Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mamet On Tennessee Williams (Mamet)

I haven't seen too much commentary on David Mamet's weird column about Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana for the Guardian. Though it contains some useful nuggets, overall it seems a bizarre fragment. I finished the column and found I was looking in vain for a hyperlink to page 2.

Mamet wants to make the idea of "poetry" in drama his target, but he really seems to be touching on several of the issues that have been flying about the blogoshere the last few months about regional theatres doing plays that seem enshrined in the canon, but that are really not very good. I call the phenomenon Regionalitis. In a post this fall I defined Regionalitis this way:

"Regionalitis is the peculiar malady suffered by mediocre efforts of excellent playwrights. Usually regionalitis is caused by the continued and incessant performing of a play by regional and smaller theatres, having the interesting effect of perpetuating a undeserved reputation of greatness while at
the same time building up an incredible expectation of the casts and directors."

While in-house dramaturgy and inflexible subscribers were implicated in my diagnosis, Mamet seems to be taking aim at other targets:

"the educationally overburdened - that is, academics and drama critics. These have given us the beatification of Tennessee Williams, among others;..."

It is with this statement only that I take issue with Mamet's column. I mean, who can really argue with the rest of the points he makes.

"in a good play, the character's intentions are conveyed to the actor, through him to his antagonist, and through them, to the audience, through the words he speaks. Any dialogue that is not calculated to advance the intentions of the character (in the case of Othello, for instance, to find out if his wife is cheating on him) is pointless."

or this

"It is my contention that drama is essentially a poetic form - that the dramatic line should be written to convince primarily through its rhyme and rhythm and only secondarily, if at all, through an appeal to reason. Note that the truly determined individual - swain, salesman, discovered adulterer etc -
confects spontaneous poetry."

or even this:

"Without intention, vehement intention, there is no drama, in life or on the stage."

As I read the article, I began to feel as if Mamet was writing a commercial for himself, plugging all of the best parts of his dramatic writing, and taking unsubstantiated potshots at another canonized American dramatist. Does Mamet really believe that Williams is "beatified" because of Night of the Iguana? I can't imagine that he does. Notice that because of the column length no other plays of Williams are even mentioned.

Will some future playwright dash off a column in which he or she indirectly suggests that Mamet's canonization is based on academics praising his Boston Marriage, while the same column eschews mention of GlenGarry Glen Ross?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Those words, while filled with hope in the context of the actual song, have always struck me as more than adequate for the title of a horror movie as well.

This year we have doom and gloom in the shape of this LA Weekly article; "Squinting into the Sun." The article's main thrust is the continued death spiral of the regional theatre movement. Spearbearer Down Left thinks the piece is overly pessimistic and has an interesting dissection of the article on his blog.

In response to the charge, by the Weekly article, that part of the problem is the ideologically driven erosion of NEA type funding, Spearbearer writes:

"But this statement seems to be about 20 years out of date. From my vantage, though there are calls to reform Social Security, there is far less libertarianism out there in the zeitgeist than there was in the 80's. Despite the occasional calls to cut funding for PBS, and the threats of deficit hawks of the right and left, even Republicans seem to be more comfortable with the idea of a safety net and public assistance to culturally important landmarks. It's true that the arts are in danger, but the bane of their continued existence lies elsewhere than laissez-faire-loving ideologues, in my view."

He continues:

"Maybe I don't read the redneck papers. Someone please tell me what I'm missing. Where are the calls to cut the NEA? Yes, there are congressmen here and there that suggest cutting this or that, but arguments over how we divvy the pie are profoundly different from the kinds of arguments that happened 20 or even 10 years ago, where the question of whether the government should be baking pies at all was in question."

It would appear that Spearbearer's optimism is a little well founded during this Christmas season, at least for some organizations here in New England. The Boston Herald reports on a nice NEA gift:

Twenty-eight Massachusetts arts groups are getting what they want most for Christmas: a total of more than $750,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among the local recipients are: Boston Symphony Orchestra ($75,000 for James Levine’s Beethoven - Schoenberg retrospective); Museum of Fine Arts ($50,000 for “El Greco to Velazquez”); MIT’s List Visual Arts Center ($50,000 for a sculpture by Richard Serra); American Repertory Theatre ($35,000 for Rinde Eckert’s “The Orpheus Project”); Boston Ballet ($30,000 for a new ballet by Mark Morris); Handel and Haydn Society ($20,000 for Handel’s “Belshazzar”); World Music ($15,000 for modern dance programming); Opera Boston ($10,000 for a new Opera Unlimited festival); and Bank of America Celebrity Series ($10,000 for dance performances by the Kirov Ballet and others).

