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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews


By Clive Hirschhorn

  ALL THAT GLITTERED,St. Martin's Press, 340 pages, $32.95

Having exhausted all there is to say about the Broadway musical in eleven comprehensive books on the subject, Ethan Mordden turns from song and dance to legit in All That Glittered. It's a canter, in his own inimitable albeit infuriating way, through the period 1919-1959, forty years he considers, quite rightly, to be the golden age of drama on Broadway.

The twenties, he reminds us, launched this golden age with new voices and new subject matter, with the actor's strike and the proliferation of 26 new playhouses. The thirties emphasized social drama and realistic acting, saw the creation of The Theatre Guild and The Group Theatre, as well as introducing sophistication into the equation. The forties brought about the acculturation (a favorite Mordden word) of genuinely breakaway writing while the fifties sounded the last hurrah before the decline.

The early years are presented as little more than a rehash of several more definitive histories by people like Brooks Atkinson, John Gassner and Harold Clurman who were actually around at the time and didn't have to rely on Lincoln Center's library of the Performing Arts for their material while it isn't until the fifties that Mordden's tone of voice and opinions become his own. For example, he's in his element, (though not always convincing) in discussing Auntie Mame (1956), a play with no gay characters in it, but which he regards as the quintessential classic gay play. Mind you, I'm not quite sure I know what he's talking about when he says "We have all but had Katharine Hepburn or James Cagney, but we never quite collect (Rosalind) Russell, and that's what makes her Mame titanic. What does this person do between projects, whom does she bed, what is she thinking? "

Surely the same questions could be asked of both Hepburn and Cagney - and practically every other actor you care to name. Anyway, what does it matter?

Sure, the play fashioned by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from Patrick Dennis's novel contains a gay sensibility, but to say, as Mordden does, that, just because Mame Dennis is attracted to anyone born different she is "all but biologically gay" is gayspeak on a most exasperating cliched level.

He also insists that Mame's first entrance finds her "dashing" downstairs because, prior to the arrival of her young nephew, she was a wastrel who was always in a rush.

For starters, there is nothing in Lawrence and Lee's text to suggest she makes her entrance "dashing" downstairs or anywhere. It simply says, "she enters."

Nor does her character change with young Patrick's arrival it's Patrick who changes.

If it's possible to read a book with one's tongue in one's cheek, Mordden invites you to do just that. Every once in a while, he makes an observation that is spot on. Writing about William Inge he says that if Inge, rather than Truman Capote had written In Cold Blood, the play would have been about the victims rather than the perpetrators. And his remark that for years Ralph Bellamy gave "under-the-top performances" sums up this actor's early career most succinctly.

Though the book covers all the important bases in the 40-year period under discussion, it skirts over the importance of Eugene O'Neill. Several of the plays are mentioned (how could they not be?), but with minimal insight in general and, O'Neill's flaws notwithstanding, their overall importance to the landscape of American drama in particular . O'Neill, despite Mary McCarthy's insistence that he couldn't write, and Mordden's description of him as a "mournful autobiographer, thrilled with his own incoherence and mythic to a fault," was the single most original voice to have cut through the torpor and crass commercialism of Broadway in the twenties


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