Friday, November 27, 2015

800 Words: What is Theater For?

I’m going to start this article with the most left-handed compliment I can think of. In my by no means expert opinion, two of the three best plays in the very small canon of American Theater are August Wilson’s two Pulitzer winning plays from the late 80s: Fences and The Piano Lesson.

It would be ludicrous to pretend that either of the two is close to flawless, and I can easily think of well over a dozen musicals I’d prefer watching to either that are better constructed, more entertaining, and more moving. Some of them aren’t even by Stephen Sondheim!

But the only other work of American ‘straight’ theater that strikes me as anything more profound, more affecting, more entertaining, more original, than that pair by Wilson is that hackneyed to the point of wholesome irrelevance play that every high school has mounted for seventy-five years: Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Our Town is a work of perfect balance. It uses the most bizarre, the most avant-garde, the most alienating grab bag of techniques the theater ever knew how to produce to give the most spiritual possible illumination to the ordinary, the banal.

America doesn’t do theater. Sure, every nerd acted in a few plays in high school, but very few of us have anything to do with theater thereafter. We are, literally, the country of movies and TV. There is almost no reason for an American theater to exist. The best plays, the few plays all cultured people still go out of their ways to see and read and remember, were all premiered by the early 60’s. A Long Day’s Journey into Night is most people’s choice for the ‘Great American Play’, and in America’s cultural memory, it’s a piece of the mid-50’s. But Eugene O’Neill wrote it by 1942 and only allowed it to be premiered after he died. He's fundamentally a playwright of the inter-war years when London, not New York, was still the center of the English-speaking theater. There’s no question that O’Neill’s a great American playwright, but there’s little that’s American about O'Neill. Both A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh could just as easily take place in Ireland as in America.

By 1947, Tennessee Williams wrote his two immortal plays - The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. He wrote a number of plays in the 50’s that could still join those other two in the ‘canon’, but everybody seems to agree that his last play that touches greatness is Night of the Iguana, which premiered in 1961. He spent his last twenty years as a sad drunken celebrity, celebrated for accomplishments that were a generation in the past but knowing that there's no way he could ever equal them again.

Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, The Crucible in 1953, A View from the Bridge in 1955. He went silent for ten years, during which he married, divorced, wrote screenplays for, and mourned, Marilyn Monroe. After A View from the Bridge, he lived another 50 years. He wrote many more plays as an older man, all of which were premiered with the best actors and directors in the best theaters on Broadway with extreme advance hype. Some of them did respectably well, yet everyone who hoped that Miller would once again speak with his old voice was disappointed.
Miller and Williams were both dinosaurs by the time they were fifty. When American movies were as good as they began to be in the late-60’s, there was no reason for theater to merit people’s attention. Year by year, more of the best talent went westward to California, and Broadway had the ‘leavings.’ During the first half of the century, if you wanted to understand America, you had to spend some time in New York or Chicago; but in the second half, you had to spend that time in the West.

In the following generations, if you were at gifted writer of dialogue, it was almost a given that you went into movies, not theater. A screenwriter doesn’t have nearly as much power as a playwright, but in today’s world, a successful screenwriter makes thousands of times more money and has an audience thousands of times as large. Even if the power dynamic between director and writer is reversed in movies, it is this very reversal which ensures that the director who interprets his work will be hundreds of times more competent than the directors who generally get their hands on a playwright’s work in the theater.

Generally speaking, to be a writer in contemporary America that devotes himself to the theater rather than film or TV, you either have to be one of three things: insane, mediocre, or of a specialty much narrower than an American. Arthur Miller understood what it meant to write plays that speak for the American everyman, but if you asked him to write about any other subject, he wouldn’t know how to do it. In an era when the world is dominated by niches, a work of art can’t plausibly presume to speak for everyone. 

In the generation after Williams and Miller, the dominant American playwright is unquestionably David Mamet. There’s no doubting that Mamet is a great playwright of a certain kind, but there’s something almost sociopathic about his plays. His plays are less considerations about human feelings and failings than they are elaborate mind puzzles which trap his characters inside a maze of suffering and rarely ask his audiences to feel anything but contempt for his case studies. It’s not surprising that as he draws closer to old age he’s become the textbook definition of a hectoring conservative. Mamet is also smart enough to do as much work in movies and TV as he does in theater, but even David Mamet hasn’t had an unqualified theatrical hit since Oleanna, his dangerous and ballsy 1992 examination of political correctness that would be picketed every day of a modern Broadway run. 

