Howard Sherman considers — then rejects — the idea of a US national theatre, not least because we already have one, he says. “Despite protestations to the contrary, America does have a national theatre. We simply don’t restrict it to the work of a single company. America’s national theatre exists across the country and a centralized company or facility would, by necessity, be insufficient. Unlike Europe, where the dimensions of the major countries are simply smaller than the U.S., and therefore it is possible to have a National Theatre that is theoretically available to all, any such venue here would be inaccessible to most of the population.”
The context for Howard’s remarks is that of his recent visit to a revival of The Iceman Cometh in Chicago, and he’s quite right — that a formal National Theatre for the United States is probably a geographical impossibility. However, we do appear to have a theatre museum — and this is called Broadway. Reports have surfaced that next season’s Broadway offerings will include revivals of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Glengarry Glen Ross, neither of which have exactly been absent from the Great Trite Way for many years (their last revivals there were about five years ago, in fact). Add to this that the season just ended saw revivals of Death of a Salesman, The Best Man, and A Streetcar Named Desire (not to mention Mary Chase’s 1944 Harvey, which opens again tonight on Broadway) and it’s hard to deny that at least one of the functions of Broadway is to dip classic American plays in amber, pin their wings down, and put them on display. Can new productions of Abie’s Irish Rose — a play about multiculturalism! and by a woman playwright, too! — and The Black Crook be far behind? Instead of the rumored casting of Al Pacino in the new Glengarry production, I’d much rather see him in Michael Radford’s film of King Lear, a production announced in 2009 but which seems to have stalled.
Otherwise the season announcements of the off-Broadway houses have been uninspiring; not so with London’s Royal Court Theatre, which announced their 2012-2013 season this week. New plays from Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Jez Butterworth, Joe Penhall, and Tarell Alvin McCraney will be coming up at the Sloane Square venue; I can’t think of a New York non-profit that whets the appetite quite as much; this lineup almost makes up for the apparent absence of the National Theatre’s Scenes from an Execution from their NTLive schedule next year. Almost.
Finally, a review copy of The Collected Drama of H.L. Mencken arrived in my mailbox yesterday; I look forward to spending the weekend with it and reporting back to you next week sometime. I have been looking over the fine Library of America edition of the complete Mencken Prejudices lately — the early volumes of the series reveal just how full-blooded the man was as a literary critic, and although the drama criticism included in the new volume dates from 1918 and before, not perhaps his prime, it is promising. Below, a sample of Mencken’s literary criticism, from the second series of Prejudices, published in 1920:
What ails the beautiful letters of the Republic, I repeat, is what ails the general culture of the Republic — the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob — a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristrocracy. This lack is felt by the American author, imagining him to have anything new to say, every day of his life. He can hope for no support, in ordinary cases, from the mob: it is too suspicious of all ideas. He can hope for no support from the spokesmen of the plutocracy: they are too diligently devoted to maintaining the intellectual status quo. He turns, then, to the intelligentsia — and what he finds is correctness! In his two prime functions, to represent the life about him accurately and to criticize it honestly, he sees that correctness arrayed against him. His representation is indecorous, unlovely, too harsh to be borne. His criticism is in contumacy to the ideals upon which the whole structure rests. So he is either attacked vigorously as an anti-patriot whose babblings ought to be put down by law, or enshrouded in a silence which commonly disposes of him even more effectively. …
A man who devotes his life to creating works of the imagination, a man who gives over all his strength and energy to struggling with problems that are essentially delicate and baflling and pregnant with doubt — such a man does not ask for recognition as a mere reward for his industry; he asks for it as a necessary help to his industry; he needs it as he needs decent subsistence and peace of mind. … The notion that artists flourish upon adversity and misunderstanding, that they are able to function to the utmost in an atmosphere of indifference or hostility — this notion is nine-tenths nonsense. … What the artist actually needs is comprehension of his aims and ideals by men he respects — not necessarily approval of his products, but simply an intelligent sympathy for him in the great agony of creation. And that sympathy must be more than the mere fellow-feeling of other craftsmen; it must come, in large part, out of a connoisseurship that is beyond the bald trade interest; it must have its roots in the intellectual curiosity of an aristocracy of taste. 
- Prejudices: First, Second, and Third Series. New York: Library of America, 2010, pp. 199-201. [↩]