Friday, June 01, 2012

Critic Sees Signs of Life in American Playwriting

In the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty reads into the current Tony nominations for Best Play.

Earlier in the season I wrote a Critic's Notebook examining the difficulty dramatists were having in defining the terms of contemporary drama for an audience that seemed as uncertain about what constitutes a good play as they are. But I ended on an optimistic note, stressing that this uneven body of new American work will be a great aid in helping playwrights to reimagine the future.
One theater commentator mistook me for calling for a return to the well-made play. But my point was about the value of theatrical traditions, not dramatic formulas. Playwrights are their own legislators, yet they will never thrive working in a void in which every time they sit down before their computer screens they're charged with reinventing the wheel. The density of new work on Broadway in the last year goes a long way toward improving the long-term outlook.
This season may not have given us a masterpiece of the level of "A Streetcar Named Desire"or "Death of a Salesman," both of which are once again back on Broadway. "Clybourne Park" performs a cunning dissection of racial hypocrisy; "Other Desert Cities" uncovers the manifold ironies of our political self-righteousness. Will they be revived as often as these classics by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller? Highly doubtful.

You can read the whole thing here. 


Thomas Garvey said...

Hey Art -

McNulty's real point is that the American play is in better shape than the American musical. And who could argue with that? The global economy is in better shape than the American musical, too. Indeed, he hedges his claims of the "heartiness" of the drama with admissions that nobody is going to be reviving the likes of "Clybourne Park" in thirty years (and they won't be).

And McNulty doesn't really go into the odd economic disconnect that's operative here. Audiences go to musicals, even if they have cratered artistically. Why that?

Perhaps that issue is linked to the problem he DOES mention - "the difficulty dramatists were having in defining the terms of contemporary drama." Again, true.

I think it's pretty clear that what we're looking at is a supply-driven situation. University programs keep churning out playwrights - and they're smart, skilled people; so there's a huge supply of playwriting - and hence a large supply of clever, well-written plays; there's just no cultural demand for them. The call-and-response between author and audience seems to be dead. No wonder the best these new authors can do is actor-driven character pieces, as McNulty notes himself, or rambling, self-conscious "experiments."

Still, I suppose things could be worse. There's no major new talent out there, but there's a vast field of minor talents, and that's something. Maybe, as McNulty hopes, the sheer volume of plays in production will generate some new tradition. But I kind of doubt it.

It occurs to me more and more often that great art may depend on the existence of a monoculture ( or at least a subset of the culture large enough to generate the referential advantages of monoculture). It's ironic that current theatre culture is so opposed to that idea, even though monoculture may be the only way for it to claw its way back to relevancy.

Art said...

"There's no cultural demand for them."

With regard to this, I just posted a statistic from a Slate piece today about published plays that I found interesting, but not really surprising.

Also today: Adam Szymkowicz's "I Interview Playwrights" series has just reached installment #461. And I'm sure there are a lot more to come.

As for the demand side. I think about this from time to time:

Boston has a population of around 600,000 according to the last census.

But if we go by NEA statistics, only about 48,000 of those people would attend a play. An even smaller number would attend a theatrical play multiple times.

Of course, demographics play a factor. Boston may have areas where the playgoing numbers are more like 20%.

But you're just not talking about a heck of a lot of people.

Thomas Garvey said...

Yes, I'm quite sure Adam Szymkowicz will soon have interviewed Playwright #48,001. And then it will be official: more people are writing plays than seeing them.