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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 341-349
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The Theatre Journal Auto/Archive: Laurence Senelick
I was that unnatural creature, an infant phenomenon. After I studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago (which for years was my Saturday home away from home), my mother enrolled me, aged nine, in classes at the Actors Company. This was a group located in the Loop near the Civic Auditorium, on the top floor of an office building, with its own proscenium theatre, scene shop, radio studio, offices, and rehearsal rooms. The artistic director, Minnie Galatzer, came out of the same Jewish immigrant leftist background as had the founders of the Group Theatre; like them, she worshipped at the shrine of Stanislavsky. Although our acting classes covered such technical matters as voice, posture, and movement, they paid closest attention to improvisation and the attainment of "truth." Theatre was seen as a vehicle for social betterment, achieved through the expression of emotional verities.
Over time, whenever a child's role needed to be filled, I was that child. These productions included a summer season in an open-air arena in New Salem, Illinois, where the troupe lived in an old CCC camp and put on plays about Lincoln and dramatized recitals of Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters. I began to appear on other stages and early television, and gradually developed a bifocal vision of theatre. At one end of the spectrum stood the Ideal, preached in classes and to some degree realized in the company's productions of King Lear and The Crucible. It meant dedication to the theatre as a system of lofty values, best served by discipline, imagination, and integrity. At the other end lurked the Real, embodied by the hardscrabble lives of professionals: fathers of families overjoyed to be hired to open a car door on a TV show, endless rounds of pointless auditions, compromises determined by the exigencies of the box-office. Well before puberty, I had peered into the chasm between what American theatre could be and what it was.
In those days, Chicago was merely a whistle-stop for touring New York hits; even the Goodman Theatre, beyond its children's offerings, played host to short runs. Still, there was plenty to see and I saw it: the road show of Kiss Me Kate, Martyn Green in the D'Oyly Carte Mikado, Morris Carnovsky as Shylock, Hal Halbrook in his first incarnation as Mark Twain, the original Long Day's Journey with Fredric March, Zero Mostel in Rhinoceros. By the time I was in high school, the Near North Side, with its innovative improvisational comedy and folk song movements, was a major draw. Odetta at the Gate of Horn and Josh White singing "Strange Fruit" mesmerized me. [End Page 341] The newly-hatched Second City ambitiously staged its own adaptation of The Threepenny Opera called Big Deal, grafting corrupt civic politics onto Bertolt Brecht: I vividly remember Alan Arkin's seething delivery of the Villonesque ballad craving pardon.
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| Figure 1 |
Joan Littlewood's production of The Hostage (Theatre Workshop, Stratford East, London, 1958). Alfred Lynch as the Hostage, centre. (Photo: John Cowan.) In 1964 I appeared in a production of the play at Northwestern (as Mr. Mulleady), and eventually directed it at Tufts.
Max Beerbohm was probably right when he said, "Theatrical reminiscence is the most awful weapon in the armory of old age." Even so, I have to cite a few more memories to explain the shaping of my sensibility. For me, the earth-shaking revelation was Brendan Behan's The Hostage staged by Joan Littlewood. [Fig. 1] Its exuberance, its unmitigated theatricality were infectious and liberating. Having been trained to believe in the values of kitchen-sink realism, social progressivism, and emotional authenticity, and to distrust the flashily histrionic, I underwent a sudden Pauline conversion to carnival theatre, which packed its own sensual and intellectual punch. Something else was also at work here. An adolescent, well aware of the angle at which his libido tilted, I was heartened by the outspoken camping of...