Sunday, August 26, 2012

800 Words: The Sorry, Myopic State of American Theater

(West Side Story: The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction. The one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents: Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seemless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry, and constant breaking into abstract highbrow ballet whose movements make no sense as often as they do. Such is the unfortunate, confused, ridiculous plight of American theater, which still hasn’t found sure footing 236 years after the founding of the country.)

Friday night was as good a night as a person will get from American theater today. August Osage County is probably the most endlessly praised, talked about and commented upon American play since Angels in America, and with good reason. It is a play that seamlessly plants the most painful, debased aspects of human existence within a Himalayan mountain of comedy. I can’t think of any American movie in the new millennium that exposes more of the dark crevasses of human existence. For more than twenty-four hours after I saw it, the twisted, macabre mood of this play remained very much with me.
But there’s something about this play that feels utterly synthetic. There isn’t a single scene in this script that doesn’t feel cribbed from some other play which all of us who’ve sat through high school and college friends’ ill-advised attempts at artistic greatness have seen before: The fucked-up intellectual family in a claustrophobic house, the realist chamber drama, characters who grapple with the terrifying silence of secrets, grappling with addiction, infidelity, incest, racism, and pedophilia. Just in America, we’ve again and again praised as masters playwrights who’ve covered all these same issues on stage - O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, Neil Simon, August Wilson and Sam Shepard, and even before it came to America we can watch all sorts of similar discussions in Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. There is something about the issues discussed in this play that feels so endlessly rehashed, so totally completely indebted to its predecessors, that I (no expert on theater) find it nearly impossible to pick out what’s original from everything I’ve seen before. Another matriarch addicted to painkillers? Another precocious teenage girl falling for a sociopathic predator? More families beating the shit out of each other? More breaking dishes? More incest? More relatives gone missing? More half-century long family secrets? The whole thing plays like an encyclopedia of every shock we’ve experienced in the last 150 years of world drama.

The production too was as good as we were probably ever going to get in nearly anywhere in America today outside New York, LA and Chicago. Yet the whole night relied upon our good faith to continually suspend disbelief from minute to minute. There were some truly fabulous actors on stage, but among the thirteen different principles, there were thirteen different accents in spite of the fact that 11 of these characters were supposed to hail from the same hometown. All three of the sisters (Chekhov anyone?) were superb, yet all three were clearly ten years too young for their roles and far too pretty. The father was supposed to be a bookworm whose books dominated the house with their oppressive weight, yet his erudition was represented by a single lonely bookshelf. Rather than give us the great music of Oklahoma during the scene changes (like Woody Guthrie or Wallis Willis or Wanda Jackson…a lot of W’s in that state…), or even something ironic like Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, the transitions were accompanied by African drumbeats, as though to hit us over the head with the fact that this family exists in a primitive state of nature… I can’t be the only person who read something uncomfortably close to racism in that. All the characters constantly commented that the mother never turned on the air conditioning and the house was constantly 90 degrees, yet the entire four-hour play was accompanied by the blasting hum of an air conditioning unit, keeping us all quite comfortable in a 70 degree theater. The cumulative effect was not to transport you to Oklahoma but like a great staged reading in which you had to take on faith that if people tried harder, they could make a truly great night for us. Instead, it felt like a troop of talented amateurs, utterly adrift without a competent director to combine their talents into a coherent vision. It’s an experience that makes you sad for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve tried doing theater at various points in my life – as an actor, as a director, even as a theater musician, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t usually regret the experience. I don’t know if it was always true of actors, but I can’t deny the fact that I neither much like most theater people or that most theater people don’t much like me; and to talk about why, I have to traffic not only in empirical evidence but in stereotyping. I don’t know if it was always true that actors and singers were known throughout world history as grade-A narcissists (they were probably too poor and ignored for most of history to be thought of that way), but that is the abiding stereotype of them today, and I wish I hadn’t accumulated so much evidence to bear that out. It’s not to say that I don’t’ know many actors and singers who aren’t perfectly nice people who pay their taxes and wouldn’t burn heretics if given the chance; but whether it was enduring the tantrums of actors and singers because I asked them to do something one too many times, or watching another director chew out an actor as a ‘liar’ or a conductor telling his singers that he wants to ‘kill’ them, or watching so many of these same people make make inappropriate scenes in their personal lives, I can’t deny there is something creepily self-centered about so many stage animals that make me prefer leaving their company to others who like them more – or at least ditching them to hang out with the techies. The claustrophobic vulnerability required in life as a contemporary actor seems to make people who become actors a bit nutty, or maybe they were already nutty and just needed an outlet for it. For a person like me who’d prefer to be less nutty than he already is, he would do much better to take up painting or join a band or an orchestra. It’s much easier to get along with artists and instrumentalists than singers and actors – acting and singing is based on showing off your ‘person’, whereas playing an instrument or painting a canvas requires the humility to say that you need an extra tool which your body does not already have to create something beautiful. Perhaps this lack of humility is also inherent in writers, but at least I can hide behind the fact that I’m also an instrumental musician.

