Thinking About Theater

ReGoogling of Things Past (Part II)

Cultural Life on the Newly Leveled Field.

This is part II of Michael Feingold’s latest “Thinking About Theater” column.
Click here to read part I.

Broadway marquee for the 1944 musical <i>Follow the Girls</i>, featuring "I Wanna Get Married," but not the Nellie McKay version.
Broadway marquee for the 1944 musical Follow the Girls, featuring “I Wanna Get Married,” but not the Nellie McKay version.
(© Photographic Archives)

Because such vast amounts of archival material are now online, with more arriving daily, we find ourselves in an unprecedented position where the past is concerned. Virtually everything can be looked up — though since every Internet database has its lapses, you may have to do considerable sleuthing before you can grasp the full story. (Careful what source you cite: Children may research.)

This new multiplicity of available materials conspires with the blank spot in young people’s sense of the past to create a condition quite unlike any the Western world has previously known: at least since the Dark Ages. The world young people face, though crammed with past data, is now almost wholly devoid of civilization’s former guidelines. They are like passersby viewing the empty lot where a landmark building has just been demolished: You can’t blame them for not fully fathoming the structure that once stood there, how it functioned, and why it was valued. Facts can be looked up, but the chance to experience the structure in which they resided has vanished. “I don’t know who that is” joins hands, here, with “I don’t know what that means.”

In earlier generations, the young came, full of brains and ambitions but comparatively empty of knowledge, into an adult world where that structure was still functioning; knowledge poured into them through it. Every art and every walk of life held canons, traditions, customs, watchwords. These instructional elements, let me add, were not there to be obeyed blindly. They were to be weighed, reevaluated, challenged, revised, or if necessary discarded. That evolving process was what the young were here for. Canons are created to be revised — by which I don’t mean tossed aside to be replaced by some currently fashionable new dogma, but meaningfully reshaped. The quest was always to rediscover the intrinsic values that lay behind the canon. When human values changed, the canon changed with them, altering its forms and techniques along with its substance.

The history of any art can provide innumerable examples. Until Victor Hugo and the Romantics came along, the French viewed Shakespeare as a gifted barbarian who had never properly learned how to construct a play, and whose diction had to be constantly corrected as improper. Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t hold his current place at the summit of classical music until more than half a century after his death, when Felix Mendelssohn came along to ignite Europe with his own passion for Bach. Without Mendelssohn, Bach might have remained an obscure Lutheran pedagogue whose 48 preludes and fugues made ideal practice for student musicians. The list could go on infinitely; rediscovery and reevaluation are among the basic tools of intelligent life in a world that has a past.

The hard part, for today’s young, is that everything, past and present, has become accessible simultaneously and indiscriminately. Not equally accessible, however: Google “I Wanna Get Married” and you will get a long list of links to the recent hit song by Nellie McKay before you find one leading you to Gertrude Niesen, whose Wikipedia bio is as cursory as they come — though McKay herself undoubtedly knows that Niesen introduced a hit song by that name on Broadway in Follow the Girls in 1944. (You can find lots of data on Niesen’s costar, a youthful comic named Jackie Gleason.) But to learn about Niesen’s distinctive vocal personality and her small but honorable place in the history of popular entertainment requires more effort than most Web surfers have time for.

Or — to return to a figure who looms larger culturally than Niesen — think again of the late Julie Harris. There was no dearth of tributes when she passed away on August 24: Broadway not only dimmed its lights, but set the moment of dimming at 15 minutes before curtain time, as opposed to the standard one minute before curtain, so theatergoers could honor her more readily. Nor do those who had the misfortune to miss her in life lack chances to glimpse her artistry in action, thrilling the heart as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, reveling in her spunky eccentricity on episodes of Knots Landing, or pouring out her youthful sweetness with James Dean in East of Eden.

But a curious glitch, not untypical of our time, arises in contemplating Harris’ career: Presumably because of rights complications, you can’t observe her in the two roles that established her greatness early on, both filmed (one with almost its entire stage cast) not long after her ovation-triggering stage performances. Neither A Member of the Wedding nor I Am a Camera cannot readily be found on commercial video.

Julie Harris as Frankie Addams in the 1950 original Broadway production of <i>The Member of the Wedding</i>.
Julie Harris as Frankie Addams in the 1950 original Broadway production of The Member of the Wedding.
(© Associated Press)

This is particularly distressing in the former case. Harris’ Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, coming so soon after Member of the Wedding, confirmed her as an actress of the widest range as well as the first rank. But her Frankie in Member of the Wedding, buttressed by the indomitably unforgettable Ethel Waters as Berenice Sadie Brown, was a life-changer, an image that locked itself in the minds and hearts of countless stage and film audiences: spunky, waifish, tyrannically demanding, and heartbreakingly perplexed. Harris’ vibrancy as Frankie is of the kind you associate with those other performances you can’t view on the Web, like Garrick’s Hamlet, Rachel’s Phèdre, or Duse’s Ellida. But we understand why no film record of those historic triumphs exists, while in Harris’ case, the record sits, tantalizingly out of reach, waiting for the higher authority of cultural principle to override the petty legal machinations of rights holders.

But there is, in our transitional time, no such thing as a higher cultural authority. If someone today were to unearth a vault full of perfectly preserved papyri containing the texts of forgotten Greek tragedies, the classical scholars who’ve longed for these works would be in ecstasy. But the instant they all came onto the Web, the high rank on which we now place Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides would vanish. Centuries after Athens’ theatrical greatness had faded, the scholiasts preserved these three as the greatest (and best for teaching purposes) of the ancient tragedians. While recopying and saving the three masters’ works, they scraped lesser authors off to reuse the papyrus — ranking them as literally not worth the paper they were written on.

We don’t know, of course, whether Agathon or Pherecrates had any quality as playwrights. We lack the experience of them, just as the Web children today who post questions on message boards like “Uta Hagen — any good?” lack experience. They, at least, could do the research if they chose; the evidence of reviews and recollections is there, while our knowledge of ancient Greek tragedians beyond the big three has been shaped by canonical decisions that were irrevocable, brooking no dissent.

But if we were offered the vast multiplicity of choices among the Greeks that the Internet offers us in other realms, how would we choose? What would be our criteria? On what basis would we designate something a great play, a good play, or a dud? The real crisis of the Internet age is that Web data decline to decide for us, but simultaneously push us in certain directions, as the scholiasts did, by making some kinds of information so much more available than others. How we will structure the new culture growing out of this situation, who will choose its high-water marks for us, and how the young will come to learn them — these remain the pressing, perplexing questions that our new Internet world has proposed.

Michael Feingold’s next two-part “Thinking About Theater” column will appear on consecutive Fridays October 11 and October 18.