Edward Albee is also a great playwright, but he’s a playwright of narrow vision and focus, without much horizon beyond displays of great contempt for the rich Wasp class to which he still belongs. His last unqualified hit was 2002’s The Goat, which I had the great pleasure of seeing in 2004 London during only it’s second run with Jonathan Pryce and a very young Eddie Redmayne (though he’s exactly my age…). But great as Albee’s plays can be, they are as nasty and sadistic as Mamet’s and far less universal than Mamet’s in relatability. In the early 2000’s, he’d scored in The Goat, which was a hit because, like all his other hits, he sends up the taboos of rich intellectual WASPs, and he was only able to make a hit in the 2000’s by including bestiality. But even when the theme of the play is bestiality, it’s a miracle that Edward Albee could ever score a hit in the 21st century. He has about as much relevance to contemporary culture as a fainting couch.

Speaking of no relevance to American life, how is Neil Simon suddenly so unremembered and unloved? For thirty years, he was easily the most beloved playwright in America, portraying New Yorkers in a manner that made them instantly relateable outside the New York bubble in a manner Woody Allen’s movies never were. Nevertheless, like Woody Allen, Neil Simon represents a world that no longer exists; the world when New York was the center of culture, the world when plays were more important than movies; when Broadway connoted even more frision in people’s minds than Hollywood, the world when all the songs everybody knew came from Tin Pan Alley. For most people, Neil Simon’s main attraction was nostalgia for that era. In an era when people are finally too young to feel that nostalgia, his name suddenly disappeared. 

There are others who are also-rans at best. At this point, Sam Shepard hasn’t had a hit in nearly thirty years, and by now is as well remembered for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (itself not a particularly well-known movie) as he is for any of his plays. Tracy Letts is rather derivative, Christopher Durang’s popularity subsists on schtick that improv comics do every night, while John Patrick Shanley and David Auburn seem like one-hit wonders. I still haven’t seen anything by Horton Foote or Lanford Wilson, and I’ll be seeing my first Donald Margulies plays in a week or two (hopefully, more on them in the next issue). 

America is too diverse to ever be captured on anything so small as a stage. Modern theater, with all the lumbering history it carries within itself - is unfit for a stage as grand as America. Few in our visual age will ever accept a new playwright who flits as Shakespeare did from place to place in thirty seconds with only words to paint the scene. Few in our ironic age will ever accept a sincere attempt by a new playwright at Shakespearean flights of rhetoric. Few in our democratic age will ever accept the Greek idea that the most tragic figures must fall from a height. Few in our era of widespread creature comforts will ever accept the Ibsenite idea that every trip to the theater requires the audience to see a politically radical upending of society’s expectations (though that doesn’t stop today’s theater from trying...). These demands for scenery in place of language, for everyday characters no more articulate than the man on the street, for the continual flattery of traditional mores, makes for the kind of experience that renders drama as limp as Hamlet elocuted by Keanu Reeves. Drama requires use of language to describe the world rather than visuals, it needs grand mythical characters rather than everyday men and women, it needs radical tinkering with deeply held beliefs, and these are the most un-American choices an artist can make.

This is why the most interesting modern American dramatists are the ones who choose a very narrow focus within America. The distance which most of us have from narrow subjects is what makes us able to see the characters involved as people larger-than-life. August Wilson can write a character like Troy Maxson and in him we see not only a conflicted father and adult coping with the effects of extreme racism and abuse, but the eternal pain and dashed hopes of the entire Black experience in America. Tony Kushner can resurrect Roy Cohn from recent history, and in him we see thousands of years of homosexual self-loathing. Wendy Wasserstein can create Heidi Holland, and in her we see not just a naive girl in New York, but perhaps the first generation of women in world history with opportunities that begin to approach the opportunities of their male peers. In each of these cases, it’s the fact that most Americans can’t relate to the particulars of these characters that make them charismatic and compelling.  

But if you want to create a mythology for the whole of America rather than a small part of it, it’s almost a given that you can only do it with the immensity and flexibility of the modern screen. I recently found a list of the 100 greatest screenplays from the Writer’s Guild Association of America. Obviously, they needed to skew the list towards more contemporary movies to make people pay attention - it’s generally taken as a given that as special effects gradually subsumed movies, Hollywood screenplays gradually became more simple-minded just as Broadway did. By and large, that’s probably true, but look at this honor roll of screenplays from just the last 50 years they listed:
Chinatown, Annie Hall, Network, The Godfather (I & II), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction, Tootsie, The Shawshank Redemption, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, Fargo, The Usual Suspects, Midnight Cowboy, American Beauty, The Sting, When Harry Met Sally, Goodfellas, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Schindler’s List, The Sixth Sense, Broadcast News, All The President’s Men, Manhattan, Apocalypse Now, Back to the Future, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Ordinary People, LA Confidential, The Silence of the Lambs, Moonstruck, Jaws, Terms of Endearment, Jerry Maguire, ET, Star Wars, Dog Day Afternoon, The Lion in Winter, Thelma and Louise, Amadeus, Being John Malkovich, Raging Bull, Adaptation, Rocky, The Producers, Witness, Being There, Cool Hand Luke, The Princess Bride, Harold and Maude, Field of Dreams, Forrest Gump, Sideways, The Verdict, Do the Right Thing, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Wild Bunch, and Memento.

