(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?