Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 21: Elia Kazan, Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea (#123)

Elia Kazan, "Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea" (1945) from The American Stage:

How long do we have to be upset about the fact that Elia Kazan named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee? Honestly, it's still the first thing I think about when his name comes up. Maybe that's part of the punishment. (As if Oedipus is somewhere going, "Can you believe they use my name to describe that?" That's some variation on the "you fuck one sheep" joke.)

In this piece, Kazan describes his experience in the Philippines, where he was to advise the US Army on entertainment. But his big takeaway from that experience is less about "what GIs want from their entertainment during deployment" and more "what this group of potential theater-goers will mean back home."

That said, the piece is sort of scattershot: here he is saying that every unit will have someone to help with the theater, which requires a lot of skills; here he is noting that the men like to put on variety shows where they joke about their resentments, which is a form of catharsis; here he is noting that these men can switch from laughter to sentiment--and that the army is one harmonious mix of races.

Kazan himself switches registers here, from theory (a pain shared through theater prevents self-pity) to practice (we drank beers in the jeep on the way to the show); from the observational ("There is hell in the bowels of the weather here...") to the reflective (he feels left out at the officers' club, that something had passed him by).

That said, I can't help but feel there's a certain measure of self-congratulation here. Sure, Kazan ends up noting that these smart GIs are going to demand theater that doesn't rest on the old patterns; that this audience of tomorrow will challenge theater people. But at the end of the day, who will rise up to meet that challenge? Elia Kazan, who by coming to advise on entertainment "became one with the thousands of men over here."

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