Not to be the downer, but...(cue ominous music) we have this from the Boston Globe on the precarious start for the newest space in town, and the home of the The New Rep.

Three months after its grand opening gala, the $7.5 million Arsenal Center for the Arts is struggling to book its new space and facing the resignations of two top officials.

However, the article does point towards some good news in that New Rep doesn't seem to be the problem with Center's overall financial picture. Artistic Director Rick Lombardo delivers a comforting quote:

''We're having a great fall, the best we've ever had at the box office," said Lombardo, whose company moved from Newton to become part of the center. ''I don't really know much about their internal workings, but I trust that they're telling us they're just going through an operational transition and putting a plan in place."

Almost like our current situation in Iraq, the progress of theatre is a little hard to judge, and to measure. Not to quibble with Spearbearer, but I think the LAWeekly article falls very neatly into the "eye of the beholder category," or the "glass half-_____" realm. Spearbearer seems to see the doom and gloom, others might see it to be an optimistic piece examining how the current structures are giving way to more exciting and innovative works of theatre.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pentagon Hired to Plant Postive Reviews of Avante Garde Theatre

Read the details here.

Seriously though.

It is believed that the Pentagon has hired firms to plant "good news" stories in Iraqi newspapers. This past weekend on Meet the Press, John McCain seemed to express that if the stories were real and that is the way that we need to get the information into the press there, than so be it. The idea goes, I guess, that American policy think-tanks can produce a million white papers on why this war is good for Iraq, but unless the daily Iraqi rags are reporting it, then it doesn't mean a hill of beans.

I was reminded of this reading this quote by George Hunka at Superfluities, who has some thoughts on the debate about criticism and avante garde:

"Academic dissertations didn't put Galileo, Waiting for Godot and The Homecoming on Broadway, of all places. Reviewers like Bernard Shaw (in Ibsen's case), Herbert Ihering (in Brecht's case), Jerry Tallmer, Martin Esslin and Kenneth Tynan (in Beckett's case) and Harold Hobson and Mel Gussow (in Pinter's), writing in daily and weekly newspapers and magazines, carefully prepared the ground for these innovations in both their daily reviews and in the think-pieces that ran in the Sunday arts section."

I think that George is exactly right.

An interesting point in this whole blogosphere debate about improving audience relations is the fact that the inciting essay in American Theatre, "Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays" jumps off from the phenomenal success, and subsequent audience ambivalence, of "Thom Pain."

Jefferey Jones, in the American Theatre article states that Isherwood, (a critic who routinely gets pounded in the blogosphere,) "got it." And while admitting that Will Eno's play is "inter-alia wierd," Jones' tone seems to suggest that Isherwood understood it, but most of the audience, (at least on the night Jones attended,) does not. This would appear to back up George's observation.

However, the interesting survey would be to see if any converts were won over. In other words, were people who would not be prone to venture to a production like that suddenly embracing of it after reading Isherwood's review and attending.

I was speaking with somebody who saw Thom Pain down in New York, and I thought he had a very good comment.

He said that he had read quite a bit about it, including the run-down on Hotreview. After seeing it, he admitted, "I think I was more enamored of the IDEA of the show, than the actual show."

Peter Marks' review of Thom Pain in the Washington post has a little of this flavor also. He claims that it really doesn't live up to the hype.

I thought the quote about being in love with the idea more than the execution summed up some of my personal experience with much avante-garde, including my one experience seeing a Foreman show.

Christopher Hitchens in Slate talks of just why placing stories is bad idea. He starts to wrap up his conclusion this way:

"I mean, just picture the scene for a moment. An Iraqi family living in, say, Anbar Province, picks its way down the stoop to collect the newly delivered newspaper. This everyday operation is hazardous, but less so than going down to the corner to pick it up, because there are mad people around who do not believe that anything should be in print, save the Quran, not to mention nasty local potentates who do not like to read criticism of themselves. Further, the streets are often dark and littered with risky debris. The lead story, however, reports that all is well in the Anbar region; indeed, things are going so well that there is even a slight chance that they will one day get better. Who is supposed to be fooled by this?"