On the rechristening of Henry Miller’s Theater *update*

(I posted this as a note on my facebook page and got some interesting comments; I’ve included them here in the comments section below)

Sometimes I have to agree with Christopher Isherwood. There have been some stupid, crass, and embarrassing decisions made in the renaming of certain Broadway theaters. The renaming of the Plymouth and the Royale theaters after bureaucrats would be the worst examples if there weren’t also a Broadway house named for an airline company nobody even likes to fly with. Henry Miller’s Theater was rechristened The Stephen Sondheim Theater the other night. This choice isn’t as bad as the first ones described here, but it is still an inappropriate one, and here’s why:

There’s no Broadway theatre yet named for either Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Now, no matter how much Sondheim lovers love Sondheim, they cannot make a case for him having as great an influence over American cultural life as Williams or Miller. This is not a polemic on the quality of Sondheim’s work; I wouldn’t presume to be able to speak intelligently on the subject, and I have too many sensitive song-and-dance friends who would pout if I did. However, I don’t know anyone who isn’t already a musical theatre enthusiast who knows or cares either way about Sondheim or his musicals. But every American reads Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire in school, and there is a reason for that. The influence of these writers and the importance of what they had to say extends beyond the realm of Theatre (where, aside from that Johnny Depp film, and a few episodes of Topper, Sondheim’s influence stops), into that of literature and even the way Americans see themselves. In fact, Arthur Miller reworked the basic formula for tragedy, which had not been tinkered with for over three thousand years, to state that “the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” The “heroic attack on life,” which from the birth of drama had been the exclusive domain of kings and gods, Miller imparted to the unknown, laboring, “small” man—the Willy Lomans, Eddie Carbones, and John Proctors of the world. In his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Miller writes,

“I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity…. the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity, and its dominant force is indignation. Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly. In the sense of having been initiated by the hero himself, the tale always reveals what has been called his “tragic flaw,” a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters. Nor is it necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the character, is really nothing–and need be nothing–but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.”

If it seems strange that that there were ever a question that this “compulsion to evaluate himself justly” is a universal, classless compulsion that drama must portray if it is to reflect the human condition accurately, it is because Miller had the insight to write a tragedy in the high tradition centered not on a king or a prince but on a traveling salesman. Drama has not been the same since.

How often does someone rework something that the ancient Greeks came up with and change it for the better? Not often. But Arthur Miller did. And with it, the way we think about heroism, fate, and the mirage of the American Dream.

We can take for granted that Sondheim changed, revolutionized, even, the musical both stylistically with his non-linear plots (which Miller also did first with After the Fall) and thematically in his divergence from the usual bright fare to darker, more introspective themes (which straight theatre had been doing for, again, several thousand years). But that says more about the musical as being a still-young art form, and about Sondheim’s great influence in helping it catch up with the other arts, than it does about him as an artistic force on the level of artists whose influence does what art should do, that is, change not only the mores and structures of its own genre, but of the society and culture that produced and witnessed it. If you write a book about the Chicago meatpacking industry, and the President of the United States reads it, throws his breakfast sausage out the window, and rallies his administration to create what eventually becomes the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, you have changed culture you live in, maybe even the world. If you create a character who personifies sensitivity, frailty, even spirituality, and place her in a losing match with one personifying brutality, pragmatism, and profanity, you’re holding a mirror up to a society in which those very forces are vying for primacy, and hopefully, inspiring people to guard as well they can what’s sensitive, frail, and sacred. If you write a play that makes not only Americans but people all over the world question the “American Dream” and the moral, human value of the characteristics that help one achieve success in a cold, inhuman, and corrupt system, you change the way people think about their own dreams and eventually, hopefully, how they will act. You have, in a way, changed the world. If you write a musical and it changes musicals, you haven’t changed the world; you’ve just changed musicals. Which warrants a name on a marquee, changing musicals or changing the way America thinks?

