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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Spectator

Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Made Them by Studs Terkel

You only need to look at the Hirshfeld cartoon on the cover of The Spectator to know that this is not another of Studs Terkel's oral history compilation about ordinary working stiffs, interlaced with a "name" here and there. This is Terkel talking to the stage and screen luminaries he's interviewed during his long radio career and occasionally away from his native Chicago.

The style is typical Terkel-- just enough questions to get the people he's interviewing going and to keep them going. Those questions always reflect his own acute interest in the subject which dates back to his hanging up theater posters in the lobby of his mother's Chicago hotel. They are questions that rarely lead to deadends but invariably stimulate thoughtful and detailed responses.. While the interviews are dated in the sense of the years during which they took place, the contents have much application what is happening -- and not happening -- in the theater today.

It is particularly interesting to listen to Eva LeGallienne explain why she, like so many young theater people today, founded her own company as an alternative to the absence of the sort of nationally sponsored, affordable theaters she grew up with. She explains how her National Repertory Theater was able to give plays that poor reviews would have quickly closed a chance at wider and longer exposure. She gives Susan Glaspell's Alison's House (recently revived by the Mint Theater Off-Broadway -- our review) as a case in point. "Had this play been produced in the regular commercial theater, it would have closed in a week or two. We played it three times a week over a whole season. So the Pulitzer judges had a real chance to see it. They did and gave it the prize."

A 1962 interview with British director Peter Hal also decries the American theater's emphasis on the bottom line. "I don't think that the amount of energy, talent and exuberance in the American theater can be enslaved permanently to the tyranny of the box office." Hall goes on to describe actors coming back to New York "ragged nervous breakdown cases after an exhausting out-of-town tour involving seventy-five rewrites, new directors and everyone changing lines that might not appeal to Brooks Atkinson and adding lines that might appeal to Walter Kerr (editor's comment: At least in those days we had two critics whose opinions carried equal weight!). Hall's impassioned plea to let playwrights "be at less than their best sometimes, without meeting an all-out critical assault" recalls careers like Eugene O'Neill's which followed a "hit,flop,hit, flop" pattern that nobody minded.

Some of the most interesting nuggets on theatrical craftsmanship are in the long chapter titled "Bert and Sam: Brecht and Beckett." Alan Schneider, the director who introduced the works of Beckett to American audiences and went on to direct all of Edward Albee's plays, is particularly enlightening. He redefines what others call despair as compassion which he feels no artist can be without "even for the things that he's against." Equally fascinating is a conversation with Gilbert Moss and whose company of African-American actors performed in small towns of the Deep South during the civil rights movement of the '60s. Waiting For Godot was a particular success with "audiences who knew a great deal about waiting." Thirty years later Terkel spoke to a man who organized a theater company with several of fellow San Quentin alumni and whose Krapp's Last Tape was tabbed by Beckett himself as the definive production.

Given the flood of solo shows that continue to permeate the stage, the Act Three -- "Solo Flight" section is especially timely. It includes an interview with one of the mothers of mono-plays, Ruth Draper. "What you must do, " Draper explains "is to get the audience up on the stage and into the stage with you. The audience must contribute exactly what the performer contributed, in proportion, I mean. They give their whole imagination, their concentration, their thoughts, their creative ability, and consequently something happens."

The Spectator is a book more for grazing than cover to cover to cover reading. Like many plays it has its flaws -- the omission of an index and the absence of people one would expect in a book by a Chicago based playgoer -- notably, David Mamet, the various members the Second City, people active in the Steppenwolf, people passing through to collect Jefferson awards. Still, there are enough interesting personalities and observations to make for pleasurable reading.

THE SPECTATOR: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Made Them
By Studs Terkel; Introduction by Garry Wills
Published: The New Press, 364 pp. hard cover
To buy on line, go here
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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