Notes on Tallulah, and Our Theatre

    Like so many things, she stayed around too long, a bad perfume in a tight room, what Tenn called the "fart that even the Fracas couldn't cover," a joke, a travesty, a camp construct.

Tallulah Bankhead.

There may have once been talent in her personal cabinet of curiosities, but that was quickly put aside: It was more important to be interesting, outrageous, discussed, fondled, debased by things noble and niggardly, to be, as Elia Kazan once said, "publicly smeared, lubed, and cheered."

Tenn kept making notes on something, anything, to write about her, not because she was important to him, to the theatre, to the arts, to American history, but because she was such a story, such a metaphor, for--all of us.

Everything that was wrong with Tallulah, Tenn said to me once, in a phone call, is what is wrong with us all, as a country, as a theatre.

Tallulah often went on a stage that had been made possible by a particular soap or a certain Champagne, She was paid to show up and be the fabulous Tallulah, and the audience was assured that they would find the glamorous, lubricious lady, and their audience with her would be, in a sense, private: She looked out and winked at people; she was startled by laughter, applause, broke up her fellow players at the insouciance of the faggots in the balcony who yelled out their shrill terms of affection, their honks of imitation.

The play was beside the point.

 Discipline not only bored her, but it escaped her, hissing like air leaving a punctured tire. She brought everyone down to a level of spiteful badgering and jostling for attention. She subverted a play into a parlor game for her unique talents. Her goal was never anything but attention, stardom, power. Her arsenal of tricks for upstaging others, for breaking character for what she thought were charmingly real moments for her people, were sickening, but her people ate it up.

 One does not want to be too apocalyptic, particularly when one is old and feels on the fringes of things, but what was spectacularly unique and awful/wonderful about Tallulah and the vehicles in which she appeared is now apparently normal in our theatre. Personality would appear to trump talent or longevity, and no one wants anything that will trouble their upholstered sleep in the theatre. They want to laugh in a particular way at particular things and have precisely the event they were expecting. Surprise and discovery--two of the most important elements of any artistic undertaking--are slowly disappearing from our theatre, and the slots in the houses are being filled by brands of expression that leave me feeling that I shouldn't try to remain in the arena.

I am not trying to say that I deserve to succeed, nor am I saying that I am always correct or good at what I do, but I do think that I try to examine the life in which I live, and I certainly want my journey toward some understanding to be taken with some talented and curious people. That list of actors I told you about, all of whom were suggested to me for a play of mine, was not a joke, a stab at irony: Those were the names that people I once respected felt might insure an opening, some interest, something to market.

People are more fearful now than at any other time.

Attentions and budgets are strained, I can see, and the theatre, as Kazan told me recently, is no longer a vital component in the lives of Americans. It used to be. People of every occupation and social class came to see Menagerie and Streetcar. They also came to see South Pacific and Lo and Behold and The Moon Is Blue: There was always fluff and dreck, but there were also new plays that tried to matter.

The theatre used to be an investment of time and emotion for people, a delight.

Now, it's a deduction. Or something to say you sat through. Seeing a play now, a friend of mine told me, is like having a Friends of Thirteen tote bag: A sign that you are a good class of person, you did your time, you can now say you saw it.

But did you like it? Did it move you? Did it change you?

These are inappropriate questions.

There is a lot of say on this subject, and we'll try to tackle it, but there's no happy conclusion. Things survive and exist, but they change and alter and snap and fade: They are forced to fit into a model or a location that is seen as more appropriate for them.

Money used to accrue to talent and to beauty and to daring. Money now simply accrues to money and more money, and everyone wants a clean investment that will avert their tax man and get their names in the papers and on a few statuettes in the living room. 

Plays used to be written as a means of communication, and they were championed by a few bold men and women, who hustled for the money to see the play brought to an audience, to see a playwright get a decent apartment and some new shoes. When I sit down and talk to Arthur [Miller] and he tells me about the checks Kermit [Bloomgarden] used to send him, it is staggering. I was treated equally well by my producers--a mere handful, I might add. I never dreamed I would see a play of mine produced where there were more producers--fists in the soup--than actors on the stage.

This will not end well.

One has to be strong and do what one must--or leave. They tell you that bending isn't so bad, so fatal, but a bend here and there inevitably leads to complete surrender and suicide. Boards, corporations, sponsors will tell us what we want to see, tell us what to write, what to love.

This is not theatre. I don't know what it is.

Tallulah was fun for a time--grand and beautiful and unreal, like a gazelle in the laundromat: Out of place, graceful, astonishing. Then the gazelle shat on the floor and you weren't sure which agency to call to remove it.

She had a following; she represented something--no one could ever tell me what it was precisely. Glamour. Nostalgia. Toughness. Daring. Style. 

I don't know.

I let her do two of my plays, and I was wrong. She could no longer even attempt the appearance of either acting or caring. The boys came and hooted. A few writers waxed about the good old days. No one told me I should stand up for my plays and demand an actress, a real production, some challenges.

I own the mistakes. I won't make them again. But others will. They'll bend.

Someone will tell them that they need something or that they should write something, and they'll be told that it is something needed or good.

This is not theatre. I don't know what it is.

Tab Hunter and Tallulah Bankhead in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.


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