Monday, December 17, 2007

The State of the Art?

Leonard Jacobs and Rob Kendt are talking about Charles McNulty's piece in the LA Times.

McNulty makes the rallying call to Broadway and playwrights. And Leonard and Rob give their thoughts.

This from McNulty:

Conventional wisdom tells us that American dramatists haven't been as keen to tackle economic issues as their British counterparts. George Bernard Shaw, the grand theatrical observer of the way money makes the world go round, returned to Broadway this
fall in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of "Pygmalion" with Claire Danes and Jefferson Mays. The play that gave rise to "My Fair Lady" might be hazily remembered as a loquaciously witty entertainment, but it's actually a
critique of capitalism artfully disguised as a Cinderella romance, sans the usual happy ending.

Yet the great subject of our national literature has been the American dream, and no novelist or poet has revealed the corrosive effect of a family's empty-handed pursuit of its promise better than Arthur Miller in his masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman." There is a pipeline, in other words, of serious social drama that runs from Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets and Miller to David Rabe, August Wilson and Kushner, straight to Rebecca Gilman and Christopher Shinn -- and boy, do we need the spigot to be open right now.

Comedy has historically been more adept at reflecting contemporary crises, and America's tradition here is just rich. Whatever you may have thought of Wendy Wasserstein's final play, "Third," seen at the Geffen Playhouse this fall, it was heartening to encounter a protagonist ambling about her darkly humorous plot as nonstop TV coverage of the Iraq war sharply impinges on her daily consciousness.

Rob Kendt:

I for one am not particularly stirred by McNulty's preoccupations or prescriptions--I actually don't hanker much for topical plays that critique late capitalism at yet another of its inevitable crossroads, or for topical plays at all; for me, "topical" plays are too often just that, skin-deep. The problems, and our hopes, run deeper than Blackwater, the Fed, and Jan. 2009.

Followed by Leonard:

McNulty's problem with Broadway is really one of expectations: Because the nation has branded Broadway as representing the finest theatre Americans can create, we naturally expect that it will serve our highest goals and ideals. But fundamentally, Broadway is a business, not a social-service platform, and the result is that those goals and ideals are not prioritized as we might like them to be.

Let's also acknowledge that everything depends on the definition of
"trenchant social vision." One might cite Angels in America from the early 1990s, but I'm not sure one could name five other Broadway plays from that period that unquestionably match Kushner's "trenchant social vision." August Wilson's plays might constitute such a vision, but what other plays on Broadway were contemporaneously as fervent and poetic, as -- indeed -- trenchant.

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