History Plays Invade the Television World

Culture Watch
tags: PBS, Theater Close Up

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. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

The Metropolitan Opera films many of its productions and brings them to people all over the United States in movie theater presentations each season. It works and works well. Opera lovers in Des Moines and Biloxi get to see performances they would not see in a lifetime if they did not venture to New York. Now PBS-TV, Channel 13 in New York, is doing the same thing. Starting Thursday October 2 at 9 p.m., the television network will begin ‘Theater Close Up,’ a series of five filmed plays, to residents all over the greater New York area. PBS is not presenting famous Broadway shows – no Wicked or Jersey Boys here – but relatively unknown works from smaller Off Broadway stages. This will be the Great Off-White Way.

And, best of all, most of the plays are plays about history.

The series, hosted by actress Sigourney Weaver, starts with a screening of John Van Druten’s The London Wall, a production that won solid reviews earlier this year at the Mint Theater Company, a mid-town Manhattan theater on W. 43rd. Street that specializes in reviving old plays. That show will be followed by An Iliad, the story of the Trojan wars (New York Theatre Workshop), by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Haire, Hellman vs. McCarthy, the story of the early 1970s battle between playwright Lillian Hellman and literary critic Mary McCarthy (Abingdon Theater), the Apple Family Plays (New York Public Theater), which are a series of five short plays set on the anniversary of an important historical event, such as the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Non-history plays include Steve Banks’ The Vandal and Hamish Linklater’s Looking at Christmas, both Flea Theater plays.

The plays, shown on the air each Thursday at 10 p.m. after the 9 p.m. October 2 opener, and repeated on Sundays, are an effort by PBS to get theater out of New York City into the tri-state area. PBS execs are not just hoping that residents of towns across New York State. New Jersey and Connecticut will be enriched by Off Broadway theater, and by history, too. An important part of this idea is the selection of Off Broadway theaters. It is Off Broadway where controversial plays are born. It is in the small theaters in the shadows of the Broadway engine that new stars are discovered, playwrights nurtured and new audiences developed. And, everybody knows, the ticket prices Off Broadway are far more reasonable than on Broadway and it is there where people can go for an evening of entertainment that is more affordable.

PBS picked a good group of dramas. The plays are not just about one era of history, or one type. There are plays about ancient Greece, modern America, Communist uproars and office life in London prior to World War II. For good measure, PBS picked a Christmas play, too

The London Wall, first staged in 1931, is the story of a group of secretaries in a London lawyer’s office who anxiously follow the romance of one of their girls with a young lawyer. An Iliad, a powerful one man show, traces the Trojan Wars, from start to finish. Hellman vs. McCarthy is the epic struggle between the liberal playwright Hellman (The Little Foxes) and her critic McCarthy, partially played out on the Dick Cavett TV show. The Apple Family plays are contemporary works but connect their characters back in time to historical events, such as the Kennedy killing, President’s Obama’s election and the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Theater producers, especially those who support plays about history, are hoping the venture succeeds and succeeds big. Nearly one third of all the plays produced in New York each year and tied to history. All of their supporters want to get their shows out to as many stages as they can. Unfortunately, the great national tours are usually limited to big Broadway hits. Regional theaters do stage works that started Off-Broadway, but not many. This new idea lets people watch history plays on television and get excited about the history they see, as well as the Off Broadway theater they see. It is a big step in getting history plays and small stage works out to the American people.

Producers at the theaters where these television plays originated are happy. “It’s a terrific idea,” said Jonathan Bank, head of the Mint Theater. “I don’t know what to expect, though. I hope that the series will attract viewers and help all of us.”

Bank is optimistic. He extended his current show, Fatal Weakness, an additional two weeks, hoping that the television exposure for London Wall might bring in a bigger audience to Fatal Weakness.

Bank thinks the PBS series will help all Off Broadway shows. “The plays at these theaters only run about six to ten weeks, a short time, and theatergoers might miss a play. This television attention certainly helps us. I think, too, that it helps a play series, such as the Apple Family plays. You might have missed one or two of that set, but now, on television, you sit in the comfort of your living room and see them all.”

One of the most interesting shows in the Theater Close Up series is the selection of a one man show, An Iliad. There are not a lot of one man shows. An Iliad is the story of a poet who takes the audience behind the scenes of the Trojan wars. He admires Hector and Achilles, detests others and rages, and I mean rages, about the war itself, and the senseless death of all the people involved.

Let’s hope the series succeeds in the ratings in the tri-state New York area and opens the historical door to more series and more plays about history.

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