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A Beginner’s Guide to the Golden Age of Live Theater on TV

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A Beginner’s Guide to the Golden Age of Live Theater on TV

critic’s NotebookToday we stream what shows we can find. Back then: James Dean, “Twelve Angry Men” and conclusive proof that Kim Stanley was one of the all-time greats.The cast rehearsing for “Twelve Angry Men,” which aired live in 1954.Credit…CBS Photo ArchiveAug. 26, 2020One of my earliest memories is of a man and woman arguing. I…

A Beginner’s Guide to the Golden Age of Live Theater on TV

critic’s Notebook

Today we stream what shows we can find. Back then: James Dean, “Twelve Angry Men” and conclusive proof that Kim Stanley was one of the all-time greats.

Credit…CBS Photo Archive

Ben Brantley

One of my earliest memories is of a man and woman arguing. I had just turned 5 years old. These angry grown-ups, who wore clothes from another time, were not my parents. Yet the image now feels as primal as if they were.

That vision, in a pulsing black and white, is my earliest recollection of watching television. Those people, I later learned, were New York stage stars. Their names were Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer, and they had been enacting the last moments of a play called “A Doll’s House.” I must have wandered in as it was ending.

I do not remember the slamming of a door with which that play famously concludes. But I was much struck by the small, tense woman who wore her long dress and shawl as if they were battle gear. (My parents told me they knew someone who had been in love with Harris in drama school.) And I do remember being both upset and enthralled by what I had witnessed.

Though I couldn’t have appreciated this at the time, this mysteriously galvanizing scene had been transmitted live — in the present tense, with all the possibilities for error and serendipity that implies — from New York City into my family’s house in Winston-Salem, N.C. It was November, 1959, the twilight of both a decade and of an era in which live dramas — classics like “A Doll’s House,” but more often, new plays, starring some of the best actors in the country — were regularly broadcast on American TV.

It was a time in which the burgeoning television industry was gluttonous for content and the pool of young theater talent was vast. In the 1950s, there were more than 100 of these anthology series, including such long-running stalwarts as “Kraft Television Theater,” “Philco Television Playhouse,” “General Electric Theater” and “Playhouse 90.”


Credit…Everett Collection

Creating such work, with its many technological and human moving parts, was by all accounts an enterprise both ulcer-making and uniquely thrilling.

Listen to the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Tad Mosel, a prolific contributor to the live television genre, as quoted in Jeff Kisseloff’s “The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961.” Mosel is talking about watching the studio clock from the broadcast control room as he waited for or one of his shows to begin:

“Then suddenly, the sweep hand would hit the hour and you would hear a crash of music and the announcer saying, ‘Live from New York,’ and you knew that your little play was going out to fifty million people. And nowhere have I felt a thrill like that. I love the theater, but it beats opening night in the theater every time.”

In recent months, I’ve been thinking a lot about that fecund and fervent period, generally described as the golden age of television (or more, recently the first golden age of television, in acknowledgment of the era of the great series that began with “The Sopranos”). That’s because, for the first time in my 27 years as a drama critic, I am almost exclusively watching live plays on a screen rather than in a theater, albeit via laptop instead of a boxy set.

The pandemic lockdown that began in March, with its rules of social distancing, has inspired theater artists to invent new means of reaching audiences. And while some of these shows are recorded and edited in advance, the ones that really get my adrenaline flowing are those that walk the tightrope of streaming live.


Credit…Nick De Morgoli/Condé Nast, via Getty Images

Such productions as the Belarus Free Theater’s “School for Fools” tremble with the suspense that comes from marrying live theater with experimental technology, a combination that’s potentially explosive in the best and worst senses of the word. I wondered if I would feel that same volatility watching live television preserved on kinescope (filmed recordings of the shows as they appeared on the studio monitor) from six and seven decades ago.

So by the grace of YouTube, I have been happily strolling through the dense, dimly lighted groves of the golden age of television. Some of the landmark pieces from that time — like “Twelve Angry Men” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” which would go on to be reimagined both for the big screen and for the stage — have been remastered to simulate what they looked like when they were first broadcast.

But even when the view is hazy (and, honestly, that view isn’t so different from that of our first TV set), you have a sense of in-the-moment immediacy. Most exciting for me is how the performers in these shows are unconditionally in charge. The flattering camera angles, cosmetic lighting and, above all, the careful editing are absent. This is acting in the raw.


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Credit…Everett Collection


Credit…Everett Collection

The varnish-free approach of these productions turned out to be an ideal vehicle for a revolutionary style that was shaking the hallowed traditions of acting. It was called the Method, and it demanded of its practitioners an uncompromising, often painful emotional reality. The Method’s most enduring and visible practitioners include Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Geraldine Page — who all went on to celebrated movie careers.

