12/10/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Winter of Discontent

For many educated people in America, the post-millennial years have seemed like one long winter of discontent, and we have yet to see much sign of glorious summer. Among those feeling more than their customary quota of gloom I count myself, admittedly a traditionally disgruntled commentator (whose early writings were collected in 1965 under the title of Seasons of Discontent).

In those years, I was feeling cranky over the small number of good plays on the American stage. Today, I am more depressed by the system itself. In the past, there was always some tension between the "art theatre" and the "money theatre" (Todd London's phrase for the divergent poles of our theatre culture). Now the two seem to have settled their argument and merged.

In the last part of the twentieth century, there was a growing theatrical high culture to match that in art, music, opera, and ballet. It was represented by the resident theatre movement and the avant garde. Today, most of these alternative expressions are being sucked into the yawning gullet of corporate America.

And it's not just theatres. The closing down of book shops, the shrinking of audiences for opera and ballet, the loss of readership for, and consequent dumbing down of, newspapers and magazines with any serious content, the timidity of publishing houses -- indeed, almost every available cultural (and educational) form of expression -- seem to reflect the end of an adventurous alternative. Even terms like "high-brow" and "intellectual" are growing obsolete, as the institutions, publications, and structures that attracted such rarefied beings in the past are going out of business, or being absorbed into the Internet.

As for the commercialization of serious theatres, it began with the loss of a dependable source of subsidized support, along with the dwindling in size of adventurous audiences. This development motivated some of the non-profit companies to begin popularizing their work in a manner almost indistinguishable from Broadway, where the pattern has always been to follow rather than to lead public taste. The practical reason given for this populist move in the resident theatre was to increase income. But a philosophical motive was being expressed, too, which was to avoid the taint of "elitism" -- perhaps the most invidious term ever invented to discourage leadership in the arts. It was Chekhov who said, "We must bring the people up to Gogol, not Gogol down to the people" -- imagine how that admonition would be received today! First, the National Endowment for the Arts sustained serious body blows from Congressional fear of or indifference to artistic expression as a whole. Then, foundations, corporations, and individual donors became a great deal more capricious in their giving habits. And finally, political correctness in the university and elsewhere, with its imposition of multicultural quotas, was making sure that genuine quality (or "elitism") would no longer be the primary criterion for creation. Instead of debates over the aesthetics or the meaning of a particular work of art, we began hearing complaints about the scarcity of gay plays or women playwrights or black directors or Latino actors, and all the variations on these sexual, racial, or ethnic determinants.

True, there have almost always been restraints of some kind, usually moral or religious, on freedom of expression in the theatre. Shakespeare and his contemporaries, for example, were forced to cast "squeaking boys" in the parts of women, because the Church objected to women performing on stage (English Puritans, by contrast, objecting to any cross-dressing at all, shut down the theatres in 1642). But imagine if Shakespeare's company, or Moliere's, or Stanislavski's, or the RSC, had been forced to abide by multicultural constraints. We would have inherited a very different theatre tradition. The celebrated European theatres, though often functioning under repressive regimes, were still able to operate without being seriously politicized (though religion took its toll), while our democracy, with its insistence on equality in all things except what really matters -- income and status and education -- seems willing to jettison standards in return for an appearance of equal opportunity.

As a political animal myself, I have fought for equal opportunity all my life, so I am hardly arguing that the theatre should close itself off from the social world. I am simply pleading that choices should be made, if I may paraphrase Dr. King, on the quality of talent, rather than the color of skin (or type of "gender"). When political and sociological restrictions begin to spill over into the precincts of art, and shape its direction, then our culture starts to resemble those under totalitarian regimes, though controlled less by autocratic decree than by the threat of withdrawn funds.

As a result of the election and reelection of President Obama -- and the racist recoil against the reality of a black Chief Executive -- our democratic system has reached one of its most disgraceful points in history. The current Congress has been described as dysfunctional. It would be more accurately called non-functional, even anti-functional, with the Tea Party composed not of Boston revolutionaries but of Mad Hatters (more accurately, Mad Haters), bent on sabotaging our whole democratic system.

In a society so dedicated to profit and acquisition, even such usually dependable and disinterested institutions as the university are growing indistinguishable in purpose from the corporate world. The number of liberals arts majors has fallen precipitously; many English departments no longer even require a Shakespeare course; and Chemistry departments are even being encouraged, in some major institutions of higher leaning, to develop profitable products for drug companies. Meanwhile, most lower schools are no longer requiring arts education, since the first person to go, when money is short, is the music teacher; and the next generation is growing up baldfaced, untutored, without any exposure to culture. In place of a hunger for aesthetic or spiritual nourishment, we have wild scenes of acquisition -- like those violent mobs battering at each other in order to grab Black Friday bargains at Walmarts. A needy class side by side with a greedy class produces selfishness and resentment, two of the basest human traits.

As a result, there are very few places to look for solace to our current cultural problems. One of them is among the talents of our artists, because, as Philip Roth has noted, if politics generalizes, art particularizes, and today we desperately need to look into the hearts of individuals, not mobs. Just as great works of art have the capacity to transform our souls and very occasionally make us better beings, so such gifted individuals, regardless of their personal characteristics (often as fallible as those of any other humans), still have the capacity to sustain and rehabilitate our faith in humankind. I am coming to believe that they are among the few hopes we have left for rescue from an increasingly savage economic and social system.