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Off-Off-Broadway, Way Back When

Charles Wright reviews Playing Underground, Stephen J. Bottoms' critical history of the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s.

Nowadays, "Off-Off-Broadway" is a catchall term for any professional or semi-professional theatrical event in New York City staged in a house with fewer than 100 seats. As originally used, however, the expression referred to a handful of adventurous, largely experimental companies that operated below 14th Street from the tail end of the Eisenhower administration through President Richard Nixon's truncated second term in office. According to the late Charles Ludlum, whose Ridiculous Theatrical Company played a significant role in it, the Off-Off-Broadway of yore constituted "the last stronghold in a corporate society."

The leading lights of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, with their varying standards of professionalism and their willingness to embrace camp sensibility, are often regarded as the Chicago Seven of the theater world; but they've seldom, if ever, been handled with the critical seriousness accorded their uptown brethren. Even the term "Off-Off-Broadway," coined in 1960 by the Village Voice, is a reductio ad absurdum. If Broadway productions were the sheep of dramatic enterprise and Off-Broadway the goats, then Off-Off-Broadway, with its catch-as-catch-can performances in cafés and church basements, was -- in the eyes of the mainstream -- beyond the theatrical pale.

With the appearance of two noteworthy volumes that treat the Off-Off-Broadway movement respectfully and, at times, with reverence, the tide of historical disdain appears to be turning. Late last year, Back Stage Books issued David Crespy's lively précis Off-Off Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater. Crespy regards the downtown theatrical aesthetic of mid-century Manhattan as the beginning of an avant-garde that flourishes still in places such as the New York International Fringe Festival. He caps his slim but stimulating volume with a self-help chapter dedicated to "readers who would like to be actively connected with theater, particularly a stage devoted to experimental work." Crespy has a Panglossian outlook that's likely to make more sober historians cringe; but any reader he persuades with his arguments will be heartened by the book's prognosis for English-speaking theater.

Stephen J. Bottoms' Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement, just published by the University of Michigan Press, offers a more complex perspective and is likely to set the agenda for discussion of this subject throughout the next few years. Like Crespy in Off-Off Broadway Explosion, Bottoms profiles the major players and recounts the movement's most significant moments. Here we read of Julie Bovasso; Jean-Claude van Itallie; Maria Irene Fornes; Lanford Wilson; Joe Cino and his eponymous Caffe on Cornelia Street; Julian Beck and Judith Malina, leaders of the nomadic Living Theater; Joseph Chaikin, whose Open Theater was a reaction to what he believed was missing in the work of the Living Theater; Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa; the Rev. Al Carmines, Robert Nichols and Lawrence Kornfeld and their Judson Poets' Theatre; Ralph Cook of Theater Genesis; Ron Tavel and John Vacarro of the Playhouse of the Ridiculous; and Charles Ludlum, whose Ridiculous Theater Company may be the best remembered organization of the era. But the account in Playing Underground is far more ambitious than Crespy's; and Bottoms, a Britisher currently teaching at the University of Glasgow, uses the foreigner's fresh eye to locate Off-Off-Broadway in the larger literary, social, and political context of mid-century America.

Bottoms' meaty analysis covers downtown theater from 1954, when Bovasso introduced Jean Genet's The Maids to a select audience of New Yorkers, to the summer when President Nixon resigned and a little beyond. By that time, Robert Patrick's drama Kennedy's Children had premiered Off-Broadway (it would subsequently land on Broadway after finding success in London), and Bottoms interprets it as a moving public lamentation over the passing of the moral conviction and aesthetic passion that characterized the Off-Off-Broadway scene. "With the end of 'the sixties," writes Bottoms, "came the end of the 'free theater' ethos that had animated the underground -- free of charge; free of creative interference from backers; freewheeling, reciprocal collaboration between artists."

Playing Underground focuses on four companies -- Caffe Cino, The Judson Poets' Theater, LaMaMa and Theatre Genesis -- that the author considers "the core of an identifiable, alternative theater movement." In prose that's notable for its clarity and striking in its lack of performance-studies jargon, Bottoms evokes the varied styles and preoccupations of these groups and reconstructs the personal dynamics of their membership. From critical accounts of the period and his own interviews with eyewitnesses, he also manages to conjure the sensations of theatrical performances that most of his readers will not have seen and that, in many cases, have been documented only haphazardly before this. The result is an assessment of Off-Off-Broadway that is more thorough and authoritative than any previous attempt and, not insignificantly, more vivid and entertaining.

Stephen J. Bottoms
In Bottoms' judgment, Off-Off-Broadway was not avant-garde in the sense in which that term is used now. Its companies were never in with any in-group or patronized by the kind of trendsetters who currently follow the buzz to BAM in search of the Next Wave. Off-Off-Broadway was, instead, an "underground" movement consisting of artists who hailed from "all social backgrounds and classes" and who supported no uniform social, political, or cultural agenda. As such, it was genuinely antiestablishment. This distinction between the avant-garde and the underground, which Bottoms adapts from the ruminations of the novelist Ronald Sukenick, may be arguable, but it allows the author to contrast what he perceives as imaginative exuberance among Off-Off-Broadway artists with a certain posturing in the contemporary aesthetic vanguard.

Bottoms believes that, for the most part, Off-Off-Broadway was a function of the fact that Broadway's job market was shrinking and that Off-Broadway's professional standards were becoming more and more stringent even as the fare it offered became less and less adventurous. He surmises that, rather than being self-consciously rebellious, most of Off-Off-Broadway's artists and technicians would have preferred remunerative jobs in mainstream theater; he notes that many of them headed there as soon as an opportunity presented itself. This is not to deny that Off-Off-Broadway artists were genuinely engaged with political issues; but their engagement, in Bottoms' view, was a function of the Cold War era and, in many cases, of their status as sexual outsiders. They would likely have been focused on politics no matter where they worked -- and, in fact, as impatience intensified throughout American society with the lingering Vietnam War and the legacy of conventionality left by the Eisenhower era, the mainstream theater became increasingly politically engaged, as well.

Bottoms isn't as sanguine as Crespy about current American theater or its prospects but, like Crespy, he has faith in the lasting legacy of Off-Off Broadway. "[The] movement may have run its course by the early 1970s," writes Bottoms, "but...its independent, underground spirit did not die out. Having mutated over the years, like an adaptable, resilient virus, it continues to survive in a variety of contexts. Perhaps, when the conditions exist once again for its contagion to spread, it will resurface to 'plague' us once again."