In the end, after several posts and a large number of comments about this incident, I am convinced that, more than anything, it shows how little the American public, even well-educated, culturally-engaged members of the public, and even participants in the entertainment profession understand and respect the importance of live theater.
This, at least, is no surprise. The New York Times recently reported that a survey had revealed that symphony orchestras no longer are viable without charity: fewer and fewer, mostly aging, patrons bother to attend concerts any more. Live theater is heading down the same path, probably irreversibly. Theater will never hit rock bottom, of course; it will always be possible to put on a show like Judy and Mickey, and live theater can exist as long as there is a single talented performer, a street corner, and a crowd. But theater is dying as something relevant to society, and that is a tragedy. Each generation goes to live theater events less and less. I have not seen the up-dated figures, but in the Nineties a study showed that Americans under 30 were more likely to have called a phone psychic at least once in the past year than to have attended a single live theater performance in their entire existence on earth.
The role of theater in society has been extolled by Aristotle and social critics through the centuries as a unique and important community activity in which citizens of all social strata engage in the ancient ritual of sitting together in a darkened theater, and not only experience the events being portrayed on stage but experience it communally, hearing and feeling the reaction of others. Now that social force has receded to the vanishing point. A vacuum has taken its place. Movies seldom explore serious issues any more, and younger audiences have increasingly retreated to watching films online, and often alone. The potentially life-altering experience that is being lost is hard to describe when someone hasn’t experienced it. The power of the medium to communicate ideas and concepts vividly and to change minds and lives is unmatched, and unmatchable. I have seen it. I have experienced it. I have even helped make it happen.
The department store mogul Bernard Gimbel attended an early performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway in 1949. The plight of Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman being pressured out of the only employment he had ever known, so shattered Gimbel’s world view that he couldn’t sleep. The next day, he called his managers together and told them and all of his stores that no over-age employee was to be fired. Alfred C. Fuller of the Fuller Brush company asked Miller to dinner to seek his guidance on how to keep his Fuller Brush salesmen from quitting. That’s power. That’s wonderful. We should want influential people, elected officials, business owners, policy-makers, bankers, investors and corporate executives to see that kind of theater. In today’s New York Times, Ben Brantley, the Times drama critic, explains…