Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Boston Needs More Classics?

Thomas Garvey over at Hubreview talks about recent productions of Valhalla, Persephone, and Mrs. Witherspoon and laments the recent proliferation of new and newer plays in Boston. He finds that the cumulative result is great productions of what are, at best, mediocre works. But he also sees a sad trend:

"Which leads us to deeper questions about the direction of Boston theatre. Not so long ago, classics formed the core of the stagnant Boston scene, and folks everywhere called out for more new work. But you should always be careful what you wish for. New works are now the norm - but few have proved of much lasting interest, despite productions that have been, by and large, scintillating. In fact, I have a gnawing feeling that Boston - like
Scott Edmiston - is beginning to specialize in the art of disguise, and that's not a good thing. I'm getting rather tired of a certain knee-jerk attitude that I summarized on another blog as "Why do a great old play when we can do a mediocre new one?" The answer is that we need the great old plays as the benchmark for our current endeavors. Without them we might find ourselves truly satisfied with the likes of Miss Witherspoon."

I just want to take the statements I have bolded in the above paragraph one by one.


I am not so sure that the new works proliferation is now the norm. This is a relatively recent development on the Boston theatre scene, and my opinion is that it is welcome.

Few have proved to be of lasting interest? To whom? There are opinions on both sides of the aesthetic coin. While I tend to side with Thomas on the merits and craftsmanship of Persephone, another respected local critic, Will Stackman, thinks that Noah Haidle's play has the potential to be a "minor masterpiece."


As I have said many times before, the question is not "Why do a great old play when we can do a mediocre new one?"

It should really be, "why do mediocre newer-plays (last thirty years) again and again, when we can do a good new one?"

There is a difference between The Misanthrope (New Rep this coming year) and plays like Sisters Rosensweig.

You would have no argument from me if a theatre would put up a season of nothing but Moliere, Ibsen, Shakespeare etc.

But how do I know that in another 8 or so years, we will be seeing another production of The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, complete with dramaturgical notes on how it is a forgotten masterpiece about commerce, etc.

If the choice is between The Wild Duck and Persephone, I will take Ibsen.

But if the choice is between Sam Shepard's Simpatico and a new play by an emerging playwright like Ronan Noone, I'll take the new play any day of the week. (Sorry, Mr. Shepard.)

All new plays are not going to be classics. They can't be. Many believe there are problems in the development of new works for the theatre, and I will not argue with them.

Village Voice reviewer Michael Feingold, reviewing a Second Stage production, which had supposedly come through devlopmentwent, went on to savage the play. But he did preface it all by saying that if the play was not going to receive the tough love it needed in the so-called "development process" then he was going to take it upon himself to give it in his review.

Now, if Mr. Garvey wants to make a call for playwrights to write better plays, I will be the first to second his call because that is what we should all be trying to do. However, I know that Mr. Garvey has also stated before that we should all fold the tent and go home, just do the classics and be happy.

Mr. Garvey seems worried about the recent creep of new works while eschewing the fact that during this same period Shakespeare started being produced more than ever here. And we even had the formation of a now nationally recognized,Shakespeare company right in the city. (Not to mention the Huntington presented Shakespeare on their stage again, with a great prodcution of Love's Labour Lost.")

This summer we are getting Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, but we are also getting Romeo and Juliet, Misalliance, Arms and the Man, The Visit, etc.

We will see Christopher Shinn's Dying City next season, but we will also see The Misanthrope, Streetcar, and The Crucible, along with all the Actors Shakespeare Project offerings. Also two Mozart operas at the ART.

Now, I will be the first to agree that "new" does not mean good.

But the way I see it is that the issue, if there is one, in theatre lately is not that Ibsen and Strindberg have gone away for a bit, the problem is that Persephone and Book of Days will probably be back before they are.

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