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In memoriam to a quartet of theatrical stars

January 20, 2011 |  1:10 pm

Ellen stewart We live in an age of celebrity worship, in which the pursuit of fame has come to replace the American dream. The stage is hardly exempt from this feverish fit of sycophantic fandom. Broadway, as many of my kind have been complaining of late, has become a recycler of Hollywood icons. This gimcrack context makes the example of several invaluable theater people who recently died that much more luminous. 

Their names may not be widely known, but off-off-Broadway impresario Ellen Stewart, playwright Romulus Linney, director Michael Langham and critic and author Wilfrid Sheed immeasurably enriched our theater not just with their talent but with their ardent visions and unflagging devotion. They saw, with a kind of clarity that is hard to summon today, that it is nobler to serve the stage than to have the stage serve them. 
  
Whenever I think of Stewart, I think of the dramatic mane of hair and the bell she would ring at the start of performances at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, the downtown institution she founded in the early '60s. Regularly there to greet her guests, she was the first to tout the gifts of the artists we had decided — following a hunch, whim or rumor — to see. Hers was a welcoming space for those performance rebels who wanted to test boundaries. It was a venue that permitted failure, making it a very fertile ground for such innovators as Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Andrei Serban, and Split Britches’ Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, among countless audacious others. La Mama, appropriately named for its nurturing founder, gave the frenetic, insouciant, oddball pioneers of off-off-Broadway a place they could call home.

Linney 2 Linney was described by critic Martin Gottfried as “one of the best kept secrets of the American theater, a playwright of true literacy, a writer in the grand tradition.” He wrote under the radar, compiling an impressive body of work whose titles probably won’t ring all that many bells. Although he won awards and critical recognition, fanfare eluded “The Sorrows of Frederick,” “The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks,” “Childe Byron” and “Tennessee.” The list could continue for some time, because Linney was an authentic playwright, not someone dabbling in plays until his TV or movie break arrived. To support his vocation, he taught playwriting at Columbia and the New School, never really straying even when forced to grapple with the financial impossibilities of a life in the theater. One of the great, humbling signs of Linney’s commitment is the deference he showed to the success of his daughter, actress Laura Linney. Rather than trying to horn in, he played the proud father from offstage and kept working on his modest yet deeply meaningful dramas. 

Langham had his share of Broadway splashes, collaborating with the versatile actor Brian Bedford on Shakespeare and Molière and eliciting a legendary performance from Zoe Caldwell in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” But Langham's legacy goes beyond these stunning achievements. His influence continues to be felt through the way his leadership shaped Canada's Stratford Festival, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and the Juilliard School’s drama division, all of which he headed at different point in an exemplary career distinguished by an enduring respect for the classics and the craft needed to animate them once again. Langham, to put it another way, took the long view, which is the reason his contribution will be remembered long after those headlining flames have faded.

Sheed was a consummate man of letters, a stylist whose prose danced on the page, especially when it was paying homage to those things he loved.  His last book, “The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole and a Crew of About Fifty,” saluted the golden age of American popular music in a lyrical mode that was in keeping with the theatrical songwriters he cherished. A drama critic for “Commonweal” in the 1960s and early ’70s, Sheed remained something of a closet thespian as a literary critic and novelist, his words living up to the showmanship that galvanized his soul.

Good work is its own reward, as these softly heralded lives teach us. But let’s take a moment to shine a spotlight of gratitude for the treaures they’ve bestowed.

-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

Photos: Top: Ellen Stewart. Credit: Associated Press/Marcia Keegan, file. Bottom: Romulus Linney, left, and Robyn Cohen. Credit: Associated Press/Independence Daily Reporter, Karen Mikols, File.

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