DIRECTOR Alan Schneider had his commercial successes on Broadway -- Anastasia, You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running, and most significant, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But while part of him craved the recognition and financial rewards that Broadway bestows upon the chosen few, it was only a small part of him. He was always more interested in the quality of the scripts he staged.
This is how he remembers the heady days of triumph that followed the opening of Woolf in 1962: "For the first time in my life, there was no limit to the level and scope of the offers coming in, stage, screen and television, with all sorts of star names and prospects. Had I beenlined (or able) to play the commercial game, I could have made a fortune. At the very least, I could have transformed myself into the equivalent of a Gene Saks, a Robert Moore, a Herbert Ross. Instead, I chose -- partially consciously and partially instinctively -- to pay little attention to all the hoopla swirling around me, and go on directing wherever a decent script came along, off-Broadway, in the regional theater, or from Edward Albee."
Indeed, in the spangled annals of Broadway, Schneider's name will loom relatively small. But in the history of the greater American theater, that loose configuration of nonprofit theater companies, he is one of the giants. He would go anywhere for the right playwright. In his mind, which was often daringly ahead of the pack, the right playwrights were Albee, Tennessee Williams, Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, Michael Weller, Preston Jones and, of course, Samuel Beckett. Their plays, while not always the stuff of commerce, were frequently the stuff of art.
His first experience with Beckett was directing the now-legendary 1956 American premiere of Waiting for Godot, starring Tom Ewell and a totally befuddled Bert Lahr. At the height of the Miami Beach season, it tried out at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, where it was billed as "the Laugh Sensation of Two Continents" and proved a complete rout. (Lahr later said it was like "bringing Giselle to Roseland.") Schneider not only survived the debacle, but went on to become Beckett's director of choice in America, staging such seminal works as Endgame, Happy Days, Play and Rockaby.
Almost from its inception, he was part of the team at Arena Stage, which he later called "my favorite place in the world to put on a play," although that did not prevent him on occasion from informing Zelda Fichandler, Arena's founder, that she ran "a second-rate theater." He could be difficult and irascible, and he possessed, as he was the first to admit, "more than enough energy to drive actors to good performances, as well as desperation."
A faculty member at Catholic University early in his career, he was rehearsing a production of The Madwoman of Chaillot when a chair vanished from the set at a particularly inopportune moment. Furious, Schneider demanded to know where it had gone. A frazzled prop girl, tears welling up in her eyes, rushed forward with an explanation. Cutting her off, Schneider thundered, "Look! When I ask you a question, don't answer it!" The remark dogged him all his career and came to stand for the brusque and sometimes brutalizing manner he manifested in rehearsals. More often than not, however, it paid off in insightful and provocative productions.
Entrances, which goes from his birth in 1917 in the Ukraine to the opening of You Know I Can't Hear You in 1967, is the first installment of what was intended to be a multi- volume autobiography. A week after Schneider delivered the manuscript to his publisher, he was struck and killed by a motorcycle, while crossing a London street. The loss to the American theater was enormous.
But it is also upsetting for another reason: in Entrances Schneider was either not yet ready or able to deliver himself of his deepest feelings about himself and the theater people he worked with. Writing in mid-career, as he was, he appears to have been more concerned with how his career came about than what it added up to. Once Entrances gets beyond the particulars of an exotic childhood in Russia, his family's harrowing escape during the Revolution and his acclimatization in America, it becomes a chronicle of casting difficulties, tryout snafus, opening nights and the morning-after reviews. The perceptions can be dismayingly superficial.
Encountering a taciturn Albee for the first time, Schneider sensed "below his surface calm a tremendous intensity like molten lava, waiting to break out." Zelda Fichandler, with whom he had a working relationship of more than 30 years, struck him as "bright and energetic" and "as indefatigable as she was knowledgeable." Not much more, however, is forthcoming.
Schneider revealed himself primarily through the plays he chose to direct. He needed to stage them because they said things about the world and himself that he was otherwise seemingly incapable of expressing. Getting to their core was his way of getting to his own heart. His contribution to the theater is too significant for Entrances, stinting as it sometimes is, not to constitute an important record. But the man remains an enigma -- driven, outspoken, tenacious on the outside.
And on the inside?