Interview With Cultural Historian William Grange (6-21-21)

Professor William Grange, 74, published the following books:

* The Business of American Theatre (2020)
* Cabaret (Forms of Drama) (2021)
* Historical Dictionary of German Theater (2015)
* A Primer in Theatre History: From the Greeks to the Spanish Golden Age (2012)
* Historical Dictionary of German Literature to 1945 (2010)
* The A to Z of Postwar German Literature (2010)
* The A to Z of German Theater (2010)
* Historical Dictionary of Postwar German Literature (2009)
* Cultural Chronicle of the Weimar Republic (2008)
* Historical Dictionary of German Theater (2006)
* Hitler Laughing: Comedy in the Third Reich (2005)
* Comedy in the Weimar Republic: A Chronicle of Incongruous Laughter (1996)
* Partnership in the German Theatre: Zuckmayer and Hilpert, 1925-1961 (1991)

I first interviewed Mr. Grange in 2007.

Luke: “How did you discover the Alexander Technique?”

William: “I discovered it when I was a graduate student at Columbia. When I was working in Florida, I spent a weekend with Marjorie Barstow and 30 other students, and I came away feeling two inches taller. When I got to Lincoln, I met Robert Rickover… I had sciatica bad in New York, but after taking Alexander Technique, I’ve never had a problem. It’s the key to health and voice and organ function… With Alexander Technique, you are working with gravity.”

Luke: “Do you notice any cognitive changes from aging?”

William: “Yes. I’ll think, I need to go downstairs to get something, and by the time I get downstairs, I’ve forgotten what I was supposed to get. I have trouble with names. If I don’t stay close to my outline in a lecture, I’ll wander. I use to use an outline in lectures to guide me, now I use it to restrict me. For some reason, I always remember the name William Shakespeare, but sometimes I’ll forget John Dryden.”

Luke: I’ll give you five significant events in your lifetime — Kennedy, assassination, American involvement in Vietnam, 1965 Civil Riots bill, Nixon resignation, Reagan presidency. Which has the most significance?

William: “The civil rights legislation. We have two constitutions at war with each other — the original constitution and the civil rights constitution.”

Angels in America by Tony Kushner was a huge hit but nobody does it anymore unlike the work of Tennessee Williams, because there’s more than politics in Tennessee Williams. Bertholt Brecht‘s poetry is out of this world and people still do his plays.”

Luke: “How did Brecht produce great plays under communism?”

William: “He didn’t produce them under communism. He produced them on the run.”

In 1941, Brecht moved from Finland through the Soviet Union to Santa Monica, California, where his daughter Barbara became a cheerleader at Santa Monica High School.

According to Wikipedia:

In 1949 he moved to East Berlin and established his theatre company there, the Berliner Ensemble. He retained his Austrian nationality (granted in 1950) and overseas bank accounts from which he received valuable hard currency remittances. The copyrights on his writings were held by a Swiss company.[63] At the time he drove a pre-war DKW car—a rare luxury in the austere divided capital.

Though he was never a member of the Communist Party, Brecht had been schooled in Marxism by the dissident communist Karl Korsch. Korsch’s version of the Marxist dialectic influenced Brecht greatly, both his aesthetic theory and theatrical practice. Brecht received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.[64]

Brecht wrote very few plays in his final years in East Berlin, none of them as famous as his previous works. He dedicated himself to directing plays and developing the talents of the next generation of young directors and dramaturgs, such as Manfred Wekwerth, Benno Besson and Carl Weber. At this time he wrote some of his most famous poems, including the “Buckow Elegies”.

At first Brecht apparently supported the measures taken by the East German government against the uprising of 1953 in East Germany, which included the use of Soviet military force. In a letter from the day of the uprising to SED First Secretary Walter Ulbricht, Brecht wrote that: “History will pay its respects to the revolutionary impatience of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The great discussion [exchange] with the masses about the speed of socialist construction will lead to a viewing and safeguarding of the socialist achievements. At this moment I must assure you of my allegiance to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.”[65]

Brecht’s subsequent commentary on those events, however, offered a very different assessment—in one of the poems in the Elegies, “Die Lösung” (The Solution), a disillusioned Brecht writes a few months later:

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?[66]

Brecht’s involvement in agitprop and lack of clear condemnation of purges resulted in criticism from many contemporaries who became disillusioned in communism earlier. Fritz Raddatz who knew Brecht for a long time described his attitude as “broken”, “escaping the problem of Stalinism”, ignoring his friends being murdered in the USSR, keeping silence during show trials such as Slánský trial.