I have no idea what causes narcissism in people; is it inherent in a person’s genes, or does the environment of a person’s upbringing provide for it? And if so, is it too much pressure in a person's upbringing or too little? And maybe I’m completely wrong about theater people and just trafficking in the kind of offensive stereotyping that would make them angry (not that that wouldn’t delight me…). But what I can’t ignore is the fact that there are two competing strands in American theater that seem to speak to precisely this sort of narcissism of which I’m speaking.

 (Somehow, when you no longer believe in American optimism…Rogers and Hammerstein doesn’t make much sense, does it?)

Fundamentally speaking, I can see two traditions in American theater that are alive and ‘well’ – music theater and ‘straight’ theater. Music theater, for all its exceptions, seems to have very deep roots in escapism – do Rogers and Hammerstein musicals have anything to do with the realities of Oklahoma, Siam, or the South Pacific? Does Andrew Lloyd Webber (British as he is…) appear to have any real knowledge of Argentina, The Bible, or alley cats? If you find yourself particularly drawn to these pieces, and many, many people are, you’re being drawn to a world of imagination – and frankly not the world of a particularly fascinating imagination. There are more exciting escapist visions; better researched, more excitingly done – anyone who’s seen a Kander & Ebb musical (Chicago & Cabaret) knows that there’s nothing wrong with escapism if you mean to escape to somewhere interesting.

(A Long Day’s Journey Into Night – take your suffering like a man!)

But then there’s the world of plain, ‘straight’ theater. I can’t imagine that somebody didn’t come up with the title ‘straight theater’ as a way of implying that music theater is effeminate. And perhaps even now such a stereotype works all too well, because so many ‘straight’ American plays require you to sit in your seat and take your dose of suffering like a ‘man.’ In such a tradition, we’re introduced to the sadomasochistic abusiveness of characters from Eugene O’Neil, the false hope of Arthur Miller’s protagonists, the sexual repression of Tenessee Williams’s, the savage ironies of Edward Albee, and the still more savage ones of David Mamet. Each of these writers are tragedians, but not in the Greek sense in which a great man falls from his height – because in America it’s only a tragedy if you never were great. In America, the most tragic state is to be a small person, and then realize how small you are. In such plays, there is very little catharsis as the Greeks would define it. We pity Oedipus and Orestes for how far they’ve fallen; they were once superior to us, and are now our inferiors – and that creates a certain awed distance from them which we can no longer have. Neither Willy Loman nor Blanche DuBois have any height to fall from – at no point in their lives were they living anything but the nightmare in which the play began – and their nightmares are all too similar to ours. By the end of these plays, we don’t feel purged of our demons, we feel inflamed by them. If life is only joyless heartbreak, then why do we even go to the theater?  For O’Neill and his descendents, the theater becomes a prison of inward focus; a queezily intense, claustrophobic place which perhaps is a perfect reflection of the kind of environment that makes people crave the stage in the first place. So many of these plays are monuments to empty drama – making us feel tension almost past the point of exploitation, and it becomes tension without release. You leave Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet feeling elated from spasm after spasm of tragic delight – you leave Long Day’s Journey Into Night wondering how you’ll ever get out of bed the next morning.  Again, there are exceptions to this rule. Anyone who’s ever seen a high school production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town knows that the inconsequential, suffocating lives so often portrayed on the American stage can have purpose and true dignity. In a different way, the same is true of Angels in America, or the Pittsburgh Cycle, or Porgy and Bess, or A Raisin in the Sun, or The Music Man, or even The Crucible (if you squint…).

