Once more unto the breach
Is theater relevant?
We hear this question all the time in this industry, and I used to enjoy making fun of it. When people in the theater world talk about relevance, they usually mean celebrity. Sometimes they mean newsworthy; sometimes they just mean more contemporary than some other play someone is doing somewhere. But the world feels too big and theater too small to ever really be relevant to enough people to make an impact.
For the last eight years, I've seen an average of at least one show a week for 52 weeks a year and come to the conclusion that theater would actually be relevant if it were more forceful and more frightening.
With a few exceptions, our best contemporary theater offers some nice plays. They're carefully observed and well-built stories about people who are trying their best and making mistakes. They have a moderate tone. People are good. Life is hard. I'm sorry I hurt you but it couldn't be helped. No one is evil, just misguided. That kind of thing. These plays often end with the protagonists staring at each other in confusion as the lights go to black.
Or, on the other hand, we get melodramas, usually about issues in the news. There are good people and bad people, right positions and wrong positions, and on the off chance that you were confused, the play would like you to feel clearly which side you are supposed to be on. When done by talented people, both types of plays can be perfectly enjoyable. Unfortunately, I can't name any current examples because they're also perfectly forgettable.
Stories that are relevant do not simply explore the sad, powerlessness of being a flawed human adrift on the currents of history or contrive a simplistic dichotomy between good and evil.
The relevant stories, the ones we still tell ourselves generations later, lay bare the eternal and horrific paradox of human nature—that there is real good and horrible evil and it is us. Always us.
What do our best stories have in common?
Oedipus did not just suffer some bad breaks. He was King. He was smart, arrogant, stout, and the only man brave enough to pursue to the end the solution to his city's curse. He also, don't forget, actually murdered his own father and romped around in bed with his mom. It's disgusting. You have to poke out your own eyes. And he is the most enduring character in western theater because he is both the source and the solution to the problem.
All My Sons has become a community theater staple. It has a large cast of all ages roles. It's not a hard play to follow. For most people, it has molded into a nice little melancholy tale about the trying effects of war on some good folk. Most productions I've seen seem to forget that the play maintains its impact because adorable old Joe Keller is, basically, a serial killer. He killed his own son—and yours too, and yours and yours. Wise, old Joe Keller is the kind of white male who both built the world and is guilty of its crimes. You love him when you should hate him. The play ends when Joe kills himself (always the coward), leaving the rest of his family alive—probably to poke out their own eyes.
King Lear discovers that the kingdom he ruled and created is rotten to its core. His plans ridiculous. His own daughters monumentally cruel. "I have ta'en too little care" of the suffering of others, he finally realizes, while feeling his own injustice. Hamlet: "I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me." In fact, the only thing stopping Hamlet from putting the time back in "joint" is Hamlet himself ("O what a rogue and peasant slave am I. . .") Even in Chekhov, where the stakes seem on the surface so much less intense than with kings and wars and murders, worlds are built and destroyed by the machinations of the people who have all our sympathy. The protagonists are always the cause of the suffering they are desperately trying to avoid.
I have seen the enemy. . .
We could find the same pattern in every important play in literature. There is monumental evil in the world; we built it into the system. We defend it. We are it. There is also a wellspring of goodness with which to battle against it. We march our soldiers onto the battlefield to confront the enemy and meet ourselves. We fight this enemy and emerge victorious, and decimated. The system is always corrupt and corrupting. We must conquer it—even though we constructed it and it keeps us alive.
The view of human nature that embraces moderation and can be seen in so much new writing robs people of their power to effect the world positively or negatively. It says, we're all basically well-intentioned flops, suffering from more or less misunderstanding, ignorance, or childhood trauma, waiting for a sign or a break or a tiny bit of understanding. (If you like class-related explanations, you can call it squarely upper-middle class.)
The melodrama that I see in so much directing, on the other hand, oversimplifies the power of good and evil.
Each are what happens when a good writer or director misfires in an attempt to be relevant to the world today.
The single play I can think of in the last twenty years that has achieved some significant cultural relevance is Tony Kushner's Angels in America--where you can see this struggle between nobility, bravery, grace, kindness, and love on the one hand and really monstrous evil play out inside every single character from Louis abandoning his lover when his lover most needs him to Roy Cohn, denying his own sense of self as a Jew and gay man to persecute Jews and gay men.
Many of the same people who Occupy Wall Street were happy cogs in the corporate machinery until they lost their jobs. They're attacking a system they were perfectly happy to maintain until recently. That does not make the criticism less valid; only more confusing. People in the Tea Party movement rail against the oppressive reach of government intervention while living off the generosity of government entitlement programs. Oppression, arrogance, and over-reach by governments is still real. It's just that we often are exactly the thing we need to conquer. And irony is insufficient to grasp contradictions that have such mortal consequences. The United States government helped arm Al Qaida and the Taliban. For years and years, the Arab masses propped up the oppressive governments they now protest.
And it has always been so. I want to be clear that I do not mean to suggest we need more plays about contemporary issues. Not necessarily. We live in trying times but no more trying, scary, or easier to resolve peacefully, than the times were before, during, or after World War II, for example. The subject of the play is important but less important than the forceful, frightening truths it unveils1: The problems of our time are ours. We own them. We made them. We fight them. We conquer them. Only to make more in the process. And someone is going to have to die—or get married2—before this play can end.
People v. plays
Moderation is a wonderful asset in a person struggling to behave compassionately in a complex society; melodrama is an entertaining way to highlight the distance between actions that have positive and negative human outcomes. But too much of both in the theater have done more than anything else to make theater irrelevant.
Artistic Directors or resident literary managers often put the blame for this lack of relevance on playwrights. We watch too much television, they say. Our imaginations have grown too small. We're only addressing one middle class audience, they say. And they're probably right—though this line of reasoning reminds me of parents complaining about the values of the next generation as though they themselves had just landed on this planet and discovered these strangely amoral children who share their physical features.
If someone wrote a play right now that addressed our current society in a relevant way, in a way that was complicated and truly frightening, that was direct and disloyal to all parties, would it get produced at an institutional American theater?
The question then is not whether theater can be relevant but whether we actually want it to be.
1Computers, for example, or Facebook, Twitter, and social networking are not "relevant" subjects for American theater today. Or necessary technologies to embrace in order to be relevant. They're timely but forgettable. Humans' constant glorious, quixotic , destructive, and noble struggle to build the Tower of Babel and its consequences, both good and bad, foreseen and unforeseen—that is relevant.
2All great plays end in death or marriage. I used to think that the most appropriate endings for contemporary dramas were ambiguous ones, sending audiences out into the world wondering, but now I think that ambiguity is just a type of moderation and moderation is for theater cowards. A great, relevant play can end only where a never-ending conflict pauses—death or marriage, where the two opposing sides briefly incorporate each other into something new.