The Collapse of Marxism: ATL's Classics in Context Festival Examines a Not-Enough-Distant Past

By Sheehy, Catherine | American Theatre, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Collapse of Marxism: ATL's Classics in Context Festival Examines a Not-Enough-Distant Past


Sheehy, Catherine, American Theatre


A classic, to hear Mark Twain tell it, is something everyone praises, but nobody reads. In a theatrical context, maybe that would become--nobody produces. At Actors Theatre of Louisville each year, scholars (some travel-weary, some eager, some with the ivory tower equivalent of cabin fever) are joined by critics, plain-clothed practitioners and the idle curious to witness classics placed in "context"--which I guess simply means a controlled or specific environment, a milieu of acknowledged boundaries or, again in theatrical terms, a backdrop against which to see. This year's focus of the annual classics sighting was "the roaring '20s."

Now, the examination of the theatrical booty of any era against a constructed social, political, historical panoply is a strange and unnatural thing, because schools of work are annotated by scientists of literature as if they were describing as organic a thing as a new specie of moth. They never are. But after each new specimen is given an era-oriented name--Jacobean tragedy, Restoration comedy, Victorian melodrama--after each is fixed and wriggling on a pin, dissection in earnest can begin. The clinical examination is followed by that maddening temptation to conclude patly about the society in which a given play has been created by pointing to the play itself as evidence, while at the same time hypothesizing about the workings of the work itself by applying what we know of the society--the lessons of history. No double-blind experimentation here, no control group; this era-classifying is a pretty error-prone process.

Still, it can be useful. And the decade known as the roaring '20s, coming as it did, epithet in hand, between the horrified relief of the Great War's armistice and the Great Depression's deafening crash, is actually a more sociologically organic chunk than most. A generation lost wound up in a Paris salon at 27 rue de fleurus de fleurus de fleurus; a noble experiment foundered as bathtub gin flowed like the water it replaced; Al Capone was not to be crossed, at least not on St. Valentine's Day, but the Atlantic was, by the lucky Charles Augustus Lindbergh; Al Jolson became synonymous with the talkie; and Silent Cal made the business of America business, then retired from the firm, leaving Hoover holding the bag. Now that's context for you!

What constitutes a classic in such a roller-coaster ride of an era? The '20s were also a time of unprecedented and unrepeated fecundity on the American theatrical scene. There was the semper stuffy legitimate stage; there was that glorious war horse, vaudeville; there was their irredoubtable hybrid, the revue; and, of course, there was the renegade upstart, the motion picture.

Groucho glasses in hand

So when he cast about for a theatrical centerpiece for his festival, ATL's artistic director Jon Jory lighted on one of the very few phenomena to find success in all those venues--the Marx Bros. Minnie Marx's boys--Groucho, Chico, Harpo, eventually Zeppo and sometimes Gummo--paid their dues in vaudeville and the revues. The act came to the "legitimate" stage in George S. Kaufman's The Cocoanuts (music by Irving Berlin) in 1925. Success in this show and their next Broadway effort, Animal Crackers, ensured their shot at national celebrity in the movies, fixed on celluloid at their zany apex. The Marx Bros. have long since passed through legend and graduated to icon status. So Jory's decision to settle on a production of their first Broadway hit to fill his current bill was natural enough.

Representatives of the theatre met members of the press and colloquia participants at the Louisville airport with PR kits and Groucho glasses in hand. Lack of recognition definitely wouldn't be the issue at ATL's production of The Cocoanuts. Just the reverse....

Remember the almost imperceptible twinkle in the eye of Garrick's Macbeth as he bade his lady "bring forth men children only"? Or Collie Cibber at his sybaritic best in Sentimental Husband? …

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