Highbrow Radicalism Succeeds in Hanging Synge with His Own Rope
It was only a matter of time. The Highbrow radical fundamentalists have waited for almost one hundred years, and they have succeeded in warping Highbrow values into a surreptitious subversion of a form of theatre which they detest. The Abbey Production of Playboy of the Western World, concludes with Peg, under a dying shaft of light, proclaiming the last lines as if they were from an early O’Neill melodrama. More importantly though, she is saying the lines to a much thinner house than she had when she appeared two and half hours earlier. Poor Peg, you were never much for us to feel sorry for you. But, man, look what they have done to you, your town, and Christy.
Apparently, the audiences for the show's original production would cause an incredible disturbance to the point where the actors could do little more than just walk through their scenes. Initial reports said that the audience seemed to be rioting more about the language in the play rather than any political content. But it became apparent something larger was in play after sustained rioting at performances followed the company across the Atlantic to Boston and Philadelphia. Nationalistic movements had apparently seized on the play as an example of denigrating the good and pure heart of Ireland.
In the past year we have all learned at least a little something about radical factions and their movements. The arts are no different than the society at large, with lots of factions fighting for their piece of the pie. Highbrow criticism is not the problem, some of my best friends are highbrows…" not that there’s anything wrong with that." But like any movement, highbrow criticism goes off the rails with a strict ideology. Robert Brustein’s endless railing away at Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a perfect example. I am sure that one hundred years from now, at the moment Mr. Brustein’s visage is being unveiled on a plaque at 64 Brattle Street, one hundred productions of Death of Salesman will be going on in seventy different countries, including Iraq and Afgahnistan. (Although I shudder with the realization that the same will be true of Cats or Phantom Opera, so maybe that point might not mean anything.)
The Abbey Theatre’s production of Death of an Irish Playwright’s Work, is populated by talented actors who do their best with the minimalist and Serbanian Shakespearizing of the grit of this play. (Will Stackman is dead on in his quote, "Habitues of the ART will be aware of the forces at work…") Would the directors do this with the Beauty Queen of Leenane? Probably in a generation or so.
They deliver Synge’s introduction to his play, which is a poetic apology for the language of the people in the play, but utilizing the character of the Bellman. And I couldn’t help thinking that we may someday see Arthur Miller’s essay "Tragedy and the Common Man," delivered by the "Waiter." However, the conceptual team behind the show doesn’t realize that Synge is not apologizing for the people themselves. I don’t believe he ever felt he had too. The introduction gives the highbrow radicals the tools with which to pull the words from the breathing, hot-blooded characters’ mouths and wedge them into the mouths of stylistic caricatures, ( O’Neill would be clawing his eyes out for fear his father was back "parading" around in the Count of Monte Christo.) The production can’t even generate any heat from a choreographed horse race number in which Christy is supposed to gain his total manhood. The cast looks awkward and strangely non-sexual as they gyrate, bump hips and change places. Where is MTV when you need it?
I have always been a little leery of Synge’s "love" of these people, and I have suspected that he has taken a little liberty to poeticize their vernacular. But I’m afraid in trying to elevate the language to center stage, the Abbey’s Centennial Production falls into the trap the protesters long ago started setting for it. Indeed they may even be repeating the ultimate effect of those noisy protesters by closing it down for the audience and not allowing them to actually see what Synge is doing. This way, the play ends up with Stage Irishmen falling all over it, and though the wound on Christy’s father’s head is quite convincing, not a drop of blood can be smelled in the house. Why do they do this? Because the radical faction of Highbrow ideology sees no place for the method.
They despise realism for its complicity in the rise of our film culture and the destruction of the fine arts. They fear the heat on stage because they fear the power of emotion. The film culture IS complicit in this because its ability to bring the powers of light and sound to bear on us in order to jerk our tears has been abused constantly. However, Emotion, Intellect and will must function together and the method has brought a great bearing on the power of the emotion on stage.
Believe me, I hold no illusions that the radical factions of the Method can hijack art as well. The perfect examples are teary-eyed versions of The Glass Menagerie with all of the cast emoting all over the place and completely missing the contempt Tennessee Williams had for the people populating his own background. Or productions of Three Sisters in which all the sisters sit crying bitter tears at the end, hoping to wring them from the audiences eyes as well, but not for the right reasons.
Highbrow criticism, (not the radical factions,) understands the workings of a play like Playboy, and they will always be up for a good romp with the non-trustfunders and be able to come away with some idea of what is going on. It is the difference between a Highbrow who attends or watches a Sox game now and then , and one who reads George Will’s Men at Work as a substitute. However, when Highbrow Ideology becomes radicalized, they seek to stamp out what they feel is making the popular culture think themselves to be so smart. Preconceived notions travel in with the reviewer litmus tests are applied. The ultimate conspirators are the producers and directors who coopt the Highbrow Radical Manifesto, and instead of developing new works and authors they prod and poke existing works, ("Let’s see how the language stands on it’s own," "Let’s isolate the concept of jealousy in this text.") They do this all in the name of "preserving the Classics/Canon.)
Marlon Brando is dead. Isn’t that enough for them? His pitiful end, his sorrowful selling out, his inability to walk away from the money Hollywood provided was sad enough. However, they felt need to kick him the ass as he was lowered him into the ground. Before one week had gone by, articles appeared blaming Brando for the "unforgiveable" damage he had done to American acting.
Synge, in making his apology for the language gave them the rope, and in one hundred years time, they were able to hang him with it. What we have on stage now is the "Intellectual" Synge, and it doesn’t quite work that way. With emotion and raw power drained from the production, what is left leaves us scratching our heads, and creates quite a lot of rolling eyeballs at intermission.