Sunday, May 22, 2005

Exegesis H. Christ!

Wow. I even got corrected on the type of muscle used in shrugging. Fair enough. I promise to link to DCeiver and Theaterboy as soon as I figure out the code on this thing. I've been entertaining my mom for the past three days, so it's just another post for now. I promise we'll get back to elegaic descriptions of the hinterland soon enough.

First off, let’s say it’s rather obvious that articactor has plenty of reading and living to do before he disses the canon anymore. The whole tirade started as a corollary to another topic and my first and only point at the time was that maybe, just maybe, we as theatre-makers are responsible for the fashionable lament that comes with a dying art form. And that maybe (juuuuuuuuuuuuust maybe) our over-reliance on what’s already been done has something to do with that. I wish I could hand out $500k MacArthur Genius Grants, but since I can’t … I gotta look at what we’re making here and how it could be better.

Some replies …

Trillum: I didn’t mean to suggest that King Lear doesn’t have a worthy theme. I was talking about the bitter, honest heart of most productions. Not the bitter, honest heart of the text. The hyper-contextualization that wins so many design awards (and sells so many tickets) also tends to eclipse exactly what you’re talking about.* You explained it beautifully in your post, but I was taking aim at the giddy industry surrounding a re-mount, not the play being re-mounted. Sorry if it sounded that way. And I’m sorry if it sounded like I was putting words in your mouth with that comment about farce. What started me off was the idea that farce (in your words) is the ultimate deconstruction, when I think that farce, because of its necessary plot mechanics, can actually build more than it tears down.

As for Discovery and History … oh boy. Yes, you can have one without the other. It’s no trick to make history. History happens by default. Discovery requires effort. Ancient Egypt sat down and squatted for a few millennia and produced gobs of History. But the culture remained fundamentally untouched and unmoved for the same period of time. The Middle Ages was a grinding halt for European History -- a good stretch of time where the only forward motion (in philosophy, science, or art) was the dutiful collapse into a Christian grave. Years passed, history happened. But discovery sat waiting. Again, all I meant with my original statement was that our allegiance to History should never be greater than our respect for Discovery. That doesn’t mean we should forget the past; it means the past is not legitimate simply because it happened already.

Shirley: Glad you brought up Kushner. I still think he’s one of the best we’ve got. I love reading his essays and interviews, too. Especially the one about how pretentiousness is the American birthright.** I do think he incriminates himself a little when he says he’s out to preach to the converted (much the way Mamet impeached himself in True and False when he wrote that "plays are better read than seen"). With that in mind, Bright Room Called Day works great and shoulda been done in DC before the 2004 election. What I love about Kushner is that I can’t critique him without getting political -- and that’s exactly what he’s after. I saw Caroline, or Change in NYC and had a good time, despite my hatred for musicals. Still wondering why he wanted to make Angels in America into an HBO miniseries. It’s easily the best play of the last 25 years and its chief asset is its pure theatricality. It was a triumph for theatre itself. The HBO series was good and I’m glad more people got to see it, but those eight glorious acts cut to the heart of what I’m saying here.


Within the anthology of one-word titles, I’ll defend Wit and Rent to the death, but definitely not Proof. Bunch of reasons. It’s a touching family trauma-drama, yes, but I see no reason for it to contain mathematical geniuses and there’s nothing especially revolutionary in its construction. I don’t know what the Pulitzer Prize committee is looking for when they make their nominations each year, but I used to think (on evidence of Wit, Rent, and Angels in America), that the prize went to works that were not only well-made, but also ground-breaking in some way. Proof is the Well Made Play through and through. But it subverts, rather than enhances, our understanding of smart people and mental health.

There’s a larger trend here. Like Good Will Hunting, Pi, A Beautiful Mind, and oodles of other recent movies on the subject, Proof is profoundly anti-intellectual. Put short, the featured geniuses are freaks, emotional cripples, or just plain loony. This characterization is depressing enough (as is the sad adage about the double-edged sword), but there’s more to it than that. As Americans, I think we have a hard time comprehending the existence of smart people unless they’re tethered to one form of Hell or another. In story after story, they’re either corrupt, immature, insane, or just plain evil. I say “as Americans” because the same brain-bashing has been going on in the political arena since the days of Adlai Stevenson. But back to theatre:

The neo-Faustian catalog is more dangerous because we think we’re actually watching a celebration of the human intellect. But look at the characters. They possess not a whit of intelligence on the conceptual level; it’s all the spectacle of fact-accumulation or processing speed. Catherine even says her father didn’t solve problems, he just had the ability to lob thousands of incorrect answers at the problem until the right one came up: “He was slogging. He just did it so fast, it looked like magic.” That’s also why Matt Damon’s character can rattle off a list of his “soul-mates” (which includes Kant, Neitzsche, Freud, Shakespeare, Pope, Locke, and others, apparently), and yet he never does anything to show why he considers them soul-mates. There’s no sign that any of these names from the Brainiac Box-set has had any effect on what he values, how he thinks, or what he wants to do with his life (even in the end). They’re just a stack of references, bench-pressed into his cranium for bar-side brawls on the economy of the southern colonies.

Likewise, Auburn makes it clear that he’s not out to teach us anything about the beauty of mathematics. This even became a selling point for regional productions: “You don’t have to know anything about math to enjoy Proof!” Yay! But he cheats us out of more interesting characters, too. In the first scene, he chooses to establish Catherine’s intelligence by how quickly she can answer a math problem. This intermittent flexing is the closest we come to seeing genius in action. Hal keeps making references to how brilliant her father was, but never really goes beyond saying he’s brilliant over and over. None of the characters discuss the centerpiece proof for what it is; all we know is that it’s really tough. As if the casual symbolism wasn’t evident already, we actually have Hal saying, “There’s no proof you wrote this proof!” I always expect the stage manager to hop out of the booth at that point and pipe up on the God-mike to ask, “Everybody with us now?”

