In Memory of Charles Marowitz

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

I first encountered Charles Marowitz’s name back in the 1950s, when I picked up a British theatre magazine called 'Encore' in a Greenwich Village bookstore. Charles, who had emigrated to England after a childhood on New York’s Lower East Side, was a contributor to 'Encore,' a magazine whose irreverent, anti-establishment voice greatly appealed to me.
My next connection to Charles, who died earlier this year in Los Angeles, came in the early 1960s, when my wife Mavis and I were living on a Greek island. In a British newspaper article I discovered that Charles was now running a small theatre in London, the Open Space. On a subsequent trip to London, we made our way there. I introduced myself and gave Charles a copy of a short play of mine, 'Creatures of the Chase' (which later became 'Junk Food.') Charles directed the play about a year later, a feat that pleased me greatly, though I was later peeved to learn that he had arbitrarily changed the play’s ending.
For the next ten years or so we corresponded regularly and got together whenever Mavis and I made it up to London. Always on those occasions we made sure to attend a play at the Open Space, knowing we could count on seeing something provocative, sharp-edged and challenging-- contemporary theatre at its best.
Flash forward to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, when I was a member of a playwriting group attached to the L.A. Theater Center. Upon learning that Charles was now living in L.A. as well, I introduced him to the LATC’s co-artistic directors, Bill Bushnell and Diane White.

They quickly gave Charles a job and for the next five years he was a creative force at the LATC: writing and directing plays, teaching acting, and editing an in-house magazine which had many of the same ingredients once to be found in 'Encore.'
Charles was insightful on just about every subject imaginable, and witty as well. He was also always willing to read a new play of mine and offer up critical advice. He also did his best to persuade LATC to mount one of those plays, something they finally did with “Junk Food.”
Happily, Mavis and Charles’ second wife Jane became good friends as well. At one time they even parlayed their mutual interest in food and cooking, and started a catering business. It became quite successful until a fateful afternoon on which, while driving downhill from Jane’s Malibu home, she hit the newly adjusted brakes on her MG a little too forcefully. The car bucked and splattered the dashboard with about a thousand dollars’ worth of Indian curry!
It was something of an irony, by the way, that Charles should be married to an accomplished chef like Jane, as his idea of a gourmet meal was a Hebrew National hotdog smeared with sauerkraut and mustard.
Charles soon transitioned from the LATC to first-string theatre reviewer at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. What a shame it was when that daily paper went belly-up a few years later, because it deprived the L.A. theatre community of a much-needed, bold and fearless voice. Here, for example, is what Charles wrote in a piece called “A Confederation of Dunces- Theatre in L.A.”

“The roots of the problem are, in equal part, economic and psychological. People don’t have enough money to do proper work because subsidy in Los Angeles is monopolized by the Center Theatre Group whose noxious influence has, after thirty years, become as petrified as the worst regimes of East Europe before their recent overthrow. Unquestionably, a fairer distribution of subsidy would, within as short a time as a year, ameliorate the situation, but the Davidsonic Plague which makes Los Angeles the laughingstock of serious theatre throughout America, will remain as long as the impoverished rank-and-file accept this oligarchy and lack the courage to mount an effective protest.”
Needless to say, Gordon Davidson (artistic director of the CTG) not only denounced what Charles had written, but ordered him removed from the CTG’s press list.
Had the Herald-Examiner survived as a newspaper and kept Charles on, I think his influence on American theatre would have rivaled that of Kenneth Tynan on British theatre in the 1960s and 70s.
Charles’ next challenge was making a success of a new 99-seat theatre called the Malibu Playhouse, where he set out to repeat what he had done at the Open Space. Although I don’t own a crystal ball, I knew from the start that he would fail in that regard. The Open Space was a state-subsidized theatre; Charles did not have to chase after money to keep it afloat. Nor did he have to cope with a board of directors or play local political games.

That was not the case in Malibu. Charles was simply not built to deal with those realities; he was too headstrong and undiplomatic, too gnarly. But during his brief reign in Malibu, he did manage to mount several excellent plays, including two works of his own. It must be remembered that Charles was not only a director and critic but a playwright as well. He wrote at least two dozen plays, one of which, “Sherlock’s Last Case,” made it to Broadway.
In trying to sum up the life and legacy of my late friend Charles Marowitz, it is appropriate to quote something he himself wrote on the death of Kenneth Tynan: “The inveterate and ubiquitous enemy against whom every theatre artist has to struggle is that well-scrubbed, immaculately dressed upper middle-class ghoul who is secretly betrothed to the twin monsters of Good Taste and Inoffensiveness. This ghoul, well-educated and highly articulate, can be found on the well-upholstered committees or theatre-boards, local councils, civic groups, government bodies anywhere and everywhere that public money, private investment, or corporate grants are dispursed to the arts. He has the sensitive complexion of the helpless vampire, the Living Undead, and can unhesitatingly advance a dozen impressive arguments why one should: ‘not take the risk’...’deter decisions to another day’...’establish a fact-finding committee to study the matter’...’avoid the risk of giving offence’...”not make an exception for fear of setting a precedent’...and a thousand and one rationalizations which bust the kneecaps of progress, strangulate creativity, and dampen down those whose divine sparks which, if ignited, would radically alter sensibility and institute change.”
Tynan’s life--let us substitute Charles’ name here--was a continual battle against such ghouls. Although one of our staunchest warriors has fallen, the battle still goes on.