What makes a play excellent? This might be the question that unites all facets of the strange little band of make-believers in the theater, from directors and designers, to actors and audience members, and certainly critics: all of us are in the pursuit of excellence.
What excellence means to each member of a production’s collective illusion is different, of course. But in my time making theater, as well as watching and reviewing theater, I have never once heard someone say, “Let’s aim for the mediocre; if the lights are just good enough, that’ll be OK.” Nor have I heard, “You know what, you flubbed that ‘To be or not to be’ thing, but forget about it, it’s no big deal.”
Ours is a fundamentally optimistic art, which is one reason, I suspect, that people refer to the magic of theater: it’s the little pleasure we theater-going humans take in the presentation of idealized worlds that transcend the possible. The real world is never so perfectly lit, conversations never so witty, and clothing rarely so exquisite; theater presents us with such a coherent whole that even dystopias seem somehow perfectly staged. Sometimes they are. But the mere possibility that the world on stage will be truly remarkable is enough to keep us coming back for more, time and time again. This is a textbook definition of optimism.
Even the most optimistic among us must admit that in the theater there is far more milk than cream. It’s easy to see mediocrity creep into the idealized world of the stage and disturb the illusion. Mediocrity is a stark reminder that the world itself is rarely as interesting as the presentation of that world on stage. This happens in all art forms, of course, for all varieties of reasons—including availability of money (both its scarcity, and, perversely, its over-abundance) and the sheer distribution of raw talent. What we are concerned with here, however, is not the mediocre, nor mediocrity’s close cousin, banality – the greatest fear of all theater makers and theatergoers – but rather with the excellent, which sparks the mind to action, and occasionally, the heart to flutter.
What do we really mean when we talk about “excellence”? What are the criteria for judging an excellent performance? It often seems easier to define excellence negatively, through reference to its absence. Theater people, for all their optimism, are quite good at fervently identifying performances that are not excellent. The reaction to mediocrity or banality is visceral: we just know when shit stinks. (Or at least, we think we do. It can be a jarring experience to learn that a play you thought was mediocre at best is considered a “definitive production” by others.)
There’s a legitimate temptation to resort to a relativistic stance when talking about artistic matters. It’s uncomfortable to denounce someone else’s taste, equally uncomfortable to defend your own, and anyway, aside from the professors and a few scribblers on blogs and in papers, who really cares about the problems of relativism and taste, anyway? You like the sort of thing that you like and I like the sort of thing that I like, and that’s that.
But this mode of thinking about the arts, it seems to me, is both lacking and, dare I say it, banal. It is no revelation that tastes differ, and it’s no revelation that opinions about these tastes are written and exchanged. This doesn’t tell us anything about what we mean when we call something excellent. More distressingly, this kind of relativistic outlook precludes the satisfaction of further discussion. If I like it and you don’t, we don’t really have anything to talk about, do we? Relativism, or subjectivism, about theater is a not very interesting dead end trail.
Yet a strong "objectivist" stance is intuitively dissatisfying and ultimately unsustainable. Where a subjectivist holds that you like what you like, and that’s OK but different, the objectivist holds that there is, floating above the stage, an ideal of excellence against which any performance can be measured and subsequently judged.
An objectivist grasp on anything is like holding a slippery fish, especially when the questions come: Who gets to determine these criteria? What qualifications does this person have? What if a lot of people disagree? How can we account for experimentation? So-called “objective” measurements of excellence in theater leave me cold; they’re no fun to talk about because it quickly becomes no more than a check list of what makes a play excellent. There’s no magic in that.
Diversity plus evaluation = ?
So how to hold on to the notion that there are legitimate criteria for evaluation of theater and account for the wide diversity of opinion on what constitutes an excellent performance? The answer, I think, lies in broadening the way we think about how we interact with theater: an excellent performance, either in its totality or in part, gives you pleasure, then moves you to talk about the performance in a way that you begin to take ownership of it. A great performance of Sir Toby Belch no longer belongs just to the actor who delivered it—it unites you, the actor, and all those who also appreciate it into a sort of community within the theater community.
The most crucial aspect of measuring excellence is the experience of pleasure—emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical—any kind of pleasure, really. Those things we find pleasurable in life, we seek to incorporate into our identities. From the kind of clothes we wear, to the kind of food we eat, to the kind of sex we have—each part of ourselves, rooted in pleasures of higher and lower orders, mashes together to form our identity.
I’m claiming that the pleasure you feel from a work of theater that strikes you as excellent becomes a part of your identity, which situates you into a community of others who share that part of your identity. Excellence is neither wholly subjective nor objective, but rather intersubjective, placing us into communities of people who share a part of our identities and with whom we share and celebrate that part when we see it represented excellently on stage.
