Monday, December 24, 2007

The Fervent Years

I just this morning finished reading The Fervent Years, Harold Clurman's account of the Group Theatre from its origins to its collapse. My high-school theater teacher gave it to me, recommending it as "the best book ever written about the American theater," or some such, but I never got around to reading it until now.

I couldn't have read it at a better time, though. The Group Theatre existed from 1931 to 1941, and as you know I'm writing a play set in 1934 and find that decade fascinating. Clurman knows that the Group was a product of its time, and charts how the plays it produced mirrored the shifting national mood. Also, this spring, I'm going to be part of a theatre group of my own--under the auspices of the Drama Department, some of us at Vassar are going to spend six weeks forming an ensemble to put on three new plays as well and as efficiently as we can--so the book has got me thinking more about the process of making theatre.

Clurman was one of the Group's three founders (along with Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg) and the only one to stick with it until the end. Naturally, this provides him with a valuable and unique perspective--he is very opinionated as to the Group's successes and failures, and does not spare himself from criticism. He is also a good writer who can make interesting pronouncements about the time and place in which he lived. His analysis of how Americans fear unequivocal statements and big theories, and instead favor the ability to be fluid and ambiguous and adaptable (p. 217), will stick with me for a long time, I think.

One of the most interesting aspects is Clurman's portrait of his friend and colleague Clifford Odets, a truly fervent character. Odets began in the Group as an actor of great enthusiasm and little talent, but with a striking personality that combined "an appetite for the broken and rundown" with "a bursting love for the beauty immanent in people, a burning belief in the day when this beauty would actually shape the external world" (117). From this impulse he wrote plays; he and the Group experienced their greatest successes with the one-two punch of Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing in 1935. This success is inspirational; but what follows, Odets' slow downward spiral, torn between the Group and Hollywood, is a cautionary tale for any young playwright. I'm curious to learn more about Odets now and went looking for his plays in Powell's yesterday, but, would you believe, they only had a single book by him? Meanwhile, next to him, Sean O'Casey gets an entire shelf. I don't understand it.

I know it's still hard to make theater in America, and maybe I'm just naively optimistic (maybe I have to be naively optimistic in order to even consider a career as a playwright) but I think things have gotten better since the Group Theatre era. Throughout the second half of The Fervent Years, Clurman constantly reiterates that even though the Group was critically acclaimed and doing good work, it was doomed to failure, because it was trapped in the "Broadway" model for producing and mounting plays. Every time the Group got a new script, Clurman had to go around raising money for it, often begging people like Odets to put up some of the money themselves. The Group had no steady source of income; it had to find backers and give them a cut of the profits.

But nowadays, theatres are allowed to incorporate as nonprofit organizations, and most of them take advantage of it. When some Portland actors, directors and techies formed Third Rail, the most successful new company in town, they did it as a nonprofit. They plan their seasons in advance and sell 3-show subscription packages to provide cash before they even start rehearsing, and the website includes a way for visitors to donate money. Instead of needing to raise thousands of dollars from a single backer and then make a return on the investment, they can take smaller amounts of money from more sources. I'd wager that they also scope out grant opportunities and write grant requests; something that was not possible in Clurman's day because the infrastructure was not there.

The 1930s were indeed a fascinating time in the American theatre, more idealistic, more fervent than anything we know today. But I'm glad to live in the 21st century, where I can still read Odets' plays and Clurman's books and become inspired by them, yet can be thankful that good theatre is no longer synonymous with Broadway playhouses and for-profit production.

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