The days when the national media turned high-culture figures into mainstream stars are long past
Sometimes a passing comment can be more telling than a considered one. In reviewing the recent New York premiere of “Me, Myself & I,” Edward Albee’s latest play, I remarked that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is “the only one of Mr. Albee’s 30 plays to have made an enduring impression on the general public—indeed, it’s possible that ‘Virginia Woolf’ could be the last American play of any kind to have made such an impression.” A number of readers wrote to me about that observation, and their reactions can be boiled down into a one-word reply: Really? So I gave it some additional thought, and the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that I’d inadvertently put my finger on something that is of relevance not just to Mr. Albee’s career, but to the increasingly shaky standing of high culture in postmodern America.
Sparring Partners: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the film version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
It’s true that a number of plays that have come along since “Virginia Woolf” opened on Broadway—including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” and Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”—managed to stir up a fair amount of talk among the chattering classes. But were any of them ever talked about in the way that “Virginia Woolf” or Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” or Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” were—and still are—talked about? If so, it escaped my notice.
Forty-eight years after the fact, it’s easy to forget that the controversy that greeted the premiere of “Virginia Woolf”—which in 1962 was thought by many Americans to be frank to the point of obscenity—actually made Edward Albee famous. How famous? Enough so that Johnny Carson invited him onto “The Tonight Show” four years later to promote his latest play, “A Delicate Balance.” (He shared the Carson couch with Duke Ellington.) Not long afterward, Life magazine published a lengthy, lavishly illustrated profile of Mr. Albee. In the ’60s, you couldn’t get much more famous than that.
To be sure, Mr. Albee’s ascent into the stratosphere of renown had been fueled by the fact that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred in the 1966 film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But long before the film was released, he was already much more widely known than any present-day American playwright. Indeed, Life had previously devoted a three-page spread to “Virginia Woolf” in 1962, declaring Mr. Albee to be “one of America’s most gifted and jolting playwrights.”
Back then, the national media still devoted a considerable amount of time and space to covering high culture. Even if you didn’t live in New York, you could still read a review of an important play in a weekly news magazine, watch a scene being performed by the original cast on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or see the author being interviewed on “Tonight” or “Today.” Moreover, wire-service coverage of big-city cultural events was routinely carried by local newspapers throughout the country. As a result, it was possible well into the ’70s for a high-culture artist to become known to the public at large. Beverly Sills, for instance, made the cover of Time in 1971, and Mikhail Baryshnikov was a full-fledged media idol within a few months of his 1974 defection from the Soviet Union.
No more. The national media have mostly stopped covering high culture—nowadays they are besotted by Hollywood—meaning that it is no longer possible for an artist like Mr. Albee to win true fame. Who was the last American poet to become famous in the household-word sense? Robert Frost. The last choreographer? Jerome Robbins. The last visual artist? Andy Warhol. Moreover, such celebrity-making mechanisms as still exist no longer have the power to unilaterally declare an artist worthy of renown. Yes, Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time a month ago, but how many people who haven’t read any of Mr. Franzen’s novels can tell you who he is? That’s the real test of fame, and it is no longer accessible to high-culture artists.
Is that so bad? What, after all, does a serious artist get out of being famous other than money and distraction? Did Truman Capote benefit from becoming a too-familiar face, or was his career shortened as a result of his celebrity? Those are fair questions, and they can’t be answered simply. On the other hand, I’m sure that it can’t be good for high culture when none of its practitioners are known outside a tight little circle of connoisseurs. How many Americans discovered live theater a half-century ago because they happened to read about Edward Albee in Life or see him on “The Tonight Show”? And how many of their grandchildren will fail to make such life-changing discoveries because those opportunities have dried up?
Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.”
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