It’s a kind of artistic communion, not entirely dissimilar, now that I think of it, from being in a church, except instead of mumbling our way through the hymnal, experiencing excellent theater makes us want to talk to others about why it was so excellent, to form a bond with community that exists where our shared identities overlap. Each of us is walking around out there with a repertoire of excellence, sharing it with like-minded folks, and steadily making the performances more our own.
High-brows tend to find pleasure suspect unless it is “cultivated,” but I’m not so sure. As we form our identities as consumers of theater, we develop these intersubjective networks, but they are fluid. I presume the folks who sit through the day-long performances of The Ring Cycle are enjoying themselves, and I’d say it doesn’t get much higher-brow than Wagner; but that’s not to say that the pleasures of Wagner are necessarily superior than, say, the pleasure of the Cycle’s antithesis, Legally Blond: The Musical. Just different. These communities can and do exist happily side-by-side, though they have to be careful not to mix the sopranos.
All our identities are broad and contain many parts, artistically and otherwise, that can seem—at first glance—to be confusing. I have spent literally days at a time listening almost exclusively to either Merle Haggard or Madonna, doubtless leading my neighbors to question either my taste or sanity, or both. Yet the (different) pleasures I get out of the work from each of these artists situates me within certain intersubjective communities that fulfill different artistic needs, and have different agreed-upon standards of excellence. There is generally little need to explain the excellence of “The Bottle Let Me Down” with the Merle Haggard/Bakersfield set, who can articulate the finer points of his music and who, through listening and discussing with other members of this intersubjective community, continually refine their interpretations to the point of connoisseurship.
Try explaining Haggard to Madonna's “Vogue” set, however, and you find that Merle lacks importance within that group. The connection we share is based on the commitment to excellence we share, and the continued negotiation of the standards of excellence within the group itself.
All this talk of identity and intersubjectivity is an attempt to account for the diversity of opinion that exists within any artistic audience, theater included, and the apparent fact that standards of excellence do exist by which to judge the art. What this requires is knowledge of yourself and your tastes, and also knowledge of the wider community you inhabit. Theater, and theater criticism, is a fundamentally social activity. Excellence means something different to the Chekhov fanatics than it does to the Rodgers and Hammerstein devotees, but the standards are there, negotiated and happily owned by the intersubjective artistic communities of which we are all a part.
Don't be afraid
The time has come, I guess, for a little disclosure on what performance prompted these thoughts on the intersubjective pleasures of the theater. This past spring, I went to see the Jungle Theater’s production of Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and I was blown away. Everything about this show struck me as absolutely excellent, and this time around I wasn’t alone: most of the Twin Cities agreed. I’ve long enjoyed reading Albee and have seen this show performed several times. But this version, dark and yet spry, tops the list. The 1950s modern set design, with the bar standing in so clearly for the altar of the church, was the perfect setting for the death-match that took place on stage that evening.
Stephen Yoakam’s George and Michelle Barber’s Martha were the definition of magic. Where but in the theater can two people cleverly attack each other for hours all the while consuming enough booze to kill a horse? This is the kind of magic I was talking about earlier; we’ve all been drunk out of our heads, and the luckiest among us have been witty once or twice before, but not with the intensity and raw energy that Barber and Yoakam displayed that night. Excellent theater, the kind where you can’t help but think about it for days afterwards, purges the shit of reality for the heightened magic of George and Martha’s reality.
I have thought about and talked about their performances for months now. I still find myself giggling at the cruelly nonchalant line, “Martha, rubbing alcohol for you?”
Because this scene, that life, that line isn’t reality; the magic is happening. Martha doesn’t get upset and storm out of the room. Instead she replies, “Sure! Never mix, never worry!” That’s better than reality.
How, you might wonder, have I made this excellent theater experience a part of my identity (aside from a renewed commitment to alcoholism and verbal abuse)? Actually, I found myself re-reading the play multiple times, hearing in my mind the various actors’ renditions over the years; I revisited an old production I did of Everything in the Garden, which brought back memories and prompted me to contact some old acting friends; I invited friends over for drinks to watch the film; most of all, I talked about the Jungle’s production. I talked about it over dinner at home, with my theater colleagues here in town, and now with all of you.
Does it get any better than this? Or more excellent?
Of course, if you haven’t found yourself making this part of your identity, I’m sure there are other performances out there that you have—but don’t rain on my parade. As the inimitable art critic Dave Hickey once put it, “If you don’t like it, get your own damn critic.”