Too many revivals on the stage and too few good actors. That was the general lament of Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the guest speaker at yesterday's National Press Club luncheon. f
But Papp exempted from the definition of revivals his company's own production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" which just finished a very successful summer run in Central Park and is on its way to Broadway.
"That was resusciation," Papp said. "Anything over 100 years old is resuscitation."
Papp's audience included actresses Helen Hayes and Joan Fontaine among others who were in town for last night's New Playwrights' Theatre salute to Washington Post drama critic emeritus Richard L. Coe at the Kennedy Center. Papp told the group that "the great majority of new musicals coming back are old musicals. Some of them are good. Who am I to be a wet blanket about anything that brings people to the theatre? But what's good about the theater is the content. The play's the thing."
Papp said later, "I don't like [revivals]. There's a decadence about them. It's a sentimentality tied in with the rise of political conservatism. People want the good old days back. Also, theatrically it's kind of dead -- and out of date. I wouldn't do it."
Asked why he had decided to produce "Pirates," he said, "It's a play full of optimism. A play has to have two things to be alive now: the nature of the actors and the director. I thought, 'Let's get some pop singers, mix them with some British actors, and then get hold of Kevin Kline [the Pirate King], a mixture of both tremendous spontaneity and bearing."
Papp ranged over a number of other topics at the luncheon. On actors -- "There is a notable absence of great leading ladies like Helen Hayes and leading men like John Barrymore on stage today. A variety of actors today go between New York and Hollywood and spend most of their time in Hollywood. Most film actors today are rather ordinary."
The exceptions: Papp mentioned George C. Scott ("brilliant"), Irene Worth ("who has consummate skill and bearing. How you used to be considered important. Now you can slump."), Blythe Danner and Meryl Streep.
On Linda Ronstadt, the female lead of "Pirates": "She's never going to play Ophelia, but she's doing something in [in "Pirates"] that she would never have been considered for before."
On playwriting: "There is no group of great actors, so consequently, playwriting is erratic. There's no place for serious plays -- not dull plays, but classic plays. I always look for new plays. They're the lifeline of the theater, the blood of new writers. And they'll tell you a lot of blood is shed. It's risky business."
On black theater: "The only group having some success is the Negro Ensemble. They're struggling to stay alive. Many black writers have gone to Hollywood -- or stopped writing. Much of the writing was about the ghetto life, and audiences are not that interested any more. They want something more positive. A lot of black actors have moved to Hollywood . . . doing junk."
On the increasing cost of productions: "It doesn't prohibit experimentaton, because there is no experimentation in the theater. They only experiment with success and failure. But you can experiment. It's easier to do if you don't have a lot of money. Then you get cautious. The New Playwrights' Theatre is in a position where they can still experiment."
On ticket prices: "They're up to $30 on weekends. In two or three years, I could see them going up to $50. And there will be people to pay it. People will always pay to see success."