Swans Commentary » swans.com December 29, 2008 - January 1, 2009  



On Stage Chicago


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Christiansen, Richard: A Theater of Our Own, A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, Northwestern University Press, Chicago, 2004, ISBN 0-8101-2041-0, illustrated, 317 pages, $29.95.


(Swans - December 29, 2008 - January 1, 2009)   There are two inescapable truths about live theater: It depends on money and it has been in crisis for centuries. How then can a 175-year slice of theater history in one city be constantly exhilarating and a joy to read? Only when the author cherishes whatever excellence, be it ticket-stub small, that he can squeeze out of a performance. Richard Christiansen covered the arts over the second half of the twentieth century for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune. He would have paid the editors to let him do the job.

That half century saw critics tyrannize the English-speaking theater. Dramatic art sat on the ever-crumbling foundation of the cash nexus, and newspaper critics, as the mood took them, opened or closed the flow of paying customers. Their poisoned quip could kill a play in New York overnight. The sourpusses enjoyed their power, and the hypocrisy of the public lent them strength. Tired businessmen avoided taking their culture-hungry wives to the theater by quoting Walter Kerr who disposed of a play called I Am a Camera in three words, "Me no Leica," or Dorothy Parker who in three more judged The House Beautiful, "the play lousy." Brooks Atkinson, whom his employers at The New York Times called "the most important reviewer of his time," was a master of scathing one-liners, not of drama criticism.

The magic words that made a hit or a flop were a Broadway specialty. But, though the British hatchet men kept their voices down, London theater was in something like the same hands. Newspaper arbiters bludgeoned anything fresh and alive with the most moribund parts of tradition. Barbed shafts were de rigueur. Milton Schulman in The Evening Standard built his career on put-downs that often floated away from the actual play reviewed like a balloon cut loose from its mooring. For a while the great Kenneth Tynan exercised vast influence over playgoers on Sunday mornings in The Observer. He worked at sarcasm like an art form. At a time when axe grinders prevailed among critics, Tynan used his blade to carve up graybeard theater craft as well as to mow down opposition to a National Theater, a cause he took up from another critic, G.B. Shaw.

Even back in Chicago, the Tribune's Claudia Cassidy ("Acidy Cassidy") could flick a serpent's tongue and stop or start theater-bound traffic. But in the big city stakes she was only a middle-America garter snake. Which brings us back to Richard Christiansen, who roamed a very different green patch. He was for anything that grew. If it turned into a weed, he would ignore it. Why pull up sprouts? He was no milquetoast but had a sense of the fragility of any cultural enterprise in the city of the Union Stock Yards. His book is full of fine distinctions in matters of quality all made in the soft voice of reason. Sarcasm had no place in his reviews. Lethal irony doesn't work with children or infant cultural institutions trying to gain purchase in thin soil.

In line with this modesty, A Theater of Our Own begins long before Christiansen's own reign as guardian angel of Chicago's theatrical life. Not surprising in a city where no one ever pretended that making money wasn't its raison d'être, buccaneer promoters launched theatrical life in the 1830s. As they acted out Marx's script of capitalism as destructive construction, they built and tore down theaters to build them again always bigger. They were relieved of paying the wreckers for a while by the Great Fire of 1871 that leveled the city. The theater capitalists joined the Yankee financiers disguised as city fathers and built another Chicago. Of course the rebuilt city and its theaters were bigger than ever.

Christiansen folds the tumultuous events of this first century into a neat, piquant narrative that keeps to significant detail. The pages will stand as a pleasurable entry to a subject too often rendered soporific by antiquarians. However, the book's genuine revelations come in the twentieth century with the hints of what an authentic regional theater might be. The years from the turn of the century through the 1950s were the seedbed for the amazing growth of the Chicago theater that would parallel Christiansen's career as a critic.