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5 Responses to On the rechristening of Henry Miller’s Theater *update*

  1. Larissa says:

    #Joyce Henderson Momma mia! Completely absurd…a musical more influential than classical dramatic literature!!!??! This is what the American culture has/is turned into: shallow, inauthentic, schlock. I am rather known for not mincing words. I apologize to all who love musicals; but, really…Must we turn our backs on the great playwrights who investigate our human condition instead ofcelebrate the song writers who sing about forgetting your troubles and "come on get happy"?#Larissa Archer well, although I've never found Sondheim's work very moving (although I have enjoyed various stagings of his work like the Sweeney Todd on B'way a few years back), I think his fans do feel he investigates the human condition as well as any of the great artists, and while I disagree, I'm not going to argue with them here. My point is that he does not have the breadth of influence on the greater culture that warrants his being celebrated over other more influential artists.#Michael Schneider Larissa, of course you're right, but only to the extent that the naming of a Broadway theater after someone as a deserved honor can be distinguished from the naming of a Broadway theater after someone as a marketing tool. Which is to say, if the purpose of producing Broadway shows is to make money—and it's a disingenuous producer who says otherwise—the best name for a theater is the one that helps sell tickets the most. I'm pretty sure that, in that light, for a Broadway theater, Sondheim trumps Miller.#Larissa Archer but if that's the case, how does the Shubert Organization's renaming of the Royale and Plymouth after executives in that organization (names unknown outside of the industry) make sense?

  2. Larissa says:

    #Michael Wolfe Very well said, Larissa. I have nothing to add other than to thank you for inciting me to go back and re-read Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.#Carole Swann I agree with you, Larissa. And I think at the time that Miller and Williams were writing there was still a stronger strain of American theatre that had more to do with literature, alongside the musical theatre tradition. I don't think those kinds of plays are valued or cared for as much now, so that gets reflected in the naming of theatres.#Michael SchneiderLarissa: It doesn't. People were unhappy with it at the time:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/10/nyregion/10broadway.htmlProducers and theater owners are overlapping but not identical groups. Theater owners don't always do what's best for pro…ducers (as producers would be happy to tell you).See More#Larissa Archerit's too bad. What we write in lights across the front of our most visible houses in our most important (or at least high-profile) theatre city, and indeed, one of the cultural capitals of the world, shows the world what we revere and speak…s loudly of our values. Wouldn't it be nice to show the world we value artists over bureaucrats, and thinkers over fatcats (I'm thinking more of the American Airlines Theater here). A couple of lawyers, though? It's like the renaming the Mariinsky Theatre after a Soviet politician.See More#Michael Schneider Are you proposing the nationalization of the Broadway theater industry? (I might just be able to get behind that.)11 hours ago · LikeUnlike ·#Larissa Archerand @Carole: It seems those plays were written at a time when not only theatre had more to do with literature, but more to do with real life: theatre simply mattered more to more people, from more varied backgrounds and classes. What was th…e recent stat I read? Some 60% of B'way tickets are sold to tourists? People willing to blow $150 on a ticket because well, they only do it once a year, if that….a far cry from the days when tickets were actually affordable (even taking inflation into account). It is no longer a climate in which the audience would be so enraged at the injustice depicted onstage, and so moved by how close it was to their own lives, that they would jump up and start shouting "Strike!" along with the actors, as happened at the premiere of Waiting for Lefty. But this just supports my point more. Theatre writers who became relevant at a time when theatre was more culturally relevant are themselves more culturally relevant than writers who became and remained relevant at a time of theatre's growing irrelevance. Q.E.D.#Carole Swann Yeah, well said, Larissa. I saw an interview with the late Arthur Miller and Brain Dennehy when the latter was playing Willy Loman in the 1999 revival, and they pointed out that when DEATH of a SALESMAN was first produced tickets were still affordable for working class people. And yes, as you say, "people from more varied backgrounds and classes" came in droves, including the "Willy Lomans" of the time.

  3. FreeMinded says:

    great blog love the pics keep it up

  4. Steve Bodio says:

    A vote from a poor provincial for Tennessee Williams who seems to be getting lost here but whose best makes Miller look gray.Sondheim? Witty but not even on the same map…

  5. Victoria L says:

    Appreciate yourr blog post

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