JOURNEYS IN THE NIGHT: CREATING A NEW AMERICAN THEATRE WITH CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE
By Theodore Mann
419 pp. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. $16.99 (pbk). With photos throughout and interview DVD. (ISBN: 978-1-4234-8155-3)
Theatre aficionados will like Journeys in the Night, Theodore Mann’s memoir of his life as a creator, producer, and director for Circle in the Square because it feels so much like our own lives, too. Plays by O’Neill, Williams, and Odets—not to mention ones by Shaw, Coward, and Moliere, among many others—became relevant to American audiences because of Mann. In fact, before his rescue, O’Neill was considered “long-winded, repetitious, and ponderous.” If Mann hadn’t met Geraldine Page, Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke also might still be considered a failure (and The Night of the Iguana would not have gotten the appreciation it deserves). Without his gaining Carlotta O’Neill’s confidence, during the huge success of The Iceman Cometh, the world would have had to wait 25 years to see Long Day’s Journey into Night (who knows if the playwright’s reputation would have lasted long enough to qualify such a production?). We owe significant pieces of the American canon of dramatic literature to Theodore Mann—without him, we might not understand the definition or recognize the richness of our inheritance.
Desolate after breaking up with a girlfriend, Mann came on the postwar theatre scene as a business manager for Jose Quintero. Fending off the city of New York’s building inspectors was much of the reason why they chose the offbeat and memorable name for the enterprise: Circle in the Square. Whether they knew it or not, their work and theatre was integral to the formation of off-Broadway and probably regional theatre (later, of course, they would also have state-of the-art space on Broadway itself). It was Mann who yearly called Jane Rubin, O’Neill’s literary agent, to ask if there was something they might produce. She routinely answered, “No.” Then, in 1956, she asked, “If you can choose any O’Neill play which one would you do?” It sent Mann, Quintero, and Leigh Connell into the scripts. I’m sure you know what play they finally chose and had approved—but if you don’t, it’s a good reason to read this book.
Mann didn’t survive over fifty years in the theatre because he was unafraid to roll the dice. He had faith, a true passion for the stage, and he could do the math. He also had enormous curiosity and energy—in fact, it’s something of a challenge to read this book and not believe that you, too, might also be able to become a producer, no matter how far-fetched that idea may seem. For the playwright, the advice is pragmatic: Take your career into your own hands as Roger Stevens did when he joined with other scribes to create the Playwright’s Company—it’s “a lesson for . . . [all] today who carp about the paucity of serious plays on Broadway, namely their own!” Mann also sees a hole in the market: There is . . . an odd shortage of American playwrights writing in the farce form. Why this is, I can't say. A farce with its furious slamming of doors and other sonic action is not a "sit-down" comedy. It engages an audience in a very different way from a drama or musical. The farce form seems to have flourished only in American films. I think it is up to the American writers to lead the way–if they write good farces, the American theatre audiences will come.” For reviewers, Mann has advice as well: “A good motto for a critic would be, ‘Put your enthusiasm first and your reservations last.' Otherwise the reader moves on to another article without realizing that in the latter part of the review the critic was affirmative."
Although he does tell us that “conflict is an essential part of theatre,” Mann’s book isn’t about settling scores. Actually, it’s a celebration of acting triumphs (George C. Scott in Death of a Salesman, Colleen Dewhurst in Mourning Becomes Electra, Salome Jens in The Balcony, James Earl Jones in Othello, Raul Julia, Kevin Kline, and John Malkovich in Arms and the Man to name a very few. Mann has a deep appreciation for the actor’s art (the book includes a bonus DVD with scenes from his productions and interviews with, among others, Mann, Dewhurst, Scott, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jones talking about their work): On Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke he writes, "She was in her late 20s, but as an actress, it was her body and her voice that told us her age and her pain. In other plays which I saw Gerry in over the years, there was always this physical transformation she achieved. You'd swear she was short, tall, fat, or thin, just as the character was supposed to be. Of course she didn't change physically but this was the art of her acting. All of this came out of her unrelenting journey for the truth of the character." Mann was also unafraid to champion the thespian. Witness his aid to Dustin Hoffman for whom he found a play for the actor to star called Eh? The only problem was . . . there were problems. Elizabeth Wilson, part of the cast and one of the few people who ever called Mann by his full name–people usually used ‘Ted’–pulled him aside and said: “Theodore, the production is not going right.” Even the director of record was unhappy: “What’s wrong with the production is Dustin.” Mann quickly responded, “’The reason I’m going this play is because of Dustin!’ There was not much more conversation. I advised him [the director] that we were going ahead and sticking with Dustin.’” Alan Arkin replaced to direct, the actors started having fun, the comedy began working—and on opening, Walter Kerr of The New York Times compared Hoffman to Chaplin. Soon “Dusty” would be filming The Graduate.
The plethora of plays and actors, writers and productions is so overwhelming—such a challenge to reign all in–and the material amassed so good in Journeys in the Night that it seems strange to want to end this article with a discussion of someone who wasn’t involved with Circle in the Square productions. Yet, Mann’s writing on O’Neill’s daughter Oona is deeply compelling. After 1939 she never saw her father again, was proclaimed dead by him (she actually died in 1991) and, ultimately, she married Charlie Chaplin. Mann believes that O’Neill wrote his last plays—works stripped to the bone . . . deal[ing] forthrightly with the issues of the lives of the characters”–for Oona and her brother Shane in order to explain “the truth of himself and his family.” In 1942, O’Neill “completed A Touch of the Poet, in which the father finally reconciles with his daughter, whom he has berated throughout the play. . . . Was this O’Neill trying to come to terms with his own daughter?” Sadly, it is a mystery as to how much of their father’s work his children knew, but O’Neill believed in Ibsen’s life lie: "a man no matter how low must have companionship and at least one hope or pipe dream to survive." The story of Circle in the Square is the story of a pipe dream that ignited the culture.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
(Continue watching Stage Voices in the next weeks for more writing regarding Circle in the Square.)
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