You don’t have to like, see, or even have heard of all these movies to notice the difference. It also doesn’t hurt this point to admit that a handful of these were written by professional playwrights, or that three of these were plays before they were movies. And yet, most of these, were they made 30-50 years earlier, would have been created to be plays, and most of them would make damn good ones. It’s probably only a matter of time before Broadway, so risk-averse by now that they fashion nearly every new musical from a hit movie, decides that if they can make musicals from movies, why can’t they make plays? Translating a screenplay to a play takes a lot less work than translating a screenplay into a musical.

There was a time, perhaps only a brief one, when it truly wasn’t like this. In the 1950’s, Small Town America, fresh from its ‘European excursion,’ had a real fling with culture. American young adults of the 1950s spent their adolescence in the 30’s, when they watched movies whose directors were European theater technicians, scored by eminent European composers, featuring villains played by eminent European actors. Many of them spent the 1940’s going on ‘trips’ to Europe, where they saw people living in situations which seemed to them of a deprivation and degradation unimaginable even to the most desperate throes of The Great Depression. These soldiers saw firsthand that culture and art was all which Europeans had to sustain themselves through a century of death. When the American soldiers returned, they had their own grief through which they had to process, and even Hollywood’s best movies of that period weren’t reliable guides through it. 

It would be another twenty-five years before movies as good as Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter could truly explore the full darkness of war. In the WWII Era and its aftermath, it was mostly in that European form: the Novel, that Americans could process what it meant to survive a war: just in mid-century America, we had A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Naked and the Dead, The Good Earth, The Thin Red Line, Johnny Tremain, Battle Cry, Catch-22, The Winds of War, The Caine Mutiny, Johnny Got His Gun, The Hunters, From Here to Eternity; a little later, we also had alternative, more actively pacifist, takes on war like Slaughterhouse Five. If you wanted to read international or classic fiction, you could also process war by reading War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Goodbye to All That, Gone with the Wind, The Quiet American, Homage to Catalonia, Doctor Zhivago, Empire of the Sun, Red Cavalry, Life and Fate, Journey to the End of the Night, Men at Arms, Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings,The Last of the Mohicans, Covenant with Death, Parade’s End, The Debacle, All three parts of Henry VI, The Aeneid, The Iliad, and the Peloponnesian Wars and so many others. Nevertheless, war is a canvas much too vast to be contained by the theater stage, even in Shakespeare, war was more often something almost incidental to the plots rather than central. If Shakespeare couldn’t do it, then there was no point when American theater had anything profound to say about something so consequential to life as mass death. Even so, American theater certainly benefitted from the renewed American attention to profundity.

There can’t be much more than half-a-dozen plays from this era that will still command a substantial audience in a hundred years, but when you combine the output of great plays we all love with the great novels of the period we still read, and the art we still look at with the musicals we listen to, you begin to realize that this era was glorious. Until now, it seems the best that ‘the arts’ will ever do in America, and it was completely over in less than twenty years. 

America is not a house made to shelter playwrights and novelists and composers and painters. Creativity incubated within the European model of solitary creation can’t possibly sustain itself in a country that demands a headline a week from its celebrities. There were literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young intellectual celebrities whose genius-level inspiration dried up by the Kennedy Assassination. The arts are a European plant which we attempted to put down on American soil - there was no way the plant was ever going to take root without substantial mutations. It is probably impossible to be a great artist and also be a modern celebrity. 

This is why the appearance of August Wilson is so encouraging. He’s no Shakespeare, and he doesn’t need to be. In 400 years, he’ll probably be considered a compelling but minor voice - of his ten plays from the “Pittsburgh Cycle”, his reputation’s truly only made from four of them: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences, and The Piano Lesson. Of those four, only the latter two seem to inspire genuine love in their audiences. When I saw Fences at Everyman Theater last week, I realized that it was as profoundly moving a play as anything I’ll ever see in a theater, but even so, it’s a play with very serious flaws. 

