excruciating. Few groups lasted more than a month or two, attributable to the basic fact that they were unprepared to deal with the reality that theater is a business.

Many inexperienced young actors and directors, who had no concept of their theatrical limitations, talked art day and night, but did not grasp that money made production possible. Without cash, there is no continuation of artistic purpose, since sweat equity efforts last only so long and the demands of day to day existence compel young practitioners to move on. 

Because America never had a national theater, there are no measurable goals for young actors and directors to aspire to. Unlike opera, ballet and classical music, with their rigorous requisites for performance, theater is a haphazard amalgam of temporary relationships and there are no universal standards of requirement for performers. Selection of casts and directors takes place through loosely related networks, word of mouth, and auditions in response to ads in the trade papers. Casting, a speculative process at best, generally offers no dependable levels of accomplishment suitable for the demands of classical theater.

The absence of theater education in grade school and high school, except for the privileged, along with the commensurate lack of exposure to live performance, does not build a widespread theater audience. Deadly exposure to Shakespeare in the classroom inflicted on students without tools to grasp the language and history, makes classical theater virtually inaccessible. The school system designed to develop appropriate skills for factory labor with the goal of job readiness in an industrial economy, cannot conceive that properly presented, theater can be practiced by anyone, regardless of talent or ability, as long as the purpose is to build self-confidence and self-esteem, rather than turn our hordes of performers. Music and dance mandate an early start in training, hard work, lengthy practice, intense instruction and technical mastery. The lack of these requirements for theater provides youth an excellent opportunity in school for personal development, using theater as a mechanism to build self esteem and self-confidence, when properly encouraged, to get up and do things in front of others. The absence of these requirements for professional actors is one of the many factors that has contributed to the decline of classical theater.

Actors tend to discover theater in college or university, ten or more years after musicians and dancers began their training. Colleges took control of actor training from the professional theater in the mid-1960’s. This legitimized the once disreputable profession by bestowing aspiring actors with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. The emergence of regional theaters, invariably affiliated with a well-endowed college, bewitched masses of drama students enchanted by the state-of-the-art theaters. Enthusiastic local audiences encouraged student actors into believing their future would take place in equitable surroundings. Trained in sophisticated and protected venues, outside of the safe haven of the university, the students were woefully unfit for the harsh realities of the Off-Off Broadway theater world.

Theater education now firmly embedded in the college system, flourished academically, providing comfortable livelihoods to legions of teachers and administrators who would otherwise intermittently wander the unpaid wilderness of small theaters. The standards established by the classroom advocates were sufficient for actors intending to seek work in film or t.v. They were woefully inadequate preparations for the classical actor, who needed the same basic discipline and structure that would be the equivalent of music or dance training.

Another factor diluting serious theater was the graying of the current audience, without a new demographic audience to replace them. When adventurous classical theater lovers ventured Off-Off Broadway to see Moliere or Sophocles, they generally encountered an awkward, arbitrary updating. Deconstruction of the classics, advocated for student directors by many drama departments, invariably eliminated the class distinction of the original drama, the fundamental structure of the classics until Ibsen. This democratization removed kings, princes, barons, fatuous lovers, scheming servants and great issues, reducing the scale of drama to middle class reenactments. To add to audience travails, performances were often offered as a shouting match, rather than a dynamic, well-presented period play.

The further erosion of the actor’s potential was facilitated by the implementation of the showcase system. This was an ill-considered collaboration between the actor’s union, an organization characterized by 95% professional unemployment of its members, and producers. This travesty of the arts stipulated three unpaid weeks of very limited rehearsals and three unpaid weeks of performances, for a total of twelve, on three successive weekends. The showcase code specified that the actor could leave the show anytime for paid work. Forgetting the risk to the producer, who could lose his lead actor to a margarine commercial, as well as his investment, the superficial preparation for Macbeth or Othello guaranteed  a dismal performance. Unlike opera singers or ballet dancers, who maintain roles in repertory, the actor learns a role during brief, mostly discussional rehearsals, frequently resulting in mundane superficial recitations, rather than exciting shows.

The advent of cable tv, with hundreds of shows and thousands of roles, eclipsed the lure of the classics by offering the actor paid work, audience appreciation and recognition. Technological advances in filmmaking eliminated the appeal of theater’s feeble efforts to compete with spectacle. Audiences conditioned by the big screen, were disappointed by shabby productions, often clothed by the same old costumes from the Costume Collection, on the small stage. Mega-musicals were the only type of theater production that still attempted to dazzle the audience with special effects. The scale of production was necessarily reduced for touring, to the disappointment of local audiences. At the same time, the Broadway musical audience was diminishing in numbers.

Theater had forgotten its key historical ingredient that riveted audiences since ancient Greek drama; intense emotional experience conveyed by the quality of the play, and the skills of the actors. With regional theaters spread across the country disseminating shows tailored to the tastes of their local community, and Off-Off Broadway testing the limits of small audiences, the classics were in severe decline. Classics were less frequently produced on Broadway, and when they were presented it was invariably as a star-vehicle, generally without a strong supporting cast. Audiences quickly discovered that a star alone cannot enliven a Shakespeare play, let alone the lesser known plays of Aeschylus or Racine, who are even more alien than ‘old Will’, who bored them silly when they were forced to read Shakespeare in high school.

It is improbable that the disappearance of classical drama as part of American cultural life can be halted. The only remote possibility would require a zen-like flash of enlightenment in the members of the college theater departments; emotion and highly skilled actors are the tools to engage audiences. If we are to retain classical theater, actors and directors not only need to be trained appropriately, they must be cautioned that there is little fame or fortune compared to movies and tv. Few actors would be willing to devote themselves to the intense training required for the classics for meager rewards. Audiences offered endless entertainment, will not accept poorly produced theater. The visual spectacle of the big screen is the final undoing of the classics in America.

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