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Forward to the '30s? : The message of Depression stories was that money was not supposed to be the bottom line in people's lives

July 09, 1989|DAN SULLIVAN

Soup kitchens. Labor camps. The Dust Bowl. It may seem strange to refer to the American '30s as a golden age of anything.

But for a generation of young theater people, it was. Just for a moment--around 1935 or '36--they could almost feel the will of the country speaking through them. "Strike!" it was saying. And: "Life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."

The moment passed and the artists moved on--some of them to important careers, as the saying goes, on Broadway and in Hollywood. (Playwright Clifford Odets, actor John Garfield, director Elia Kazan.) But they never forgot the '30s. Nor have we.

Monday at 8 p.m., the Los Angeles Theatre Center will present a tribute to the WPA's Federal Theater Project--"Free, Adult, Uncensored!" (Ticket information at (213) 627-5599.)

Monday at 9 p.m., PBS will show the third and last installment of its series on the Group Theatre, this one featuring its leading female player, the still-dauntless Stella Adler (Channel 28, KCET).

Los Angeles has just seen small-theater revivals of Odets' best-remembered plays for the group, "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing" (both from 1935).

Steppenwolf's stage version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) has just gotten rave reviews in London after a successful run at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Why this interest in a decade that seemed as dead and buried in the early 1950s (when Odets and Kazan were testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee) as the '50s do today?

Nostalgia? Not in the usual sense. Nostalgia puts the past behind a scrim and remembers how sweet and simple life used to be. That is not the message of the upraised fists in "Waiting for Lefty," nor of the harrowing final image of "The Grapes of Wrath" left out of the movie--a teen-age girl suckling a starving man with the milk meant for her dead child. The '30s, on this evidence, were a desperate time. No one wants to relive them.

Still, what if we had to? That's the question behind our new interest in the decade. Having been on a binge for the last 10 years in the style of the '20s (except that we put all our toys on Visa), the '80s wonder if the reckoning is at hand. Each time the stock market trembles, we wonder if this is the Big One.

Thirty years ago, the crash of '29 was considered an industrial accident that wouldn't happen again. "They," the experts, wouldn't let it happen. They could read the warning signals now. But in the disillusioned '80s, we're not sure that the experts know a damned thing more about the economy than we do.

We even wonder if the Depression hasn't struck already, like a silent heart attack. It certainly has struck the homeless. They remind us of the Joads in "The Grapes of Wrath," trying to make it across the country in their old truck--a real truck in the Steppenwolf production. The Joads used to be social history. Now they're on Live at Five. The play, therefore, got a much less condescending hearing in La Jolla and London than it would have 30 years ago.

Simplistic was the word that was used, then, about the we-the-people rhetoric of Odets and Steinbeck. And it's true that this rhetoric doesn't wear well--particularly not Odets'--from the excerpts heard on the PBS Group Theatre series.

But this doesn't invalidate what Odets and Steinbeck had to say. Which was not simply that the orange pickers of California (Steinbeck) and the taxi drivers of New York (Odets) had a right to strike for a living wage. Their basic message was that money was not supposed to be the bottom line in human affairs: That you couldn't measure a person or an idea by how much it would bring in the marketplace. Cash was the fertilizer, not the fruit. Friendship, family, honest work, love, nature (Steinbeck) and art (Odets) all counted for more.

Hence the surprising exuberance of populist theater. Harold Clurman, the Group's guru, makes the point more than once on the PBS series. He and his colleagues weren't just preaching against the bosses . They were arguing for a new way of looking at things.

This included a new way of looking at theater. The group was far more interested in that than they were in politics. Their major interest was acting. Even Stella Adler, already a star in Yiddish theater, knew that she was just skimming the surface. How to get under it, how to tap into the bloodstream of a character?

The answer, the Group thought, was the Stanislavsky System, as interpreted by their mentor, Lee Strasberg. But there was hell to pay when Adler, who had just returned from working with Stanislavsky himself, challenged Strasberg. The fight didn't quite break up the Group, but it did have huge consequences for the American theater. It forced Strasberg onto the path that led to the Method--for good and not-so-good, the dominant American acting style over the next 30 years (at least).

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