Off Your Knees, Times men! Broadway’s Beating the Brits

It always staggers me when New Yorkers-and New York theater critics, to boot-prostrate themselves before the altar of British theater, howling: “Thank you! Thank you! We are so inferior! Show us the way! Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

To which the English, hurrying home with sacks full of awards and cash, reply: “No, thank you .”

I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced such a shocking display of Anglophilia as the conversation among the three theater critics of The New York Times -Ben Brantley, Vincent Canby and Peter Marks-in the Feb. 21 Arts and Leisure section. I’m sorry, attention must be paid.

Messrs. Brantley, Canby and Marks, a vaudevillian act, were part of a special theater section on British theater (“Why London Now Dominates New York,” “A Parade of British Imports,” and so on). The Times celebration is part of the problem. If I were an American working and struggling in American theater, I’d be inclined to jump off Brooklyn Bridge with the farewell words: “Give us a break!”

When was there ever a celebration of the enormous achievements and creativity of American theater? Messrs. Brantley, Canby and Marks-Anglophiles to a man-see only the superiority of London over New York as if they’re still colonized subjects. “Part of our embrace of the English is that in some ways we haven’t got over England,” said Mr. Marks, and no one disagreed.

Gentlemen, get over it! The War of Independence was won some time ago. And all is by no means so rosy in England, or as dire here. Let me comment on a few of their points.

Compared to the “energy” and “buzz” among English audiences, Broadway audiences “go anesthetized” and “they leave anesthetized.” Oh, really? Are the shaken New Yorkers coming out of, say, Death of a Salesman or Electra suffering from anesthesia? Hardly. In fact, the reverse is the truer picture: The dominantly middle-class audience in England is by no means as animated as its American counterpart. Every British director and actor I know pays tribute to the vibrant, un-English enthusiasm of New York audiences.

Jonathan Kent, who runs the Almeida Theater in North London, is the director who brought the Ralph Fiennes Hamlet to Broadway, and the Diana Rigg Medea , among others. Here’s what he told me about American audiences: “We English too readily want to believe that Americans are less sophisticated than us. It’s nonsense . It’s just possible they’re less jaded than we are. English audiences have a certain knowledge, a heritage. We’re not as demonstrative as Americans, but then we’re not a demonstrative nation. But New Yorkers want to be there. They want to be part of the event. It’s not their 25th Hamlet this year. And it gives the play an exciting immediacy .”

Then again, is American theater “conservative,” and English theater “fresher” and “younger”? Well, I wouldn’t say that the work of Tony Kushner, Wooster Group, Susan Lori Parks, Danny Hoch, Ellen Stewart’s La Mama, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater or Hedwig and the Angry Inch -to name a few-is conservative. Let it pass. The last thing English theater adds up to is “younger.”

Would Messrs. Brantley, Canby and Marks say that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Oklahoma , in repertory in the two main houses of the Royal National Theater, are young ? To be sure, the Royal Court import Shopping and Fucking was young. But was it fresh? Was it any good?

We tend to see the best of English theater in New York. Is it all great-as great as we are led to believe? This season alone, more than a few of us have found David Hare’s The Blue Room no masterpiece; Martin Crimp’s modern version of The Misanthrope makes one wonder how they get away with such silliness in England; Beautiful Thing , Jonathan Harvey’s slice of London working-class life and adolescent gaydom, is little more than a cozy TV sitcom compared to Diana Son’s Stop Kiss ; and the pseudo-chic prestige import of Phèdre with Diana Rigg disappointed in its 19th-century acting histrionics.

Of course we get to see some terrific English actors and writers. But why this craven need to overcelebrate them at the cost of American theater? One hundred and fifty years ago, New Yorkers caused an anti-British riot about theater. (I am encouraging another today.) The notorious 1849 Astor Place riots concerned a xenophobic rivalry over two productions of Macbeth . One starred the leading English thespian of his day, William Charles Macready; the other starred the American idol Edwin Forrest. Whether the riot was purely anti-English or against English hams on tour, I leave to scholars. Either way, there were 34 deaths and 100 injuries. You see, New Yorkers felt American theater counted in them days.

The riots were the subject of a wonderfully funny Richard Nelson play, Two Shakespearean Actors . Mr. Nelson, an American, has had some half-dozen of his plays commissioned and subsidized by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The British system of Arts Council subsidy went unmentioned by Messrs. Brantley, Canby and Marks-yet it accounts for the most crucial difference in our two systems. Virtually every British import has originated in its subsidized theater-from Tom Stoppard’s plays to David Hare’s, to Conor McPherson’s The Weir , to Patrick Marber’s Closer .

Tony Kushner’s seminal Angels in America was produced at the National Theater before New York producers brought it home to Broadway. That says as much-if not more-about unimaginative, Anglophile ruling elites of Broadway. They shop-buying anything stamped with the English good housekeeping seal of approval. Broadway producers should invest in American talent, risk far more, and trust the intelligence of American audiences.

But look a little closer at the British scene: Its Arts Council is under serious attack from the anti-elite populist Cromwellians of the Blair government. Cutbacks in subsidy have meant the decimation of the once-thriving English regional theater. The American regional powerhouses of Chicago, Washington, Seattle and the West Coast axis are, in fact, producing more and far better theater than their English counterparts.

To which one might also add that the proud Royal Shakespeare Company is in financial and artistic crisis; that a new generation of English actors and directors is in revolt against the stiffly rhetorical, emotionally dead acting style of its peers; and that no major theater in London reflects multiethnic England in the dynamic way that the Public Theater truly reflects New York.

They have a theater culture, we don’t! I don’t think so. They say tomah-toe, we say tamay-ter. Let’s call the whole thing off. Meanwhile, may I ask Messrs. Brantley, Canby and Marks to raise their right hand and repeat after me: “We do solemnly swear never to genuflect before British theater again. We’ll cool it. We agree Anglophilia is blind. We have seen the error of our ways. We faithfully promise to celebrate American theater. Because it is worthy of celebration, too. Because it is the right thing to do.”