Rather than dramatizing Troy Maxson’s story, we simply hear about it in retrospect. The fight between father and son is circled around for so long that by the time we see how it happens, it’s almost anti-climactic - and perhaps it’s meant to be. A character as dominating as Troy Maxson requires that the wattage on all the other characters be turned down, but Wilson could have turned the theatrical screws still tighter by making Troy’s wife and son into legitimate counterweights with enough personal baggage that the outcome of psychological battles between them are not a foregone conclusion. 

And yet, when Troy Maxson describes his wrestling match with death, you can hear echoes within it from Jacob wrestling with the Angel to Gilgamesh wrestling with Enkidu, from Reverend Barbee’s sermon in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Martin Luther King’s Mountaintop speech. The isolation of Black culture from White American life means that Wilson can employ a heightened, Shakespeare-like form of Black rhetoric without sounding absurd to white ears. The effect is the kind of awesome sublimity that reminds you why some of us sit through mediocre production after production, hoping that once in a blue moon, we can experience a moment exactly like this.

Fences works because every family prosperous enough to afford a theater ticket has a man or woman as iconic as Troy Maxson - the all too vivid link to what your family was like when times, difficult as they may still be, were so much harder. Whether your family’s Troy had anything near as hard a life as Troy did, seeing Troy at this dramatic juncture is like seeing a home movie of a legendary but long-deceased grandparent with the full power of their personality scorching from the screen. Or remembering that iconic moment in your life when your most larger-than-life relative relates everything to you about what made him the person he was. It’s the work of oral history that every family can only wish for.

Within the universe of August Wilson is a reorientation from one kind of play to another. Ever since Ibsen and Strindberg, theater has been a refuge where political radicals can dramatize the social ills of society in a confrontational manner that forces the audience to reconsider everything about their place in the universe. 

The problem with this view of theater is that it views art as nothing more than a subordinate arm to social justice. Nevertheless, it’s a model that worked brilliantly for theater for a long, long time. While the great Russians - Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - bewitched the world with novels whose only limitation was the human imagination, the great Scandinavians - Ibsen and Strindberg - trapped audiences in their own living rooms and mercilessly showed them what was wrong with their lives. Was this use of theater as a didactic tool of any ultimate benefit to mankind… well… Who cares? What’s done is done. 

This model did, however, work as theater for a long time, because such questions of social justice are not just political. They force each of us to ask questions about the state of our own souls, our well-being, our place in the world and the universe. That, ultimately, is what any powerful work of art should be able to make us do. At least in that sense, history proved that social justice is a subordinate arm to art. 

But with every passing generation, that copy of Ibsen’s original revelation gets dimmer. We have long since realized as much as we’re ever going to that it’s wrong to trap women in the role of bourgeois housewife, and that modern society places impossible demands on families that require obscene dishonesty and hypocrisy to fulfill. Ibsen survives because we can all relate to the situations he describes, and our great-grandchildren will probably relate to them too. 

Politics is never far from art, and hopefully this ‘magazine’ will be a living testimony to that fact, but art is much larger than politics. Art is not simply a hammer to create the society we want to live in, it is, among many other things, a space where we can contemplate exactly what society we want to live in long and hard before we ever pick up that hammer. The saying allegedly goes: “Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.” Before we even agitate for any social change, we have to be as sure as humanly possible that the social change we long to see is the correct change.
This is why it is so crucial for us all to seek out artists who can render so specifically what it’s like to be a person whose experience is so different than your own - who can point out all those subtle places where their experiences are just like yours, and all those perhaps more obvious places where the experiences are 100% different. You can, perhaps, get this perspective by seeking out people who are different from you in your own life, but you can never truly be an outside observer to your own life. It is only through the balance sheet that great art brings us that we can get something resembling an objective view of what life is really like. 

You can’t separate art from politics, but you can separate politics from art. The truths art elicits are deeper and more elusive than anything that can be captured in any political ideology. Anyone who cares about art more than politics can immediately spot an artist whose first duty is to his creation as easily as we can spot a hack who uses art as a nail on which he can hang his message. It’s by art that we will acquire a deeper appreciation of the best way to approach politics, not the other way around. 

In 2015, David Mamet seems more and more like another dinosaur - his plays are a bit like Scorsese movies with a proscenium and without the violence. So now that Mamet has been put out to pasture, just about everybody who watches theater would agree that the two great recent playwrights who are still relevant are August Wilson, even though he’s been dead for ten years, and Tony Kushner.
Both Wilson and Kushner have long experience as political radicals. Perhaps the passion of their radicalism animated them to create what they did, but politics was not the point of what they wrote. The point of what they wrote was to humanize types of people who otherwise would have very little humanity in the eyes of your average upper-middle-class white theater audience.