In either the case of musical theater or ‘straight’ theater, it would appear that America produces a brand of theater so myopic, so inwardly focused on either the suffering of the self or escaping from it, that its achievements can’t help but be miniscule compared to American achievements in movies, television, popular music, perhaps even novels and poetry. In spite of these exceptions, or perhaps because they’re mere exceptions, American theater has produced neither much great music nor a great linguistic outpouring, or even enough memorable characters. So many of the great American playwrights seem to flame out after just a few plays, not even capable of writing three plays which are accepted worldwide as unimpeachable masterworks. Eugene O’Neill has The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and after those two everybody starts debating which of the others are great. Tennessee Williams got The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire before everybody started debating exactly where he began to decline (I think it started in Streetcar…). Arthur Miller has Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, and All My Sons has lots of champions, but then… Lorraine Hansberry had A Raisin in the Sun, and died before she wrote a worthy followup. No two theatergoers seem to agree on which the best Sam Shepherd plays are. And no two theatergoers agree on whether David Mamet is any good at all. Some feel Neil Simon is trivial, everybody's forgotten about Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets, and most have never heard of Horton Foote or Lanford Wilson (I’m pretty sure I don’t even know a play of either of theirs, I just know they exist…). Compared to all those master creators we have from movies, from television, from the best in rock and jazz, American theater provides us with preciously few insights into human beings, preciously little music worth remembering, and preciously few characters vivid enough to take with us into our lives. Aside from all the others from Britian’s peerless theatrical tradition, England has hundreds of characters merely from Shakespeare which no one will ever forget having met them for the first time. Norway and Sweden, countries with one-sixtieth our population where the claustrophobia we find in American drama was truly earned, we have all those characters from Ibsen and Strindberg: Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, Brand, Emperor Julian, Soleness, Nora, Hilda, Jacob Hummell, Miss Julie, The Stranger, Laura, and all their surrounding galleries… but among the similarly living, breathing, unforgettable characters embedded in a larger American consciousness, we have Willy Loman, Amanda Wingfield, Blanche and Stanley, the Stage Manager in Our Town, George and Martha, maybe Roy Cohn, David Mamet’s fuck patois… and that’s about it.

The comparison with England is particularly sad. In the land of Shakespeare, it can’t be denied that theat(re)er simply means means more to them than it does to us. It is the very foundation of their cultural identity as much as movies are the foundation of ours. And it also can’t be denied that the greatest plays on the British Isles, whether the English bedrock of the human condition which Shakespeare is (or his contemporaries like Marlowe or Jonson), or the Irish-English comedy of ideas that is Shaw and Wilde, have an open-air scope of the world which nearly any American play I can think of cannot possibly touch.

Last Friday night, I was in London, at a production of Julius Caesar by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was truly a production of the world – Julius Caesar done with an all-black cast as an African dictatorship. Julius Caesar is, to say the least, an imperfect Shakespeare play, with at least as many dull scenes as there are that catch fire. The action seemed endlessly rethought, with Caesar conveying his belief in Cassius’s potential treachery in front of all his subjects and portraying Brutus and Cassius’s fractiousness as a civil war within the civil war (as so many third-world civil wars become). The result was something that could only happen with a director in charge who has a bottomless command of Shakespeare’s text, and actors who took what they were doing with the utmost seriousness and integrity. The results spoke for themselves, and the makeup of the audience spoke of that wonderfully. A full half of the sold-out audience was black, and with as much diversity in age as color. This was truly Shakespeare for everybody, intended to convey a universal message which you did not have to be of any particular creed to understand. How many times do you see such a diverse audience for any show of any type in contemporary America?

Perhaps the problem isn’t American theater, perhaps the problem is theater itself. Perhaps the whole idea of theater has become so weighed down over the centuries by realism, by scenery, by the demands of production value, by the demands of professional actors and theater workers, that it simply can’t take the same flights of imagination which we see in King Lear, in Tartuffe, in The Simpsons…

The theater of Shakespeare’s time was infinitely more flexible. There was no scenery to change and the actors were mostly tradesmen who were simply happy to be onstage or working behind the scenes. There was no way of describing action or atmosphere without words, and one scene could begin at the very second another ended. The stage jutted out so far into the audience’s purview that solilioquies could be delivered in a much more intimate manner than today’s stages allow for (unless the stage is miked…). The Shakespeare plays were not just plays, they were complete entertainments – meant to service everyone from those who craved sublimity to those who preferred vulgarity. It was a complete dramatic, poetic experiment of a type that was only possible because an artform was being birthed – and there were few if any rules as yet to be followed. By the time of Moliere, there was scenery and an insistence on Aristotle’s rules of unity which made it virtually impossible for comedy and tragedy to intermingle. By the time of Ibsen, Shakespeare’s romantic notions of drama had grown so sclerotic that the best dramatists had to do away with soliloquies, blank verse, and diversity of action. Instead of watching a whole story, we watch lives unfold in their most dramatic moments. We still dine on this model, and the end result is that theater, like classical music, still subsists on models invented in the 19th century.

Even in England, they’re still chewing the comedy of ideas which George Bernard Shaw formed from one of Ibsen’s limbs. English playwrights can out-intense Americans at the claustrophobic drama game – watch Harold Pinter or Alan Ayckbourne if you want to see how intense Brits can make things onstage (be prepared). But among the elder generation of British dramatists, there is a bevy, a veritable gaggle, of dramatists who traffic primarily in ideas: Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Peter Shaffer, Ronald Harwood, David Hare, Alan Bennett,,. It’s not exactly an approach to drama that seems to be granted a much longer life than it already has, but it’s healthier than ours and shows that book learning still has a place on their stages even if it doesn’t on our’s.

Is there any hope for American theater? Have there been any truly great creators of it whose total you could stack against the greatest dramatists of history, or the greatest filmmakers among their contemporaries? Well…yes, probably two, one of whom is great enough that perhaps all this grousing is completely unnecessary. Two is a paltry number, but for the ‘posterity’ game, two may be all that’s needed to add a fourth name to the SMI (Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen) Index.

Leaving aside David Mamet who is as much a moviemaker as he is a playwright, there are only two theatrical writers who to me have managed beyond dispute to build a career of masterful play after masterful play out of all the wreckage which surrounds them.  

(In case you’re wondering what people 300 years from now will regard as the classic of narcissistic upper-middle class urban alienation, it’s probably Company. A claustrophobic American drama which suggests that life may be beautiful all the same.)

One is Stephen Sondheim – a theatrical creator on the level of Shakespeare and Mozart who built a world apart from the movies that let him use Broadway as a laboratory to grow human beings realer than real humans. Is Sondheim truly on their level? Well, maybe…. for linguistic command he may be the one stage writer of all time who can box in Shakespeare’s ring, and even if his musicals are generally not made of the same life-or-death stuff as Shakespeare, their characters do feel extraordinarily real. But his most amazing quality is that he’s done all this during the most fallow possible period. Sondheim has taken the insipid banalities of music theater and created something miraculous out of them – a complete entertainment that challenges intellectually, inspires serious pathos as much humor, and provides dozens of memorable characters (especially his women…Joanne, Desiree Armfeldt, Sally Durant Plummer, Dot, the Witch, and Fosca), any one of which could become as iconic as Sweeney Todd and Mamma Rose in another fifty years. History may show that he is the new way forward for drama – and dramatists, who now have more to do with song lyricists than prose, have at least as much to chew on for as long as they have with Ibsen. Posterity has an odd way of connecting people who should never be connected, and Sondheim may be remembered as the shadow-twin of Bob Dylan. Both of them were far, far more impressive lyricists than they were composers, and their music – so to speak - is nothing but a glove on which to fit some of the most complicated, poetic, mythical lyrics that will ever be written.  The themes of Dylan’s music generally look toward the future and toward the folk music of the forgotten man, Sondheim looks nostalgically toward a world of sophistication now forgotten and wistfully remembers the gin-soaked urbanities of the 20’s cocktail bar. Oddly enough, because he was shielded from the frustrations of the movie industry, his impact may one day turn out to be larger than any American moviemaker of his time. And yet even Sondheim found the circumstances in which he created theater to be so difficult that for the last twenty years he’s barely produced any new musicals – he's now in his early eighties and long since unable to summon the fortitude to keep going at the blistering pace he once set. In a better world, we’d have had twice as many Sondheim musicals as we do now. 

(The Piano Lesson. An American answer to The Cherry Orchard set among a black family in The Depression)

The other is August Wilson, whose achievement is in some ways more astounding than Sondheim’s. Sondheim was the son of Manhattan socialites with a degree from Williams College who became a writer of musicals because he grew up as the next-door neighbor of Oscar Hammerstein. August Wilson was a high-school dropout who educated himself by going to the public library. But the rather condescending calculus of overcoming adversity doesn’t do him justice. What makes Wilson amazing is the gallery of characters: Boy Willie and Wining Boy, Troy and Cory Maxon, Bynum and Loomis – caught in historical forces past anything within their control. The fact that these characters are black frees them from the confines of ‘proper’ English language, allowing them to express themselves with a memorable distinctness that is entirely missing from Wilson’s white counterparts. Wilson is the modern master of American plays, and while it’s good that he lived to complete the Pittsburgh cycle, it’s a shame he couldn’t write any more afterwards.

But the fact that there are so few with a consistently awesome achievement makes it all the more sad when compared to the larger worlds of movies and TV. While O’Neill, Miller and Williams were exploring the suffocating inbred air of the single-room chamber drama; Welles, Hitchcock and Hawks were taking the entire world into their gaze. Whereas Mamet, Neil LaBute and Tracy Letts are perpetually stuck on shock mode, we have series like The Sopranos and Mad Men for which shock is just one weapon in an encyclopedic arsenal. Whereas Shakespeare could get through seven scenes in twenty minutes, we’re lucky now if we get through the prologue in that amount of time.

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