In earlier times, when naturalistic detail started creeping in, like
aesthetic kudzu, the theater either smacked it down or shied away from it toward some more abstract form. But in recent decades, television has been the visual center of most people's leisure lives, and it's bred a hypnotic form of watching, in which the image itself—usually an image full of "real" details—is the single source of interest. When people devoted to the theater complain about current plays being "too much like television," what they object to isn't just
the vapidity and oversimplification of the scripts. Vapidity and
oversimplification had ensconced themselves in playwriting centuries before network programming was even a gleam in David Sarnoff's eye. They may trivialize drama, or render it stupid, but they don't make it less dramatic. On the contrary: Very little onstage is more exciting than an air-headed, one-dimensional melodrama, no matter how nakedly factitious. The core problem is the hypnosis: Turn the set on, and we watch. What's on-screen doesn't particularly matter, as long as it's more or less representational.
Thus, we've come to the kind of play that, as a play, doesn't
exist, or at best barely exists; all it does is represent. Things happen, sort of. But how they happen and why they happen—the elements that make up the substance of drama—seem to have faded out of the script. Sometimes a dim reflection of a genre is present, just as you can find recollections of old stage genres in most current TV series, even in "reality" shows. Brooke Berman's Hunting and Gathering, at Primary Stages, is the remnant of an old-style romantic comedy about young couples struggling to pair off in New York. Mike
Leigh's Two Thousand Years is a London echo of that longtime Broadway staple, the Jewish family play. Neither play, as an act of writing, is particularly shameful or dishonest; both have patches of interesting writing, and both visibly stem from their writers' efforts to capture a reality truthfully. But as a play, neither one exists. The meager events that occur in them, portrayed by Berman as flukes of destiny and by Leigh as the repetitive tics of one family's dynamics, barely affect even the characters' lives. Both plays inhabit a world
so inconsequential that Ionesco, who can tell us that the clock strikes 13 and that Mr. and Mrs. Martin have been married for years without meeting each other, seems to have a firmer grasp on its vagaries.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
If a Play Falls in The Woods?
Michael Feingold on a certain type of new play: