By FREDI WASHINGTON PV's Theatrical Editor March 9, 1946 p. 22
WITHIN THE SHORT SPACE of two weeks, Broadway has seen two plays, Jeb and Truckline Cafe, closed --Jeb with nine performances to its credit and the latter with twelve. There is much to lament in the hurried dismissal of these two plays, for both attempted to deal with problems facing the people of America and the world today. Not the least consideration in lamenting the closing is the fact that a total of 54 actors, 14 of whom are Negro, were thrown out of work after four weeks of rehearsal.
Jeb, written by Robert Ardrey, a comparatively new playwright, elected to try dramatizing the question of job discrimination against Negro veterans, and in Herman Shumlin he found a sympathetic producer who also wanted to turn his talents and production facilities over to a dramatic warning against bigotry and injustice. It would have been much simpler and certainly less risky for both Ardry and Shumlin to do a frivolous comedy which would have nothing more than entertainment value.
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TRUCKLINE CAFE, written by Maxwell Anderson, one of the top playwrights of this generation, with several of his plays prize winners, felt a responsibility to the people living in these chaotic times and set about writing a play which would point up what has happened to us because of war, what we must do to pick up the threads of life and how it can be done.
So what happens to these two playwrights and those backers who are willing to risk their money in order to get a message of importance over the footlights? Granted that neither of these attempts were in the main technically good. Truckline Cafe certainly left much to be desired from as proficient a playwright as well as Maxwell Anderson. But to those critics who with a stroke of their pens dismissed one or both of these efforts with, an attitude of, "the worst play I have seen since I have been in the reviewing business" (Chapman of the News) or "Mr. Anderson has gummed things up as only some one can who shows neither real skill nor a saving slickness, who has lost both a sense of the truth and a feeling for his trade sic: missing quotation mark, I would say: They are encouraging a cold, sophisticated, empty theatre technique and at the same time discouraging the kind of drama that can be a directive to an understanding of and solution to problems facing us today.
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THIS COLUMN agrees, if not entirely, certainly in part, with the statement which appeared in Friday's papers by the producers of Truckline Cafe, Harold Clurman and Elia Kazan. The latter is director of Deep Are the Roots. The statement says in part: "Our theatre is strangled in a bottleneck. That bottleneck is made up of a group of men who are hired to report the events of our stage and who more and more are acquiring powers which, as a group, they are not qualified to exercise-- either by their training or by their taste. ... There is a blackout of all taste except the taste of these men."
This theory certainly applies to the production of Jeb. That production went into the Martin Beck theatre for three weeks (this theatre has been booked for St. Louis Woman), with a tentative agreement for another theatre after that time. But the shortage of legitimate theatres (movie producers of third rate movies have most of the theatres on long-term leases) make it almost impossible to rent a house for a play after it has received the kind of notices given Jeb. Consequently, the producers of Jeb had little choice in the matter even though they might have been willing to operate at a loss until the public had an opportunity to show its interest or the lack of it at the box-office.
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THERE IS THIS MUCH TO BE SAID for the daily critics: They seldom, if ever, have an opportunity to digest a play after seeing it. They rush off to their typewriters and put on paper their first reactions to what they have seen, without time for analytical judgment, and, as might be expected, the results are oftimes [sic] harsh, with a lack on understanding.
However, this does not exonerate entirely those critics who have become blase and super-critical of the theatre and its works. The critic, too, has a responsibility to the people who live in these confused times. What they seem to forget or overlook altogether is the fact that, while the commercial theatre is not actually called an experimental theatre, it is just that. Each time a play is produced, it is an experiment, and a darned expensive one at that. Criticism is a very necessary part of the theatre's efforts, but integrity of purpose should always be taken into consideration when a work is criticized.
Truckline Cafe and Jeb were written with honest intent, nor can it be denied that all connected with both productions did not know their plays would be more difficult to sell to the public than a straight play.
It would be well for the drama critics to give some encouragement to those few people in the theatre who have the courage to buck the popular tide of amusement in order that the pioneer trail to a better world for all may be realized.