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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 125-128

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A Theatre Historian's Perspective

Brooks McNamara

The value of history lies not in a multitude of facts collected but in their relation to each other.

--Brooks Adams ([1896] 1971:56)

The theatre in any time is not exclusively made up of high art, but of a complex of related forms: popular and amateur entertainment, and, in the 20th century, to a great extent, radio, television, motion pictures, and the internet. Until recently, most of these have been ignored by historians of theatre and drama, though they are important influences on the theatre and are influenced by it. Perhaps in fact the recorded media are our contemporary theatre. In any case, it is a safe bet that most still are being ignored by the majority of scholars.

Broadway has been especially difficult to deal with because our focus has been on theatre that likes to be taken seriously as high art. But, Broadway does not, in general, produce high art. And yet Broadway deserves closer attention.

There has been a professional theatre district in New York since the 18th century, gradually following Broadway uptown. Since about the turn of the early 20th century, it has been centered around Times Square. In the early years of this century, the Times Square area contained some 70 theatres, ultimately scattered roughly in the area between Thirty-ninth Street, Fifty-ninth Street, Sixth Avenue, and Eighth Avenue, and these theatres, in toto, often presented about 250 productions a year. Sometimes more.

Off-Broadway appeared as an alternative to Broadway only after World War II. Many of its theatres were located in the then bohemian and relatively cheap Greenwich Village. It began by providing much of the fare--especially the avantgarde and the classics--that could not be seen often on Broadway. Off-off-Broadway (largely around SoHo at first) developed in the 1950s as a home for the most extreme and experimental productions that could not get a hearing on Broadway or off-Broadway. Gradually, as radical experiment became less common in New York, off-off-Broadway took on many of the characteristics of off-Broadway, which had gradually moved toward reshaping itself in the image of Broadway, though often producing works that were unsuitable for commercial theatre. [End Page 125]

What was--and is--Broadway? Times Square and the blocks around it always clearly have been an "occupational district," much like the Diamond District to the east and north or the Garment District to the west and south. That is, it always has offered commercial theatre and always has been devoted to making a profit. What is often forgotten is that Broadway, like the other occupational districts, is designed to be profitable. The professional Broadway theatre is a business, and theatre is seen by professionals as a business like any other. That is how it is--and probably how it characteristically has been for many years. It has operated in the face of a variety of difficult conditions. Not the least of these is the fact that the Times Square area has been in serious economic decline for many years.

In part as a result of this, and in part because of a decline in the Broadway theatre in the last half of the 20th century, the Times Square area theatre-support industries--and many of the audience-support industries, as well--have virtually disappeared. There are, for example, almost no scene shops, costumers, and the like remaining in the area. In part, the explanation is that the area first declined, and later property values and rents increased substantially, driving out these small, theatre-related businesses. Some audience-services that can afford the high rents--restaurants and souvenir shops, for example--have survived.

Once--certainly in the years before World War I and probably up through the advent of television--Broadway had an important national impact through touring. Everybody across the country knew Broadway and followed its lore. That interest has largely disappeared, too. There is still some touring, but rising costs have cut into...


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