Should the American Theater Take French Lessons?

Should the American Theater Take French Lessons?

Should the American Theater Take French Lessons?

Should the American Theater Take French Lessons?

Behind the statistics is an abiding strain of prejudice, dating back to the Puritan settlement, that sees cultural work, especially stage acting, as a species of child’s play or worse. In “An Essay on the Stage,” Timothy Dwight IV, a Yale president in the early 19th century, wrote that those who indulge in playgoing risk “the loss of the most valuable treasure, the immortal soul.”

Or as a German character in “Sunday in the Park With George” puts it: “Work is what you do for others, Liebchen. Art is what you do for yourself.”

Both attitudes are very nearly backward, but that doesn’t mean they’re not widely maintained even today. Indeed, they are enshrined in the stinginess of American governmental support for the arts, which remains a pittance. Cultural spending per capita in France is about 10 times that in the United States.

Which is one reason there are six national theaters in France, not just the three occupied last week. More than 50 other cultural spaces around the country, including the Opera House in Lyon, which students entered on Monday, have now been occupied as well, the protesters say. To occupy a building (while permitting rehearsals within it to continue) may be a misdemeanor, but it is also a sign of love and ownership.

It’s hard to imagine such an occupation in the United States; for one thing, there is no national theater. And who would play the role of the actress at the French film industry’s César awards ceremony this weekend who protested her government’s lack of support by stripping off a strange costume — was it a bloody donkey? — to reveal the words “No culture, no future” scrawled across her naked torso?

But ours is a country that treasures its cultural heritage without wanting to support the labor that maintains it.

Perhaps that’s changing, if less dramatically than in France. Though the pandemic has left many theater artists without work — and, often, without the health insurance that comes with it — the relief bill President Biden signed last week will make it cheaper for them to obtain coverage elsewhere. The bill also includes $470 million in emergency support for arts and cultural institutions.




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