In other words, the father could have been a brilliantly insane plumber who haunts the memory of his apprentice daughter. The daughter performs an inexplicably complex sewage-pipe repair job and everyone argues whether or not she inherited her dad’s alcoholism along with his monkey wrench. Hal could say, “You’re full of shit if you say you fixed that shitter!” And the same dynamic would be in play.

It’s like how Mamet unfairly stacks the deck against Carol (to say nothing of the audience) in Oleanna. John isn’t just a teacher. He’s a Teacher who “teaches” about the subject of teaching. Their arguments are buried underneath layers of Teaching, “teaching,” and teaching and it’s no wonder they can’t hear each other clearly. If Mamet wrote about a biology professor dealing with a struggling student, I doubt he’d have much of a story left. The crime here (as with Proof) is that we think we’re learning something. In Oleanna, it’s sexual harassment, the teacher-student relationship, patriarchy, etc. In Proof, it’s math, genius, and mental health. But in the end, they’re pretty simple human stories that have little to do with their particular backdrops.

Now, you can choose any backdrop for a family trauma-drama, sure. But stories like this reduce the entire idea of intelligence to a few cute flexes and a hell of a lot of pain, misery, and madness. It’s a package deal, insanity and genius. But it's possible to have one without the other. And maybe we should do more to celebrate the latter than ennoble the former.

Contrast this with Wit, where the life’s work of a metaphysical poetry scholar locks perfectly with the life-and-death battle happening on stage. Vivian never abdicates her brain or regrets what she’s chosen to do with her life before phase IV metastatic ovarian cancer hits. Best of all, Margaret Edson wasn’t out to show how being brilliant was analogous to having cancer (the way the prodigious schizoids are married to their malady in Proof). No. Vivian uses her intelligence to understand, fight, and ultimately conquer death. Plus, the lessons she learns about human relationships don’t come at the expense of being smart. And (get this!) we actually learn something about Donne, death and drama along the way. The subject, object, theme, and characters are inseparable. And like all amazing plays, it resists adaptation to the screen.***


*You deserve better than that -- but I’ve seen two productions of Lear recently. One at the Guthrie and one at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park and I’ll be damned if they knew what the real focus of the play should be. The design was lovely in both instances. As a consequence, the lobby-talk was about broader historical relevance and not the human drama on display. Made me sad.


***Did anyone see that Emma Thompson HBO version? CHRIST! Emma’s great, but she played the woman as though she were already dead.


yvette said...

a strong design will highlight every "i" the director forgot to dot in high concept productions. be careful how you use "the design was lovely, but...." i have more to say about this, but i'll wait until i have you in person with the option of dumping my cup of coffee on you. ha.

The Deceiver said...

I'v egone back and forth on OLEANNA over the years. I can tell you that at the outset, when I thought it was a "Play About Sexual Harassment", I didn't like it.

Later, however, I realized that the play was actually a criticism of higher education--lazy meretricious teachers and lousy students that glom on to whatever fancy fucking fad grabs a hold of their coward minds. OLEANNA was conceived and written not long after Mamet got turned down for an academic position. Coincidence?

At any rate, both characters are insufferable and stupid, so you have to suck it up and deal with that fact before you sit down and watch it. Not one of Mamet's best.

Anonymous said...

OH LORD...Don't go self-censuring or over-editing your dissing and ranting! You're at your most entertaining and throught provoking when torching at full throttle! Kinda' sad if your Algonquin Tundra-table got all prissy and "tippy-toeing."

Yeah, I know that passionate actor up there must know where the heart of Lear resides -- just HAD to give you a hard time so you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater...Lear is a real touchstone for me.

Agree wholeheartedly with you on the mechanics of farce. My one-liner was an inept analogy -- (rephrase) Farce always feels like the ultimate deconstruction of my life and sacred cows when I'm falling on my ass laughing at a good script. And as anarchy is a touchstone for me as well, I'm compelled to champion the "spirit" of artists who can make deconstruction work. A farceur like Ludlam is such a gleeful anarchist when exploring gender politics by toying with "Camille" or desconstructing the romanticism in the texts of "Wuthering Heights" and "Rebecca" to create an "Irma Vep." And although the score card for deconstruction shows more hits than misses, I think the "D" color shouldn't be decommissioned from the crayola box just yet.

Great dissertation on "Wit," "Proof," et al...wish more folks had access to those scratchings.


yermom said...

Yoo-hoo! Just interjecting a loving wave to you... and a huge thanks for putting up with a visit from your dottering mum and her obsessions with clean socks...

Ok, you can go back to your rants now.

p.s.... If you ever do get "prosaic" again, tell your readers about how it feels to have every young local female swooning around you at the Imperial. Sure, only a few had their own teeth, but you're beating the odds! I'm proud.

mary said...


I'm going to bravely (or stupidly) disagree with you on Proof. And genius.

I loved Proof. Thought is was brilliant, even. Because it was a trauma drama that spoke to the phenomenology of genius.

It showed genius being everyday, being inherited, being a burden, being a blessing. It is no more or less than being a gifted baker or a gifted plumber.

People drink, people live, love, die, eat, sleep, write complex math equations, go to frozen tundras, etc. etc. etc. (Etc. may have been a better name for the play, actually).

Proof illustrated the equation of genius, not the sum total. No one knows *that* answer.


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