Title: Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Life and a Life in the Theater
Author: Leigh Buchanan Bienen
Issue: Issue 161
Description: The essence, the nub, of a life in the theater is surprise, unpredictability, the immersion of a life in time, in an era, at a place. Shakespeare would not have been Shakespeare and written all (or almost all) of those plays if he hadn’t been living and writing in the England of Elizabeth the First. Emily Mann would not have written and persuaded others to produce the plays she did had she not lived in the America of Vietnam and its aftermath. The recent biography of Emily Mann by Alexis Greene, Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater (Applause Books, 2021) is about being a specific woman, with a particular background, education, family and apprenticeships, about being a theater artist in a late age, as Gertrude Stein reminds us. About making art new, relevant, important.
In addition to chronicling Emily Mann’s career, her professional development as she became a theater master, this book reminds us of the invention and richness of what was for the American theater, a great or late age. Alexis Greene makes central the rebellious quality of Emily Mann’s writing and lifelong mission. Emily Mann was ever the writer, in and out of writing plays directly for the theater, and her experiments with the form of theater productions, as a writer, as a director and producer, were forged in the tumultuous times. Tumultuous but not too tumultuous. All-out war and the complete collapse of civil society does not nurture artists, or allow great art to flourish. Repression, dictators, and military tanks in the streets, deaths in battle (especially of the young) squash and stamp out the artistic impulse, repress and darken the imagination. Social decay, but not too much deterioration, in the fabric of civil society may prod or encourage the creation of art, the festering of the imagination, and foster the collective urge to criticize, to make over, to put in place something else. The Vietnam War did spur political outrage, and some of that spilled into theater, see, e.g. Emily Mann, Still Life (1981).
Shakespeare would not have had Shakespeare’s career, albeit mysteriously truncated, without the enthusiastic audiences of Elizabethan England. If great plays are to be written (or read four hundred years later), and great actors and directors to learn their art, there must be audiences and institutions, a home for actors, directors, playwrights, and the many others whose contributions are necessary to get work up on a stage…