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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts of activism

Rosenberg, James
Notes and discussion: looking for the third world: theatre report from England,   pp. [437]-444 PDF (6.6 MB)

Page 438

by James Rosenberg
According to the old proverb, "The grass is always greener in the other
yard," and this holds true in the world of theatre as it does in the
world beyond the green room, so that Britain, for example, always conjures
up in
the minds of American theatregoers a sort of great roll call (accompanied
Shakespearean fanfares) of the mighty among living actors, actresses, playwrights,
and directors: Olivier, Gielgud, Brook, Hall, Pinter, Arden, Finney, Scofield,
O'Toole, Osborne, Richardson, Redgrave-what! will the line stretch out till
the crack
of doom?
It is therefore first and foremost something of a letdown to an American
with British stars in his eyes to come over here and realize that the quality
of day-to-day
theatre in Britain, like the quality of day-to-day life, is not much different
that back home - except, if anything, a bit shabbier. The West End is mainly
Broadway writ a little less garish, the same musicals and comedies, only
here housed
in somewhat larger, draftier, more Victorian theatre structures. As for the
type of theatre-well, you can scarcely talk to a British theatre person for
minutes without his eagerly demanding news of Off-Broadway and the "young
playwrights." And when, after a few seconds of frantically racking your
mind, you
ask him which young American playwrights he is interested in, he is as likely
as not
to mumble something about Albee, Miller and Williams and "the people
who write
for La Mama."
Although they really have almost no evidence to go on, most Bnriish theatregoers
convinced that America is where the real action is, and will not be stayed
by dismal
accounts of the amateurish awfulness and general incompetence of much that
438          passes for "experimental theatre" in and around Greenwich
Village; in the same way,
Americans tend rather naively to identify London theatre exclusively with
new and
amazing experiments by Brook and Marowitz and the Royal Court crowd, with
HOMECOMING and Antonioni's BLOW UP and Peter Watkins' THE WAR GAME, sublimely
indifferent to the fact that these phenomena are, even as in New York, the
that prove the rule.
Yet there is a difference between going to theatre in England and in America,
though subtle, and it has little to do with qualitatively technical comparisons
performances and productions. It has something to do with the architecture
of the
theatre buildings I mentioned earlier, those rambling, ornate, Victorian
which are virtual warrens of bars, restaurants, foyers, lounges, etc. These
are not just
show-shops, but places where you can, and do, go to spend a long, leisurely
of dining, drinking, socializing, and philosophizing; there is something
spacious and
old-fashioned about it, a touch of Dr. Johnson's 18th Century, perhaps, as
opposed to
the cold glitter and glamor and hustle of Broadway, and of its imitators
in the
provinces. It has also to do, very simply, I suspect, with the scale of ticket
when you hang up your ticket prices in the box-office, you make a most profound
revealing statement as to your concept of what theatre is, and who it is
for, and British
theatres still announce that, all the modern pressures to the contrary, they
regard the
institution of the theatre as a necessity rather than a luxury. Even allowing
for the
shocking disparity between the general economic standards of the two nations,
an American cannot but be stunned by the fact that you can get the best seats
in the
best theatres in England for, usually, under three dollars; that quite good
tickets at,
say, Stratford or the National Theatre are available for well under two dollars;
and that students and the working classes who are willing to sit up in the
can usually obtain tickets for little more than the price of a hot dog and
a cup of coffee.
This is not to say that the British theatre is much more successful than
the American
in attracting a truly broad-based, popular audience; but the reasons for
this lie not

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