Jane Addams was a middle-class philanthropist with enough virtues to rehabilitate the whole category. Her Hull House in the Chicago slums served the immigrants who fought against the odds for a decent life in the urban jungle. But she was old-fashioned enough not only to offer a nursery, language tuition, health care, and friendship to bewildered newcomers; she also gave them an art gallery, a library, and even a theater of 230 seats. (A progressive, she was way ahead of message-fixated agitprop to come: "Theater freed the boys and girls from destructive isolation [and can] warm us with a sense of companionship.") Russians, Lithuanians, and Poles staged plays in their own languages. The Greeks did the Ajax of Sophocles. In English in the early 1900s, G.B. Shaw was played and Hull House staged the American premiers of Galsworthy's Justice and Ibsen's The Pillars of Society. Productions continued into the 1940s when a Russian couple called Lazareff taught the Stanislavski method. Foreign language theater would remain strong in the city until assimilation eliminated its public. Czech, Yiddish, Swedish, and Polish theater thrived. There was a 1,200 seat Afro-American owned theater. Ibsen's Ghosts was produced in Norwegian in Chicago a year before it was presented in Norway.

As the mainstream commercialism of the Theatrical Syndicate hammed it up downtown, tiny houses took root in far-flung parts of the city, offering original work by local playwrights and the European avant-garde. The Chicago Little Theatre was the finest blossom of this trend, "a repertory and experimental art-theatre." Writers like Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters attended, as did visiting theater people like Harley Granville-Barker and John Barrymore.

It was a harbinger of things to come. It was small; it was adventuresome; it was motivated by passion; it delighted in turning economic shortcomings into blessings of innovation and experiment. (Page 65)

And of course it soon succumbed to debt and political hostility. Like G.B. Shaw, its directors opposed WWI. G.B.S. said later that he prized its work more than many a prestigious London production.

The flickering torch passed in the 1920s to the Goodman Theater, which with its School of Drama was attached to the Art Institute. But the Depression hit it and downtown commercialism hard. Talking pictures also took their toll. Hard times nevertheless lit some bright lights. In 1931 the Chicago Workers' Theater (CWT) was launched. Six years later Stage Magazine could call it "the only theater west of Broadway that is carrying out a policy devoted to plays of social significance." But it was especially the Federal Theater Project (FTP) created in 1936 and lasting till 1939 that illuminated the theater world. It was that unheard of institution in America, a National Theater. There were 50 actors in the Chicago branch plus administrators. Much broader than the CWT, the Federal Theater took its repertory on tour, and had a variety of units including experimental, children's, Negro, and Yiddish.

As A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker tauntingly pointed out in his Second City, cultural life in Chicago in the 1950s was a deflated balloon. The city was still blushing over the 100-week record setter of the decade before that had been based on Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath. Theatergoers, said Liebling, did better to buy an air ticket for New York. For it was Broadway shows grown slack and done by second-tier actors that Chicagoans now saw. TV had begun to cut into audiences. (There had been 103 offerings in 23 downtown theaters in 1925-26. In 1950-51, there were 23 shows in 7 theaters.)

Christiansen, who began reporting in 1956, was in a perfect position to witness the death gargle and resuscitation. Two weeks before Christmas 1959 there were only three shows downtown, two weary Broadway road company musicals, and a try-out comedy that would crash when it hit New York. But mid-December a cabaret opened called The Second City. It was a local effort that in years to come would nurture the whole country with actors, directors, and a new vein of improvisational ensemble-based theater. The opening was the preamble to Stephen Kinzer's article in The New York Times of May 19, 2003 that begins:

Chicago has nearly 200 theater companies, and for at least the last decade it has been the only city in the United States, and one of the few in the world, with a theatrical scene as vibrant as New York's. [...] The appearance of so many world premieres within the space of a couple of months reflects the deep pool of Chicago-based dramatic talent and the city's growing appeal to playwrights and producers from other parts of the country. Plays can be produced here relatively cheaply. Directors and playwrights also say that critics and the public here seem more interested in new work than their counterparts in New York and other cities.

Second City was not to be contained in its first home in a former Chinese laundry. But it not only moved house; its alumni had soon started a half dozen more theaters, rekindling the spirit of the Little Theater and the Federal Theater Project that turned out not to have been entirely crushed by commercial and political pressures. A link with Hull House of the 1920s and the New Deal programs of the 1930s was Viola Spolin, who would publish her classic Improvisation For the Theater in 1963. She was the mother of Paul Sills, Second City's cofounder and first director. These were the Chicago years of Barbara Harris, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Alan Arkin, and Tom O'Horgan. In the 1970s, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray joined up. New York critic Clive Barnes wrote: "The entire recent tradition of American theatrical satire can be summed up in three words: The Second City."

