Forgetting taboos

Criticism | Vision

1.
When I first pitched the idea for this article to MinnesotaPlaylist Editor Alan Berks, he asked if I might tilt it a little more toward a “dialogue” with The Critics. You hear that word “dialogue” a lot in our profession—almost as much as you hear the word “collaboration.” They’re both good words, even words to live by—still, I hesitated. Sometimes, when a playwright enters into the dialogue—or the collaboration—enters into it vigorously and with all the strength of his or her conviction—something goes awry. The playwright is made to feel they’ve crossed a line—broken some unspoken rule.

I’m reminded specifically of a response to the West Coast premiere of my play, Juan Gelion Dances for the Sun, which was about The Second Coming. The Christ character, a Latin American, comes to the U.S. illegally and on his first day promptly causes a riot. He’s arrested and, while helpless in the custody of The Department of Homeland Security, gets spirited away by a group of powerful Christians within our government—to a secret prison where they can figure out what he’s “really” up to.

A prominent West Coast critic found that plotline completely implausible—which is his right and part of his job—except that he presented his argument in an extremely mocking and condescending way, implying that, objectively speaking, I had no idea what I was talking about.

When I told my director I was going to write a letter to this Critic—that I was offended not by the review itself, but by the tone of the review and the arrogant way the reviewer confused his own ignorance of the facts and lack of imagination with my own—well, my director just about hit the ceiling. And from there, went straight to her knees, begging me not to do it. She was worried the critic would no longer review her company’s work if some playwright had the temerity to question his work (even mentioning it now —years later—will probably get me into trouble).

So “dialogue”—in some cases—apparently has its limits. But this article came about out of a desire for Alan and I to “collaborate”—as writer and editor—so I pledged to do as much dialoguing as I could manage.

But I thought I should make my hesitations clear.

 

2.
I actually have no problem with the critic who inspired this piece: Dominic Papatola. While reviewing Trista Baldwin’s Forgetting for the St Paul Pioneer Press, he called Trista’s play “so highly personal that it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching it.” For those of you who didn’t see it, Forgetting revolves around three women weaving through New York City, before and during 9/11, looking to drown their personal grief in alcohol and reckless living. It’s a circular riff on a family tragedy—the death of Trista’s younger brother. It was produced by The Workhaus Collective – which I helped found and where I am currently a co-producer—but this article is not a defense of Trista’s play, nor our production of it.

That sentence “so highly personal that it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching it” just stuck in my head—and much like the process by which certain crustaceans create shells they can actually live in from mere pebbles—it began to gather weight and words the more I thought about it. Like that West Coast Critic, Papatola is entitled to his opinion—indeed, as a professional intellectual, that’s what he gets paid for. But we betray a certain disingenuousness when we act as though a critic’s opinion is just any old opinion and not a judgment a lot of folks will use, much as they use that flyer from Target or Best Buy, as the basis for a consumer decision.

Many, many years ago, Edward Albee lamented the fact that most critics in New York were simply advising people on what tickets to buy. He envisioned a criticism that might actually help develop not only the writers and the form—particularly newer writers and more challenging forms—but also their audience.

The argument against Albee’s plea often goes something like, “If only my editor would allow me the space, I would love to.” The Internet diminishes this argument, and so, in a way, does Charles Isherwood and his little Gang of Thugs at the New York Times. Isherwood has a great deal of space, which he uses, for the most part, to either snipe or fawn, training—intentionally or not—the younger critics under his wing to do the same. Like my nephew, who will often snap back at my Mother in the same way his father does, these adolescent critics-in-training treat new writers—writers like Victoria Stewart and Lisa D’Amour who are “new” only in the most mainstream sense—with a high-handed contempt that is nothing less than backwards. And they do it quite efficiently within the smaller amount of wordage allotted to them.

If the snarky dismissal of the next generation of playwrights can be accomplished in such a brief space, is it too much to imagine the opposite is also possible?

Since we are, in fact, on the Internet, check out Brooks Atkinson’s review of the Broadway premiere of Waiting for Godot. Notice the tone Atkinson takes toward both his audience and this new, experimental playwright. After considering it for some time, I recognized the proper name for this unfamiliar tone – which attempts to make common cause between artist, critic, and theatergoer – Respect.
 

