Thursday, May 19, 2005

Now We're Talking


I write one pissy post about the state of contemporary playwriting and ... I get lots of responses! Cool. I'm sorry if it sounded like I was saying there were no worthwhile voices out there. Thanks to the anonymous commentor who rattled off a list of them -- effective rebuke, anon. With the possible exception of LaBute (who's getting a little reductum ad bogosian lately) and Craig Wright (who can't leave a morality tale without the author's claw-marks all over it), I'd agree: there's plenty to be excited about.

But I find myself excited more about the craft than the content with these writers. What I miss is something eminently theatrical in the theatre. It doesn't have to be spectacle, but it does have to be something that we can only receive through shared space in a room. Guirgis, for all his delicious verbosity, hasn't written a scene that couldn't be just as effective on a television screen, or, for that matter, the radio. I don't expect writers to undo the entire organism of commercial theatre with every play they write, but I would like to see a story where the playwright's quill wasn't visibly shoving the characters into direction between scenes.

I think theatre flourishes when cultural geography means something; when time and space (and especially space) are the worthy frontiers. As Americans we often feel exempt from geographic reality, eschewing the uncomfortable space between enemies for a psychological landscape of the same. This psycho-drama is alternately sensationalist or post-modern (Ravenhill and Kane versus Chuck Mee et al) -- but ultimately useless, depending on who's in the audience that night. It all has its place, but not in the theatre. I'm not asking for total allegiance to the Aristotelean unities; and I'm certainly not trying to hash out a Neoclassical aesthetic. I just wish all that effort we spent resurrecting the dead masters went into a more courageous advocacy of ... well ... almost any of the names on that anonymous post.

At the bitter, honest heart of any re-make of King Lear is the mere thrill of historical relevancy -- which, in this case, would be useful for any would-be emporers out there, but not really anyone else. For the groundlings, it's the wind in your hair as you bolt through the centuries, agog at "just how damn relevant that really old play was!" Which, again, has its place. But it shouldn't be the greatest we aspire to. And when over half the plays in New York* are re-makes, re-mounts, classics, or spinoffs ... it's time to stop bitching about the gradual exodus from the American stage. Our allegience to History should never be greater than our respect for Discovery.

Trillam: "The things one takes seriously are one's weaknesses."

Does that mean there's strength in shrugging? Lat muscles aside, I don't agree with that Ludlamism. Farce can be used to deconstruct, sure, but it requires a rational machinery to work. The people are reduced to their basic biological drives, but the directions they travel are the work of logical design. And farce has to keep building on itself to work. Fryan could have closed the genre definitively with Noises Off which is not so much a farce within a farce as it is a meta-farce. And again, as simple-minded as the charcters' goals were, the greater composition depended on a rational carriage to make us laugh.

Dammit! I'm stopping this right now. What I meant to talk about today was how damn cool the Mendenhall Glacier looks when you're close enough to touch the blue-ice crystals. But, I'll have to save it for another time.


SAS said...

Have we talked about Kushner? God, I'm almost afraid to ask.

I feel like your argument is getting a bit muddled Karl (see, everyone's reading this now that T-boy linked ya, and we're going to assume enough familiarity to call you by your first name.)

Are you seeking a return to the well constructed contemporary play? Like Miller and O'Neill? Sure, I too miss a good long scene where people have to actually talk and listen to each other for more than 3 minutes. And Kushner is, admittedly, not a great example of that. And to a degree he did peak with Angels (so far).

But he strives to reinvent himself, and there were moments (sometimes only moments but moments nonetheless) of brilliance in Homebody/Kabul and Caroline or Change (and how great is that? The fact that our generation's greatest playwright would go and write a MUSICAL?)

Or Caryl Churchill? (Again, not a writer of "well-made plays" and putting some pretty shaky stuff up on stage lately... so maybe she doesn't really apply either.)

Okay, I've lost my point in the argument as well. Drat.

Wishing you all well out there. Please give my love to the cast, we miss you guys.


Anonymous said...

At the bitter, honest heart of any remake of "Lear" is the fear of dying alone, unloved and powerless (not a cautionary template for imperial subdivision). Please shrug, Cordelia, at an old man's vanity and need for public adoration. Old King, please swallow your pride and shrug at youth's improvidence and inflexibility to compromise. Fifty years from now when you stand centerstage with your fool at your feet, your brain struggling to hold onto all those lines (perhaps knowing this will be the last great leading role your age will let you sustain), I hope you are still blogging away so you can let us know if the geography of the heart and the geography of space are really that far apart when you are standing that close to the abyss. Ranting aside, I don't think "Lear" will ever successfully fit onto your standard 36" plasma, flat screen.

Hey-never said that farce didn't need great "rational machinery" - most disciplined (AND deconsructed!) form I know of! And frankly, how can one have Discovery OR History without the other? My theatre menu says heaping helpings of both please! Just before God Ludlam ascended, he was supposed to direct his interpretation of TITUS in the Park - one can only drool to think...

My understanding of the Mendenhall Glacier is that your grandchildren will never see it before it melts, so blog away for us!


The Deceiver said...

Don't know where to go with Kushner. The first half of ANGELS is really very good. Will anyone care about it in twenty years, though? I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Karl,

Congratulations on your success! Gregg Henry just sent out the link to your blog to the ACTF crowd, and it sounds like you've been having quite an adventure. I've heard from numerous sources this play was astonishing, and I wish I could have made it down to see it. I also heard you will staring in Hamlet next year though. I'll most likely be home in VA by then so I'm looking forward to seeing it. Enjoy the rest of your Alaskian adventure and then run!

Best Wishes Always,
Emily Dendinger

Anonymous said...

Lats don't shrug; traps do. (Lats unshrug.)


Anonymous said...

Did you ever post a comment and then read it the next day with horror that it might be mis-interpreted? Comment about Lear on a plasma screen was a response to paragraph #2 of your entry (really bad segue on my part!). It was a generic "your" screen extolling the magnitude of Lear - not some rude remark about you acting Lear! Actually would really like to see your Lear in about fifty years! Make sure I get a press invite.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with your frustration. I often find myself sitting in a theatre and deconstructing the piece, the performance, etc., instead of being 'wowed'. Mind you I am not asking to lose the ability to give a great piece of theatre a true mulling over. I just want the catharsis back. I feel like the honesty and the big raw openness of the stage is often forgotten in lieu of the effort to be something. What is that something? The something seems to consistently be the effort to be new, or to recreate the old, anew. What about just creating true work? Moments that attain that theatricality you wrote of? Are we too obsessed with simply trying to be new that we forgo the 'wow' factor that can only be felt in a live performance?