What Could Be a Better Place to Store History Plays than a Mint (Theater)?

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

As soon as I walked into the handsomely appointed third floor lobby of the Mint Theater at 311 W. 43rd Street in New York and saw the mammoth poster for their latest production, What the Public Wants, a play about a 1909 British press baron, I thought of contemporary press lord Rupert Murdoch, whose television and radio stations, and flotilla of newspapers, are found somewhere in just about every nation in the world.

The Mint Theater, now eighteen years old, has become famous for presenting plays from the recesses of history, some as far back as 1886, that connect to the modern world. What the Public Wants, a charming three act drama about the 1909 press mogul Charles Worgan’s battle to win respect and love, was just one of them. It connects to Murdoch, who, like Worgan, is accused of delivering sensational and lowbrow news to the masses. To drive home the comparison, the theater printed a quote about Murdoch under a quote about Worgan in the program. It also sells a biography of Murdoch in its tiny bookstore, as if the play was somehow about him.

The theater is one of the nation’s treasure houses of history. It presents several plays a year, most first produced over forty years ago. Its plays are a reminder that works staged in the past were not only good, but as good as theater staged today (ironically, at the same time the Mint presented What the Public Wants, a 1909 drama, the Atlantic Theater Company, downtown, was staging The New York Idea, from 1906).

The Mint began as an actor training company in 1992. Jonathan Bank become its executive director in 1995 and turned it into a production company. It began staging historical drama in 1999 and has been at it ever since. That first year, the Mint produced The Voysey Inheritance, earning strong reviews and the play was staged again the next season. Voysey launched the theater. Four years later, in 2003, it took a gamble and presented the rarely staged The Daughter-in-Law, by D.H. Lawrence. It was named one of the best ten plays of the year by the New York Times and ran for more than three months. It was so successful that the Mint rented a second theater in their building, staged Arthur Schnitzler’s Far and Wide, and had the distinction of being one of the few New York theaters to run two plays in one house at the same time.

Its productions have earned strong reviews over the years and today it is considered not just a theater that spotlights plays from the past, but an important part of the theater world.

“There are old, classic plays that are produced all the time in U.S. theaters, but they are always the same dozen or so. Four Chekhovs. We try to find plays, frankly, that nobody has ever heard of. People can come here, taking a bit of a gamble, and see fine plays that were lost in history,” said Jonathan Bank, the slender, soft-spoken theater head, who has an encyclopedia knowledge of theater and has probably read every theater anthology ever published.

Bank spends a lot of time looking for plays. “I read theater anthologies, look at old reviews and study the topic of the play. Primarily, though, I go for a well-written play with a good story,” he said. “The year does not matter.”

He has staged plays by everyone, from Ernest Hemingway to A.A. Milne. “We ‘discover’ old works that we think audiences today would enjoy,” he said. “They seem to like them, too.”

But if the Mint stages plays that nobody has heard of, why does anyone go?

“A lot of reasons,” said Bank. “We have a solid track record of presenting good shows. We get good word of mouth from people who see our plays. Over the years, critics have given us good reviews. There are also people who love old plays, or like to make discoveries.”

Not only do the plays reflect history, but so does everything else about the theater. The program and brochures give theatergoers an historical look at the plays that are staged and the small theater shop sells copies of old plays, plus the Mint’s published anthology of the old plays it has produced.

Bank is a history buff. “I love it. History is the lifeblood of everything. In our plays, we constantly tell people the story of history.”

He smiles when asked if writers were better one hundred years ago. “I think they were better storytellers. There are certainly great writers today, too, but I think too many playwrights today think they are writing movie scripts for the theater. There is a big difference.”

The theater emphasizes plays by women. “Works by women have always been neglected and women playwrights fifty or sixty years ago wrote some fine drama. We do as many plays by women as we can. Three of our last four works were by women,” said Bank.

In fact, the Mint’s next play, A Little Journey, written in 1918, that opens May 5, is by Rachel Crothers.

The theater also presents symposiums connected to the play after several of its performances featuring experts in the field. On the afternoon I caught What the Public Wants, the assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences at New York University spoke on the play’s author and modernism.

Bank and his associates do not rewrite the old plays, as so many production companies do. “What we do is go through a play carefully and cut out dialogue that has no connection to audiences today. Example, in some plays the author adds a lot of insider jokes or talks about people in that era who are unknown today. So we trim that out. We never rewrite plays because the audience then would not know whose plays it was, the actual author or the rewrite guy.”

The theater’s audience is a varied collection of theatergoers. The Mint has a generally more literate, educated audience, mostly New Yorkers, with a mix of tourists. The theater did an audience study when it staged The Fifth Column, about the Spanish Civil War, and found ticket buyers from sixteen countries.

The theater does not stay alive just through ticket sales. The Mint earns large annual grants from the Shubert Organization and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. It also earns large grants to stage individual plays.

The Mint Theater earned respect right away. It won an Obie (Off Broadway) award for success in 2001. The Obie committee said that “it combines the excitement of discovery with the richness of tradition.” It won a Drama Desk Award for theater excellence in 2001; the Drama Desk committee applauded it not only for unearthing old plays, but staging them in such a way that their relevance was not lost. The Mint has also won awards from theater, history and preservation groups.

Several of the plays its director has unearthed earned strong reviews in New York and then went on to be staged in other theaters in the country.

So, if you are cleaning out grandma’s attic and you come across an old play script from the turn of the century, don’t throw it out. Mail it to Jonathan Bank at the Mint: he will love it.

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