3.
I’m aware that my irritation with that one sentence from that review is indefensible from any rhetorical perspective. Trista’s play is intense and at times difficult to watch—so much so that while I loved it in its final form and my own partner was one of the lead actors, there was no way I could sit through it more than once.

But if Forgetting were about the playwright’s sexual escapades rather than her brother’s death, would it still be “so highly personal”? Is it really the way Trista treated her subject, or is it the subject itself? Overtly sexual plays are famously “shocking”—but, for all that, they have no trouble getting produced.

Is there a taboo stronger than sex?

Is that taboo . . . Grief?

 

4.
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is a depressing piece of work on many levels (not the least of which is that the last line is also the title of the play).

Doubt came up in a recent Christmas Party conversation with a non-theatre person, a scientist at the University of Minnesota. Despite the fact that the play ran on Broadway, received a Pulitzer, and is now an Oscar-nominated movie—she’d never heard of it. Or John Patrick Shanley for that matter.

Depressing.

But closer to the matter at hand, Doubt is a depressing play because of its subject; the way the writer chooses to deal with that subject; and the number of accolades he has received (and continues to receive) for making that choice.

The subject matter, as most people reading this will know, is the pedophile scandals within the Catholic Church. Scandals that involved not only individual priests, but the institutions and Bishops who shielded them from exposure and the law. In the real world, of course, there is no “doubt”: the scandal is massive, the number of victims incomprehensible, the amount of damage—physical, psychological and financial—enormous.

Yet, Doubt, which will be remembered as the play on this subject, which will probably discourage playwrights from dealing with it for some time—nobody wants to be seen as an imitator—is not about a pedophilic priest or a Bishop engaged in a heinous cover-up. It is not about a mother or father grappling with their child’s emotional destruction, nor is it about a victim finding some way to put his or her life back together—no. The play is about a ruthless Mother Superior who, at the mere hint of impropriety, begins to persecute someone who may very well be innocent.

In other words, it has almost nothing to do with what happened--not just to the victims and the perpetrators. But to us. To us as a people and as a society. If one wanted to be cynical, one could even say Shanley uses this terrible event as a backdrop for a play that deals with another subject entirely. How is it a play can be so lauded and respected when it completely avoids its own subject? The grief and sorrow permeating from these scandals is immeasurable—where else but the theatre can we peel away the outrage and the headlines and expose the more difficult emotions that lie beneath, the literal decay of our most revered institutions?

So what am I saying? Am I saying John Patrick Shanley should have written a different play? That instead of a play which ends with a murmur of “I have doubts” it would be more appropriate—more appropriate to what the stage is and means—to see a priest or a Bishop do like Oedipus and pluck out his own eyes in horror and shame? Is that really what I’m trying to say?

Yes.
 

5.
As with the scandals left resolutely un-examined in Doubt, underneath the anger and disappointment over the Bush Administration’s 8-year stewardship of our country lies a reservoir of sadness: Is this really who we are? Torturers and spies? A people whose lofty ideals—the inspiration for aspiring democracies across the globe—disappear the moment we’re in danger? Ever since the disputed 2000 election (another great sorrow we were told to put behind us as quickly as possible), our country has been leaking self-respect in every possible direction.

Yet aside from David Hare’s Stuff Happens and a rather uncommonly large number of musical comedy revues, The Bush Years have been oddly lacking in inspiration to this generation of dramatists. Oh, it’s OK to write about the Grunts—The Trials and Tribulations of Our Boys & Girls Overseas is always fair game (unless it’s the “boys and girls” of Abu Ghraib). Where are the American playwrights looking hard at the political choices that got us where we are? Where is The Persians? Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Pulitzer Prize winners have been remarkably free of politics, and in 2006, no award was given at all. Since we're (nominally) a capitalist country, maybe the real question is, where are the artistic directors? Where are the brave producers? Will we never see Colin Powell tear his eyes out—or is that something else we “shouldn’t be watching”?
 

6.
When it comes to this kind of political grief, popular culture is putting the theater community to shame. Sci-Fi Channel’s rebooting of Battlestar Galactica has made the preservation of moral values in a time of unrelenting war not just a facet of the show but part of its basic architecture. The tug of war between the military and democracy is a weekly event—the writers even pushing so far as to recast the occupation of Iraq—with the humans in place of the Iraqis and the Cylons (robot bad guys) in the role of American occupiers – so that it falls to one of the “good guys” to mount a rousing defense of suicide bombers.