In the somewhat haphazardly assembled beginner’s guide to live golden age television that follows, I’m leading off with a triptych of Kim Stanley, an actress of legendary stature in the theater, whose appeal I had never fully grasped before. I’m also including a Dean sampler, since the iconic star of “Rebel Without a Cause” packed in more than 30 live, compellingly watchable television performances between 1951 and his death, at 24, in 1955.

Otherwise, I have gone with the obvious choices of three teleplays that would be reincarnated as more polished Hollywood movies but, in their original televised versions, had a combative freshness that rattled and roused mid-20th-century American audiences. And note: Left-leaning, progressive sentiment informs all these plays, but the faces on the screen are still overwhelmingly white, a reminder that the United States was still very much a culturally segregated nation.

My final suggestion is a show that has especially sweet personal significance for me. Unless otherwise indicated, these shows can all be tracked down on YouTube.


Credit…Everett Collection

Kim Stanley, a frequent and electrifying presence on Broadway in dramas, was described by many of her peers as the greatest of them all, and people still talk about her performances in William Inge’s “Picnic” and “Bus Stop.” Though I had seen Stanley in all but one of the scant six films she made, I never really got what the excitement was about. Her wide, defiantly plain face and unruly emotionalism seemed to reject the cosseting, glamorizing gaze of Hollywood cameras. Stanley herself, complaining about the piecemeal nature of film acting, compared it to “shooting pool in the dark.”

But, mercifully, Stanley also appeared frequently during the 1950s in live television dramas. And the greatest gift I claim from my golden age binge is that I can now say I get Kim Stanley, who in the long, unmediated takes of these shows makes human thought, in all its ambivalent complexity, visible.

Has anyone ever plumbed the depths of loneliness in the work of the Texas playwright Horton Foote as Stanley did? Watch how she inhabits the sad, homespun and somehow magnificent girls and women she portrays, all in search of a place called home, in Foote’s “A Young Lady of Property” (featuring Joanne Woodward!), “The Traveling Lady” (in which Stanley had already appeared on Broadway) and “Tomorrow,” adapted from a Faulkner short story. (Bonus: footage of Stanley on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the part that made her name on Broadway, the adolescent tomboy in “Picnic.”)


Credit…Everett Collection

Whether playing a bad boy (holding a square, virtuous Ronald Reagan hostage in “The Dark, Dark Hours”) or a good boy (in his final live performance in “The Unlighted Road”), James Dean always hurts so good, a writhing, masochistic mass of youth betrayed.

For those who know his screen work, there won’t be may surprises in his television appearances; his persona was carved in cracked marble from the beginning. But he remains an equally mesmerizing and annoying presence. And you can see how much he purely enjoys acting in 30-minute joy ride called “Padlocks” (from the “Danger” series), in which Dean and the venerable Mildred Dunnock have a whale of a time playing a punk thug and the crafty little old lady whose apartment he invades.

“MARTY” (1953) The show that gave center stage to a homely, inarticulate butcher in the Bronx and had America gleefully quoting the question, “What do you feel like doin’ tonight, Marty,” the next morning. Paddy Chayefsky’s benchmark script would be reinvented by Hollywood (with the same director, Delbert Mann) in a 1955 film starring Ernest Borgnine that won both the Oscar and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But the small-screen version, starring an agonizingly insecure Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, feels both fresher and more subtle.

“TWELVE ANGRY MEN” (1954) Another archetypal beauty that went on to Hollywood glory. Reginald Rose’s drama, which explores social prejudices and preconceptions, is set in an airless jury room at the height of summer, and the sweat on actors’ brows regularly produced by live television feels most appropriate here. As the juror with a stubborn conscience, Robert Cummings is no Henry Fonda, who played the same role in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film. But the cast, which also includes Franchot Tone and Edward Arnold, generates plenty of high anxiety and restless claustrophobia.

“REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT” (1956) This one comes from the pen of a master of the short television form, Rod Serling, with Ralph Nelson directing. Anthony Quinn played the broken-down title character in the 1962 film. But Jack Palance is even more heartbreaking. His supporting cast ain’t bad either, what with the father-and-son team of Ed and Keenan Wynn playing his managers and Kim Hunter as an understanding social worker.

I watched “A Doll’s House” (1959) — the same one I saw in my impressionable childhood, directed by George Schaefer — in its entirety for the first time only weeks ago on Amazon Prime (in color!).

It didn’t disappoint. In addition to Harris and Plummer, the grade-A cast has Eileen Heckart, Jason Robards and Hume Cronyn. And Harris is wonderful, finding the awakening tragedy and triumph in Ibsen’s Nora. I couldn’t have had a better curtain raiser to a life of passionate theater going.

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