Luke: “Who were the most underrated and overrated playwrights of the 20th Century?”

William: “Lillian Hellman should be completely forgotten. I’m not fond of Edward Albee. France’s Jean Giraudoux. Elfriede Jelinek is terrible. Harold Pinter is terrible. His plays are completely forgotten and yet he won the Nobel prize. You can’t go by the acclaim people get. Only history can do that.Thomas Bernhard is unintelligible. Unsung: Ödön von Horváth. Peter Handke. Irish playwright Sean O’Caseydidn’t win anything. He wrote Juno and the Paycock. Playwrights have comebacks but they don’t last too long. That’s the nature of theater. It is a topical, immediate art form. It only lasts during the performance. It’s not like sculpture or a painting.”

Luke: “How would you describe the modernist movement in theater?”

William: “It’s elitist. Modernism is nothing if not elitist. It’s the culture of the insider. When you see plays, for example, expressionism which embraces abstraction, and difficulty understanding telegraphed dialogue where they’re not talking to each other but at each other, this begins with Frank Wedekind, who didn’t have an agenda. He was a bohemian, the Bob Dylan of Germany if Bob Dylan had written plays. He was a great singer, guitar player and a modernist, these Lulu plays he wrote are really modernist plays, a lot of abstraction and dissonance but they’re still really interesting. They’re still doing Spring’s Awakening, though it’s now a musical. Most of his characters are half-educated, which he satirizes. Modernism is so catastrophic, particularly in the pictorial arts. If somebody could explain to me how Piet Mondrian is a great painter, or [Mark] Rothko… There’s no painting there, it’s just paint. Rothko said painting is nothing more than pigment on canvas. We’ve lost the 19th Century idea that art is a demonstration of skill. That had a huge effect on theater, because acting in the 20th Century became a psychoanalytic thing where you get deeply into the character, and you stay in the moment. It’s all bullshit from Stanislavski, the Sovietization of Stanislavski. There may be benefits there for beginning actors, but essentially, as an actor you are demonstrating skill, and the Stanislavski method fit into this modernist thing. The best example is Marlon Brando, who only did one play because he got sick and tired of memorizing plays. He did all these movies which are deep psychological characters, he was very talented at that, but as far as doing a show eight days a week and being able to repeat it night after night and project it night after night, he wasn’t interested in that. There’s more of an emphasis on improvisation and authenticity. What’s less authentic than acting on a stage? Here you are in a totally phony world with phony lighting and phony doorknobs and phony everything, and now it is supposed to be authentic? It’s supposed to be art.”

“The Method is the Americanization of the Stanislavski method. Lee Strasberg was one of these true believers. He was in the Group Theatre. They wanted to see the capitalist system overthrown and the Soviet system installed. Actors like having a regular salary, not being tied to commercial values, being able to call yourself an artist. That’s what the Soviet Union did. They fell into disrepute during the McCarthy era because they all had been members of the Communist party… Elia Kazan named names [of communists]. He was one of the founders of the Actors Studio. Lee Strasberg came later… Method acting is still very alive and now there are all these shows that make fun of it, including The Kominsky Method and Barry. These are wonderful shows that make fun of acting teachers like Lee Strasberg, and you see them on college campuses everywhere. The Method has been in fashion since the 1950s… Daniel Day-Lewis goes from the inside out. American actors go from the inside out. Faye Dunaway. None of the great stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood did. If you had suggested to Bette Davis, why don’t you try the Stanislavski method, she would have looked at you like a frog. It was a post World War II era adoption of Soviet standards of production.”

According to StudioBinder.com:

Method acting is a technique or type of acting in which an actor aspires to encourage sincere and emotionally expressive performances by fully inhabiting the role of the character. It is an emotion-oriented technique instead of classical acting that is primarily action-based. It was further developed and brought to American acting studios in the 1930s by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan.

However, Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theatre director invented the technique in the early 1900s. Stanislavski did not call it method acting back then, but his ideas created a model to help actors build believable characters. Stanislavski’s approach was to encourage the actors to draw from personal experiences and memories in order to garner real emotions, and to connect with the characters. This stood in stark contrast to the more traditional, theatrical and classical acting of that time…

Lee Strasberg further developed the technique effectively creating “method acting.” His operating theory is that the actor should live the character he or she is playing even when not on stage or in front of the camera. This is why many method actors refuse to break character until filming is over. The lengths they go to embody the role often become obsessive involving serious weight loss, a change in sleeping habits and dietary norms, and more.

William: “Intellectual theater has never made any money and it never will make any money.”

Luke: “What’s the difference between modernist and post-modernist theater?”

William: “Modernism still believed in truth. Post-modernism does not believe in truth. There are only competing narratives. Everybody has a right to their own narrative. Post-modernism is fueled by the civil rights movement and civil rights legislation, in that it fuels identity politics, and your identity provides you with a narrative that is different from someone else’s narrative, and you have a right to have your narrative portrayed and represented in fiction and the arts.”

Luke: “Who are the great Christian playwrights?”

William: “You’d have to go back to the Middle Ages. There have been some modern playwrights who brought a Christian viewpoint. The Tidings Brought To Mary by Paul Claudel. American Channing Pollock was a great Christian playwright. He believed in plays that were didactic. He said preachers preach and plays should teach. He was popular in the 1920s. There were plays in the 1930s and 1940s that called for decency and cogency and that the world wasn’t going to hell in a hand basket. There was a sense that the world could make sense. Modernism drove that off the boards because there was just too much absurdity around to make it viable. Theater of the Absurd is a proto-post-modernist thing where nothing makes sense, nobody believes in anything, and nothing is worth believing in.”

Luke: “What can theater give people that they can’t get from TV?”

William: “Theater is a communal experience. Aristotle says something happens at a theater performance, catharsis, if it is a good performance, and we are united for that performance. You see this among people at a party when two people discover they saw the same movie and found things in the movie that they both agreed were important or interesting or amusing. The theater has started calling itself a story-telling medium and it is not. It engages actors with audiences in a process of identification. Theater is mimetic energy while a novel invites you into its world and embeds you as a character. Is the story in Romeo & Juliet what’s important? What makes the play is the poetry and the characters. Plays have to have tight characters to make sense. Sam Shepard and David Mamet are great playwrights.”

“Laughter is contagious. The best demonstration of this is Neil Simon. As he writes the play, he divides up the audience. He writes something and he knows that Part A will find this funny, and then the next line, Part G will find it funny, and then Part C will find it funny, and the laughter goes through the theater. Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen recognized that laughter is contagious and it spreads throughout the theater. That sense of identifying with the character, or the irony or contra-distinction is important for the communal experience. Laughter can be cathartic.”

Luke: “You’d want to be selective with whom you’d see a play?”

William: “Yes. That’s why no two theater performances are the same because they depend on the audience. The audience comes to the theater hoping that there will be theater that night. That there will be this exchange. It happens in movies to a lesser extent. You have more of a narrative focus.”

Luke: “What are the most exciting developments in theater in the past two decades?”

William: “There’s very little to shout about as far as artistic activity. The financial health of the theater is probably the most important development.”

Luke: “How much does having nude scenes help the bottom line?”

William: “It used to, but it doesn’t help at all anymore because it is seen as exploitative.”

“When you go on the stage, you’re selling yourself and a lot of people say that’s undignified… When men fake emotions on stage, that’s ok, but when a woman does it, it used be thought that she was prostituting herself.”

“In France, an actor couldn’t get a decent burial until the Revolution. In America, we didn’t have that problem because they were seen as business people. They often owned theaters.”

Luke: “What are the characteristics of a play that makes money?”

William: “It’s a musical. Musicals make five times what straight plays make. A straight play makes money if it is topical and has good actors. Usually straight plays have a dilemma of some kind. It’s usually an acting showcase. Comedies don’t need to be topical though it helps. Neil Simon knew the formula. There’s a central character, usually a man, who’s boxed in by a certain dilemma. That’s what makes comedy more lucrative than straight dramas because there’s a formula that’s easier to follow.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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