25 DECEMBER 1964, Page 10

Cultural Overkill



. . . such a dream as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, designed to be the most fantastic monument of man's spirit since Athens . . .—Theodore White, The Making of a President, 1961.

ONE of our greatnesses as a people is our capacity for producing an instant ruin. The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was con- ceived in 1955 and is already in the condition of Hadrian's Villa, the first artifact of a dead civilisation to be dreamed, to be built, and to collapse from within all in one decade. Visitors should regard first the splendid foun- tain in the centre of the piazza, the only monu- ment from the original conception which remains intact. Its basalt base still carries the inscription of its patron, the Revlon Company, cosmetolo- gists and pontifices maximi of the American renaissance. The surrounding structures are either gutted or unfinished. They would be more pittorescio if they were tufa: as it is, nothing grows upon them, and their interest is more historical than evocative: they were never artis- tic. But they are essential to any appreciation of the cultural explosion in the United States.

The cultural explosion in the United States was a series of detonations. The building of the Metropolitan Opera Society Hall, for example, had not even • been completed before Rudolf Bing, its general manager, complained that William Schuman, president of Lincoln Center, was attempting to blow it up. Two days later, Mr. Schuman did manage to blow up the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, which was still wait- ing to move into its $8.2 million home on the piazza. Thereafter Mr. Schuman• sat in his office high up in Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall and beneath him the mining and sapping went on, some by the Metropolitan Opera's Mr. Bing and some by Robert Whitehead, co-director of the Lincoln Repertory Theatre, and the first casualty of its detonation. The Cultural Ex- plosion had entered the Age of Overkill.

The history of dead civilisations can never really be explained. We must begin to fail by remembering that the Lincoln Center, the great symbol of the national cultural explosion, did not begin as the dream of any patron of the arts. Considerations of real estate values were as much its source as the counter-reformatory necessities of the Council of Trent were source for the baroque. New York's Upper West Side was rot- ot- ting, useless for profit and of interest to no creative spirit except the librettists of West Side Story. The city planners went in search of an architect who knew a Rockefeller. The result was the majestic conception of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which would house all together the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the Julliard School of Music, and the New York City Ballet. It was a conception so inspired that there were thrown up around its projected site three motor hotels and five apartment houses. The mere idea of the Lincoln Center had redeemed the upper West Side. And its approach justified all the hopes of the builders and the real-estate men who had conceived it; the original cost estimate was $75 million; the final price was $150 million.

There is really no way to improve upon an artistic score of this description, but there were hopes of a theatre company. Elia Kazan's was the first, being the obvious, name to be suggested from the vagrant air. The Lincoln Centetr Reper- tory Company was established with him as director-in-residence. Kazan fatally seized the opportunity to do what he had always wanted to do, which was, as is usually the case, the one thing quite beyond him.

Kazan is a remarkable director, but one totally oblivious of any theatrical tradition in which the actors do not demonstrate their emotional in- volvement by scratching themselves. One of the things he had always wanted to do was The Changeling. The result was worse than a critical failure. It was a commercial failure. Even so, Mr. Kazan persisted with the absolutely bril- liant idea of finding out how, say, Warren Beatty might do with Moliere and the Lincoln Center, confronted with the ultimate horror of the artistic impulse gone insensate to considerations of finance, began casting about for someone to take Kazan's place and put culture in the black. It is difficult to explain; but the lost civilisation we describe was in the fit of a cultural explosion whose single lesson turns out to be that Mr. Kazan, who directed A Street- car Named Desire, was commercially unequipped to carry the Lincoln Center to high culture.

Schuman, a composer, as keeper of the flame, began casting about for someone to fan its embers. There was only one man, Herman Krawitz, assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera Society. Now, Krawitz may be tone-deaf for all any passing stranger has heard; but he turns out to be essential to the Metropolitan Opera. He is the brother of a theatrical press agent, and the son of a butcher; but he knows how to collect more money than he spends and poor Schuman could think of no other talent equipped to rescue the Lincoln Center Theatre.

And so Schuman asked Krawitz to quit the Metropolitan and assume direction of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. As the Metro- politan's general manager, Mr. Bing immediately protested that Schuman was trying to destroy the opera in America. The archaeologists who are familiar with this particular dead civilisation will, I am sure, collapse at the point where they have to explain that there was this opera company and that there was this repertory theatre and that they began to quarrel over this supreme talent without whom neither could survive.

Was the issue Miss Joan Sutherland? No. Was the issue M. Andre Malraux? No.,The issue was Herman Krawitz, ticket agent. How to explain that, in 1964, we were all living through a cultural explosion whose first inspiration was the selling of land and whose final one was the selling of tickets?