With so many centennials coming up, 2005 may also stand as a marker in history of theater
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Samuel Beckett doesn't turn 100 until 2006, but it isn't too early to start gearing up for what's likely to be the 21st century's largest-yet theatrical centennial. There's plenty to celebrate this year as well, some of which has a Beckettian resonance. After all, where would his existential tramps be without the daddy of existentialism itself, Jean-Paul Sartre?
Yes, 2005 marks the centennial of Sartre's birth, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's bicentennial and the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first part of "Don Quixote" -- not to mention the 350th anniversary of the death of Cyrano de Bergerac. True, Cyrano is better remembered in Rostand's play (and for his friendship with Moliére) than for his own, long- forgotten plays. Andersen's primary dramatic contributions are the shows his stories have inspired. The same may be said of "Don Quixote," though Cervantes was one of the major playwrights of Spain's golden age.
But Sartre -- Jean-Paul-Charles-Aymard Sartre, to give him his full name -- is another case. He may well be best known as a philosopher, but his contributions as a playwright are pretty substantial. If Beckett represents Ireland and Eugene Ionesco Romania, Sartre has few rivals (Genet, for one) for the title of the most important French dramatist of the second half of the 20th century. And even fewer who may claim precedence in the importance of their 2005 anniversaries.
There's Lillian Hellman, to be sure. This is Hellman's centennial, as well as that of actor-playwright Emlyn Williams ("Night Must Fall," "The Corn Is Green") and of the notorious American premiere of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession" (closed down after one performance). It's the 100th anniversary of the death of the noted actor-manager Henry Irving, the premiere of David Belasco's "The Girl of the Golden West" and the publication of Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis."
It's the 200th anniversary of the death of the great Schiller and of the unjustly neglected English playwright Arthur Murphy. It's probably the 400th anniversary of the first production of "Timon of Athens" and possibly of "King Lear" and/or "Macbeth," though many scholars date one or both of the great tragedies to 1606. More reliably, 2005 may be celebrated as the 50th birthday of Tennessee Williams' "A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," William Inge's "Bus Stop," "Inherit the Wind," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Damn Yankees," "Silk Stockings" and "Plain and Fancy."
It may be the 500th anniversary of the birth of Lope de Rueda, too, though no one knows precisely when he was born. Spain's first major dramatist, and an influential actor as well, Rueda's legacy now lies more in the great theatrical tradition he inspired than in his surviving plays. Which, in terms of playwrights' centennials to be celebrated with widespread revivals in 2005, pretty much leaves us with Hellman and Sartre.
Hellman is the less likely candidate. Major revivals of her work have become pretty scarce over the past two decades, as the jury remains out on whether she was a better memoirist than dramatist. Though she deserves credit as a leading figure in a pioneering generation of female playwrights, and for addressing important social issues in her plays (and standing up against the red-scare erosion of civil liberties in life), her work hasn't aged very well.
Partly, it's her often creaky, clunky dialogue. Partly, it's the essentially melodramatic structure and tone of her plots. Even the plays that treat issues of great contemporary immediacy -- the tragic cost of homophobia ("The Children's Hour"); the rapacity of "free market" ethics ("The Little Foxes") -- seem badly dated.
Sartre was no less committed to grappling with immediate social issues, but in a manner that remains more intriguing. He came to the theater by an unusual route, writing his first play while a prisoner in World War II as a semi-clandestine act of resistance against his German captors. "Bariona," ostensibly a Christmas play, is more directly about resisting an occupying army and about freedom of choice. Sartre never considered it a finished piece, but he soon abandoned fiction for drama as a laboratory for testing his philosophical ideas.
The way in which he works out his ideas through his characters is part of what keeps Sartre's plays fresh and often compelling, from "The Flies" through "No Exit," "Dirty Hands" and "The Respectful Prostitute" to the knotty "Condemned of Altona." Local companies continue to discover his lesser-known works ("Bariona" at San Jose Stage and "Kean" at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, in recent years), and scarcely a year goes by that "No Exit" isn't staged hereabouts. Cutting Ball Theater's Sartre centennial "No Exit," opening Jan. 21, is something new, though -- the premiere of a new, American translation by Rob Melrose.
Two local theaters got a jump on the Andersen bicentennial -- with GrooveLily's "Striking 12" at TheatreWorks (through Saturday) and 42nd Street Moon's "Once Upon a Mattress" (closing Sunday) -- both based on Andersen tales. "Bus Stop" will celebrate its 50th at Marin Theatre Company in March, though -- like "Cat," "Anne Frank," "Damn Yankees" and some of its other peers -- it never goes long without a revival.
"Inherit the Wind" hasn't exactly been neglected either. It has been a community, college and occasional professional theater staple for most of its 50 years. But 2005 seems a particularly good year for widespread revivals of the late Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's slightly fictionalized dramatization of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" about the teaching of evolution in public schools.
The issues that should have been put to rest in the 1925 trial have become still more urgent: academic freedom, or freedom of inquiry; the separation of church and state, particularly in education. With radical religious fundamentalism wreaking havoc at home and abroad, the play may be more timely than ever. Besides, a few major revivals would be a lovely tribute to its original director, Margo Jones. A pioneer of the regional theater movement, and leading exponent of theater-in-the-round, Jones -- co-director of "The Glass Menagerie," among many Broadway premieres -- staged "Inherit" at the theater she'd founded in Dallas (one of the earliest regional reps) not long before her death, 50 years ago.
Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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