The spirit of revival on Broadway
Revivals are common on Broadway. There's even a prize for ''best reproduction of a play or musical'' in the annual Tony awards. But a particular kind of revival seems especially prominent this season. The voices of classic American playwrights are ringing from the boards - and audiences are taking notice.
Eugene O'Neill, the greatest of American dramatists, is represented by a major revival of his last completed work, ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' - its second rebirth in 11 years, this time staged by a British director.
Arthur Miller, probably O'Neill's greatest living successor, seems pleased with the critically praised new production of his 1949 ''Death of a Salesman,'' starring Dustin Hoffman.
Clifford Odets, firebrand of the 1930s, showed his relevance to the '80s in the ''Awake and Sing!'' revival seen recently at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
A little farther uptown, the profoundly American voice of Herman Melville pervades the Metropolitan Opera's rousing new production of Benjamin Britten's dramatic ''Billy Budd,'' staged by John Dexter.
And the season's Off Broadway listings include further revivals by some of the above, including O'Neill's ''Desire Under the Elms'' at the Roundabout and the Mirror Repertory Company's mounting of Odets's ''Paradise Lost.''
Why the current spate of classic American works? Gerald Rabkin, theater professor at Rutgers University and contributing editor of Performing Arts Journal, pinpoints several reasons:
* Mounting Broadway productions of new plays has become risky and difficult. Given the large expenses and financial risks involved, the Broadway structure increasingly demands some prior ''validation'' of a play's worth: an earlier success in England, perhaps, or an elaborate step-by-step journey from a regional theater. If a work is regarded as a staple of American dramatic literature, that provides the needed imprimatur.
* While revivals have always existed, today's crop looms more imposingly because of the deficiencies of contemporary plays. In the past, playwrights of major talent yearned to ''make it'' on Broadway. Today, some are content to test their ideas and approaches in less-expensive and less-risky productions away from Broadway, while others turn their efforts to film and television. This leaves a vacuum for revivals to fill.
* The United States has no formal, institutionalized national theater charged with keeping the American dramatic tradition alive. Thus revivals serve an important cultural function.
* Great playwrights often create great roles, and actors enjoy testing their skills against memorable performances of the past. Actors who are full-fledged stars can motivate revivals through their own interest. Like other O'Neill dramas, ''A Moon for the Misbegotten'' will be revived periodically, partly because of the meaty roles it offers to the actors playing Josie Hogan and James Tyrone Jr. By sparking a revival of ''Death of a Salesman,'' movie star Dustin Hoffman not only gives himself a time-tested vehicle for his return to the stage but takes on the heady challenge of equaling Lee J. Cobb's celebrated performance in the Willy Loman part.
Aside from such explanations, it's clear from viewing the current revivals - and an Americana-inspired gem like ''Billy Budd'' - that the works hold up strikingly well in contemporary eyes. But then, contemporary concerns are often similar to those of earlier periods: This season's Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Glengarry Glen Ross,'' written by David Mamet, may represent the cutting edge of today's most corrosively serious theater, but many of its themes are not so different from those of ''Death of a Salesman.'' Both plays explore the perils of venality, the depersonalization of the business world, and the futility of substituting career ambitions for a fully realized life.
Some commentators have noted (at least indirectly) such similarities between current and past dramatic tendencies. Writing in the New York Times about ''Glengarry Glen Ross,'' critic Benedict Nightingale congratulated playwright Mamet for venturing ''out of the doll's house'' and returning today's theater to ''the big, bad world'' where, of course, major works have often found their subject matter. A week later the same writer noted that the ''Salesman'' interpretation of Hoffman and costar John Malkovich not only is ''justified by the text'' but ''fits with current theatrical fashion, which is all for plays about parents and their middle-aged children wrangling their way to reconciliation scenes.''
It appears, then, that the American stage tradition (as represented on Broadway) is continuing to develop in a reasonably straight line, so that older plays mesh comfortably with their newer cousins. In keeping with this trend, today's revivals of American classics tend to be straightforward - unlike, say, many Shakespeare productions, which often indulge radical new slants on staging and interpretation.
The current revivals and performances ''are recuperative, not revisionist,'' agrees Rabkin. As such, they may suit conservative Broadway audiences even more than newer works do. For all its naturalistic emotions and leaps between reality and fantasy, for example, there's nothing in ''Salesman'' to discomfit some audiences the way the searingly rough language and stark minimalism of ''Glengarry Glen Ross'' do.
Of course, the Broadway scene is not the only scene. In the extremely tradition-minded world of high opera, the visually bold and musically rich ''Billy Budd'' is downright newfangled, since it's a 20th-century work, even if it is rooted in a venerable tale by a 19th-century author.
On the other end of the spectrum, theater artists working far from Broadway (aesthetically speaking) also find sustenance in American classics - though their reinterpretations may not reflect traditional approaches. An example is one section of a work-in-progress called ''LSD . . . Just the High Parts,'' seen awhile ago at the Performing Garage in New York; the gifted and sometimes brilliant Wooster Group gave an abridged, highly idiosyncratic version of Miller's play ''The Crucible,'' finding undreamed-of worlds of meaning in its text and subtext - meanings that might be irrelevant to a standard production of the work, but that took on extraordinary power as part of this troupe's examination of certain byways of the American mentality.
''The major American theater tradition is one of tragedy grafted onto domestic family drama,'' says teacher and critic Rabkin, noting that this stretches easily from O'Neill through Sam Shepard - and that even today's young audiences still find it valid and involving, at least to a degree. ''O'Neill's rhetoric may make them restless,'' Rabkin says, citing his observations of his students, ''but they're engaged on a primary dramatic level.'' In short, the classic American voices still have a lot to say, and theatergoers of all ilks are listening.