And it was Michael Moore, in the documentary Fahrenheit 911, who showed his countrymen the unbearable spectacle of a dead soldier’s mother, standing in front of the White House, screaming, begging, for some reason, for someone, anyone in power to explain to her the meaning of her son’s death—

Perhaps moments such as these, where individual and collective grief join, are just too “highly personal” for the contemporary theatre.

It’s common to blame “the audience” for this state of affairs, to suggest that they don’t want to see it – much as politicians blame “the voter” and global warming is the fault of “America’s love affair with the car.” But Battlestar Galactica is doing just fine in the ratings—and the list of classic American plays and even films with tragic endings is endless. Or does anyone really think Titanic would have been such a blockbuster if those sad suburban girls couldn’t line up for hours to see the boy of their dreams sink slowly beneath the waves?
 

7.
I started thinking about grief after 9/11. Apart from my five years here in Minneapolis, I’m a lifetime New Yorker. I was in the city when the planes hit. What’s remarkable in the current context is not the amount of anger and rage in New York after we were attacked, but the lack of it. Rather than revenge, there was a sudden desire that this never happen again, to anyone, anywhere.

Grief softens—and allows for unexpected possibilities.

As I mentioned, my partner was one of the actors in Forgetting—she recently moved here from the West Coast to be with me. Back in San Francisco, the weather’s mild and beautiful. In Minneapolis—not so much. It’s very beautiful here, but it’s also harsh and cold, and maybe not particularly welcoming. So there is some amount of struggling, and some difficult emotions—but when I hold her close and say, “Don’t worry, it’s all right,” she bristles.

Why are you bristling, I ask.
Her answer, When you say, “It’s all right,” I feel like you’re ignoring me.

There’s no question that many people in our culture have benefited from the self-help and self-esteem movement, from 12-step programs, from the variety of ideas and attitudes that have been short-handed—often sarcastically—under the “Oprah” brand, but there is a small chance our theatre may have suffered.

Because Trista Baldwin is a dramatist—not a television or film writer, not an essayist or novelist or journalist—she knows there is no recovering from her brother’s death, not really, that she will go on because there is work to do and people she loves and people who love her—there are many joys yet to be found—she will go on. She knows that instead of wishing vainly for “closure,” the only sane response to your little brother shooting himself in a high school bathroom is to tear your eyes out.

And if you don’t—if you don’t at some point show the bloody hands, you risk hearing your audience, your community and, most importantly, your own heart, whisper:

Why are you ignoring me?
 

8.
I’ve alluded to the Greeks through Oedipus and even Aeschylus—embarrassing enough, but I’m going to embarrass myself even further and remind you of the twin masks. Whatever your feelings about organized religion, that’s where theater was born, and such intense rituals point in one of two directions: Grief or Joy. However much our theatre may have inherited from the Greeks, and no matter the extent this inheritance has been augmented by the dazzling array of cultures within our culture, America’s essential Puritan heart is proving frighteningly resilient. This latent strain of Puritanism often makes our comedies joyless and our dramas saccharine and easy to swallow.

It is a fear of emotional excess. And it is this Puritanical fear that I hear haunting most of Dominic Papatola’s review.

As for John Patrick Shanley--to give him the benefit of the, uhm, doubt, perhaps his Mother Superior is meant to be a stand-in for former President Bush in his relentless and incredibly violent certainty. But even granting that, it is a long, sad journey from Oedipus’ bloody confrontation with his own sorrow and guilt to a half-assed confession of the possibility that—perhaps—an error in judgment has been made.

Much nicer to fantasize about Edward Albee’s theater, in which the playwright, the critics and the audience recognize they are all on the same team. And the game we’re playing is about celebrating our mutual joys and mourning our collective grief—a game as psychologically necessary as dreaming. Or have we still not learned that a culture can go insane just as quickly as an individual?

The easy response to all this might be that “forgetting” is the purpose of entertainment. But while plays are and should be entertaining, we all secretly understand that – rather than something we need more of – forgetting is an integral part of every human being’s daily routine.

We go to theater to remember.

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