The short lives of small companies didn't mean defeat. It was simply the live theater's old battle between money and spirit. Looked at in the long term, as Kinzer did in 2003, spirit may not have won, but it survived, which is the only victory it will ever have. The permanence in the changing scene can be traced in single careers. David Mamet worked as a bus boy in Second City's summer beer garden. Then he joined the team. Body Politic Theater would present his The Duck Variations in 1972 when he was 24. Two years later, the Organic Theater, whose members included Joe Mantegna and John Malkovitch, used Body Politic's space to premiere Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. When the Organic troupe went on tour, Mamet formed the St. Nicholas Theater Company and kept his play going. William H. Macy joined him. They did Mamet's Squirrels and then floundered in a production of O'Neill. (Also at St. Nicholas was Robert Falls who later directed Brian Dennehy in landmark productions.)

Organic refused to be swamped by Mamet and turned down his masterpiece, American Buffalo. He took it to the Goodman, the city's oldest and largest resident theater. Claudia Cassidy in The Tribune called the 1975 opening "a filthy episode," but the alert Christiansen wrote in The Daily News that American Buffalo was "a triumph for Chicago theater -- and a treasure for Chicago audiences." The play went out to smaller venues, one a former bakery. But the institutional Goodman had got into the swim of the new movement. It would present six more of the Mamet's plays, ending in 1984 with Glengarry Glen Ross, which brought him the Pulitzer prize for Drama.

The weakness of peripheral theater is that its glories head for L.A. or Manhattan. Mamet and his director at the Goodman, Gregory Mosher, were soon established in New York. But what Mamet accomplished in Chicago was invaluable. "His success showed that new work by a new writer in a new theater could find an audience -- sometimes a very large audience." At the end of the 1970s small theaters proliferated all over the city. A change in the building code made it easier to transform odd spaces into "theatrical community centers." Moreover, the Federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act began to provide funds for unemployed artists to work on specific projects. Mosher found the antiwar movement contributed to the surge of activity: "After the Vietnam War ended many people still had this crusading spirit. It needed an outlet and what better place than the theater for that idealism and adventure?" Another reason may have been the changing nature of the city's economy. Heavy manufacture no longer figured so large. International corporations installed their headquarters and universities grew in Chicago. The new public looked for another kind of entertainment.

For whatever reason the mushrooming continued through the 1980s and 1990s, small companies rising and falling but not diminishing in number. Several of the great commercial theaters, dark or decrepit for ages, were splendidly restored as the city tried to reanimate a downtown theater district and corral more visitors' dollars.

The new millennium saw an impressive non-profit hierarchy in place. The Goodman was thriving downtown in magnificent new quarters with an 856-seat main stage. (Time: "The best regional theater in the nation.") Steppenwolf, whose "spectacular ascent to stardom forever changed the playing field of resident theater in Chicago," had left the suburbs. It settled into serious middle age and a 500-seat auditorium in Halstead Street around the corner from the still vital Second City. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater had taken possession of a $24 million new multi-venue facility on Navy Pier, six stories high. Elsewhere the tide of smaller companies still ebbed and flowed along with their powers of invention.

Christiansen hastens to add that it's an exaggeration but still likes to quote the present Mayor Daley in 2000 as he welcomed one more new theater: Daley said it would "bolster Chicago's growing reputation as the new theater capital of the United States." More down to earth, the actor David Schwimmer told Kinzer: "In New York going to the theater is usually an event. You have to make plans, lay out a lot of money and head to a certain part of town. It's much more casual in Chicago. Here theater is an ordinary thing to do, and you can do it all over town. For whatever reason, audiences here seem more open to new work and new voices. Chicago is a great playground for writers." Richard Christiansen has certainly found it a circus for critics. The reader wants to believe him when he writes, "Chicago is a city where theater is produced for the sake of producing theater." (*)


(*) Since 2004 the momentum of Chicago theater hasn't slackened. See, Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2008, "Prolific Director, Off Off Off Off Broadway" and Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune, Nov. 30, 2008, "London Finally Discovers the Chicago Theater."


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Published December 29, 2008