Tony Kushner is THE playwright of our era. And yet he’s basically known for a single play, Angels in America, which was premiered twenty-two years ago. Granted, the play is actually three plays presented over two nights, but in some ways, there lies the problem. There is no questioning that Angels in America is a powerful work, but its power comes in spite of the fact that there are parts of it that seem almost unwatchably bad. He’s tried, twice, to replicate the success of Angels with similarly ambitious canvases, I’ve neither seen nor read either attempt, but both received mostly negative reviews. 

The problem with Angels in America is that politics keeps creeping in. It isn’t simply enough to portray Republican opponents as real people who perhaps have terribly mistaken beliefs. Instead, Kushner feels the need, over and over again, to sermonize against their beliefs, just in case we don’t get the message - as though this would come as any kind of provocation to your average theatergoer, who is liberal enough that they would agree with anything Kushner has to say about Republicans. When you add to this that Kushner uses the play to champion the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg, even though more evidence turns up of her guilt with every decade, this sermonizing turns into an unpardonable sin. In 2015, as Republicans become more and more insane, Angels in America seems more important than ever, perhaps even prophetic; but time and distance do weird things. In a few generations, nobody’s going to care about the political fights of our time, and these passages will probably feel as stale to us as Clifford Odets inveighing against capitalist robber barons during the Great Depression. 

Angels in America works not because of its political agenda but in spite of it. It works because of Kushner’s obviously deep familiarity with his subject. Just as August Wilson can capture the rhythms and flavor of what it means to be black, Tony Kushner can capture the rhythms and flavor of what it means to be gay. It works because of it humanizes gay people to liberal hypocrites who support gay rights in the abstract but judge the gay people in their own lives. 

And there lies the rub. At least in the cases of August Wilson and Tony Kushner, unlike the case of Arthur Miller, we encounter artists who clearly know whereof they speak. Both Wilson and Kushner understand from the inside how people like their characters think, how they talk, what they talk about, and what they do. Arthur Miller’s great strength is that he can write so generally that his ‘everymen’ feel mythical, as though they could be standins for you or I or anybody else. But Miller, for his considerable strengths, could never write Willy Loman as anything more specific than an American everyman, or Eddie Carbone as anything but the ‘boobus Americanus.’ So how much more out of place would he have felt had the world of letters demanded him to write more specifically about what it meant to be a New York Jewish immigrant as Henry Roth or Bernard Malamud did? If Arthur Miller had to spend his career peppering his plays with local color, his is a name we’d probably never hear.

If a writer tried to do what Arthur Miller did today, it would be risible. American experience in recent decades is so diverse that the only everyman that everybody agrees represents all of America is Homer Simpson - a badly drawn TV cartoon avatar whose only limit for the situations a writer can plausibly put him in is, once again, just the human imagination. 

Movies and TV have rendered theater almost irrelevant in America. As a way of rendering the entire American experience, there is no way theater can compete with them. In musical theater, Stephen Sondheim managed the trick, but only because of his deep familiarity with older, more Europe-influenced, forms of music theater - vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, classical music, and other such genres which hold no interest for his erstwhile successors. 

Until somebody figures out a way to continue Sondheim’s way of doing music theater, we’re still stuck with the diminishing returns of the Ibsen model - socially relevant dramas that take place in a living room. What we need in something as small as the theater is small subjects, and record all the minute details of life in very specific circumstances, and giving them the full attention and dignity they deserve. And by doing that, we can create something universal. The audience will see these people who appear so different from them, and experience the exact sort of mimesis Aristotle said that great tragedy should inspire in us. When we watch Troy Maxson, everybody sees own father. When we watch Louis Ironson, everybody sees their close cousin who mysteriously dropped out of their lives as an adult. When we watch Joe and Harper Pitt, everybody sees the couple next door with a husband who’s clearly trapped in the closet. When we watch Berniece or Lena Younger, everybody sees their own mother or grandmother whose unshakeable love and faith kept their families together. When we watch Boy Willie or Walter Younger, everybody feels their own desperation to prove ourselves to a world that conspires to make us fail. 

It’s only by recording the small subjects in front of our noses that today’s playwright can create anything universal. The more specific the subject, the more universal it gets. Everybody knows people like these characters, and by the audience seeing the similarities in these characters to people in their own lives, drama does, yet again, what art is supposed to do.

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