Where is the past when you need it? If you want to read an old novel, you can buy it or get it from a library. If you want to see an old film, you may be able to buy it, rent it, stream it, catch it on a cable channel, see it in a revival house. Old music? Regardless of what you mean by that, it’s probably been recorded. And if you want to read an old play, you can find it the same as other books. But most of us no more want to read a play than we want to study the blueprints of a building, the sketches and patterns and fabric swatches that led to a piece of clothing, the score for a piece of music. We want to see or hear the thing realized. Some old plays still turn up in production; many do not, except in the work of classic theater companies. Luckily, New York City has a handful of such companies, but it now has one less than it did for a long time: on June 17, the Pearl Theatre Company announced it was shutting down, after 33 seasons.
The Pearl’s production history, which I had to locate via the Internet Archive because it vanished from the company’s website a while back, abounds in names to tantalize the taste of a theater-history fan: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Molière and Racine, Goldsmith and Sheridan, Ibsen and Chekhov and Strindberg and Shaw. None of those are unknown, but how many chances have you had to see the entire Oresteia, or John Gabriel Borkman, or The Dance of Death? The list includes other, less familiar names, whose works are seldom staged in this country: Otway and Ostrovsky, Gogol and Goldoni, Molnar and Marivaux, Lessing and Schiller, Farquhar and Wycherley and Congreve. The Pearl performed Machiavelli’s The Mandrake, a pivotal work in the history of comedy but a rarity. The Pearl performed Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street, almost unknown under that name, but the source of a now-common term in its film version, Gaslight. The Pearl never performed Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, but almost nobody else has either. (I’ve read it; much of the best stuff in Casablanca isn’t in it, but the essence is there.) The Pearl never performed Aristophanes, but again almost nobody else does either.
A major gap in the list almost escaped me: female playwrights. Lillian Hellman, the sole woman in the archived list, was joined by Shelagh Delaney and Kate Hamill only in the company’s final season. C’mon, Pearl—you could’ve done better than that.
Outsiders may regard “The show must go on” as a mere catchphrase, but it’s a tradition taken seriously in the theater. I once saw an actress go on the day after her mother had died; it may even have been the same day. Molière went on when he was ill, barely made it through the performance, and died later that night. If stories like these haven’t been compiled somewhere, they should be. Those who worked at the Pearl will have their own versions. One night in 2001, I saw part of such a story. From my journal:
Thursday, September 13 (10:10 pm)
Tonight I was scheduled to usher the first preview of a new production at the Pearl Theatre. The theater has told me the show will go on, so I walk to the East Village. It’s a play about death—Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King. It speaks of life, how it seems to last for centuries, how a man works wonders in its course, how all of it fades away in minutes. The play is performed without intermission. After taking us somewhere else for an hour and a half—to a place that seems curiously to have been abstracted from the very city we left outside—it releases us and sends us back out there.
Here on St. Mark’s Place, as I walk toward home, few people are out. No cars are passing. There are not even any cars parked on this street. Where could they all have gone? A guy and a girl round the corner ahead of me and walk my way. The guy is saying something about food. The girl keeps a small camcorder pressed against her eye.
In the middle of Broadway, astonished, I stop and stare downtown. Not one car is visible. In the far distance, red lights are flashing. I look uptown—nothing. No cars, no stores open, so few people I could probably count them on my fingers.
The account continues but makes no further mention of the Pearl. There was no reason not to do the show that night, given that the cast and the crew and the theater itself seemed to be intact; there was every reason not to do the show that night. The Pearl cleaved to tradition.
Other theaters in New York do old plays and musicals, among them Classic Stage Company, the Mint, Red Bull Theater, and Theatre for a New Audience. Still, it’s sad that for the Pearl the show will no longer go on. Pearl, I salute you; farewell, Pearl.