Historical Theater Can Suck It

Posted: February 10, 2011 in poetics
Tags: , , ,

Moff (sometimes called “Josh Wimmer”, as is the custom of his people) a little while ago wrote a post questioning the value of criticism. I have been meaning to write something lengthy in response to it, as I think he makes some interesting points, and that it’s an interesting topic of conversation.

This isn’t going to be that, though. Instead, I want to look at just one idea, and how it relates to the theater, and how amazingly peculiar an artform the theater is.

I want to look at McLuhan and Pound’s contention that art is, in some way, a method of talking about sort of “who we are and what we’re doing right now in human history.” I think that’s a fantastic definition of art. It’s possibly incomplete, but that’s an argument for a different day; I want to use it right now as a working definition of art: self-reflexive, topical commentary.

This means that theater is weird. Really weird. I mean, think about this: in what other art-form can you take a single piece of art from ten or twenty or however many years ago and then just do it again? I don’t mean remake it – every artform has always made and remade ideas. It’s part of that self-reflexive commentary: once an idea is part of human history, to remake it in a modern context is to comment on oneself.

But when has it ever happened that someone sat down and said, “You know what no one’s written in a while? Moby-Dick. I’ve got Melville’s notes right here, why don’t I just write that novel again.”

It would be crazy to do that, and the reason it would be crazy to do that is because Moby-Dick is an artifact of its time, and AS an artifact of its time, is permanent. But the same is not true for theater, because every piece of theater is essentially two parts: a script, which is a schematic for the work of art; and a performance, which is basically ephemeral. The scripts are permanent, but they aren’t art by themselves – they’re just a blueprint for a work of art.

Not only that, but modern theater has a very particular life-cycle. Plays go into “development” for years before the end up being performed at any sizable venue, or garnering any popularity, or in any other way achieving relevance as cultural material. We kind of see something similar for movies (focus-testing) and books (writing groups), but the former is manifestly anti-artistic, and neither situation really takes more than a year or two.

It takes between five and ten years for a play, written, commissioned, and developed at an outlier city, to hit Off-Off-Broadway, or turn up at one of the big theaters in a major city.

So, what does it mean when we’re trying to create self-reflexive commentary when our newest sets of blueprints are already a decade out of date?

Some plays get lucky, and retain relevance despite cultural progression. Marisol is twenty years old at this point, and I basically think someone should always be doing that play. Angels in America is pretty close to the heart of the theater still, though I think it’s in a kind of a dead-zone right now; too old to be directly relevant for a new audience, not quite old enough to be a classic.

This is all further complicated by the fact that for the most recent sets of plays – that is, anything written in this or the last century – many of the authors are still alive, and therefore set requirements on the scripts such that a company must produce them the way the author intended.

If we accept the aforesaid definition of art, then this is a little absurd. Art’s relevance is based on its contemporaneity, its currency; to lock a piece of art into a perspective that’s thirty or forty years out of date is to condemn your own work to death.

There are people who think that Shakespeare should be performed with a strict adherence to the author’s intention (whatever they imagine it to be), and I think it goes without saying that I think those people are idiots. The fact of the matter is, Shakespeare’s plays are vital now precisely because we don’t KNOW what his intentions were; all of the topical detritus, the backstories of British politics, the inside jokes, the obscure references – four hundred years of history has let all that slip away. What remains is just some beautiful writing, that can be taken and repurposed in whatever way a director or a company wants.

(Not its universality. “Universal” is another word for “generic.” Every story told be human being is, by its nature, a product of the universal human experience, and there have been hundreds of “universal” stories that don’t make it past century one. Don’t even talk to me about “universal.”)

Anyway, what I’m getting at by all of this is a plain criticism of people who want to do classical theater in classical ways, or people who want to do popular plays from the 60s or 70s or 80s. Even if you want to do someone like Artaud or Cocteau or Brecht, you have to remember that the art that you are making right now is about your world right now, and the material you’re using is only material insofar as it matters to the material present.

So, if I can be controversial for a minute, fuck classical theater. Fuck the history of theater. We need to be doing new work now, or taking the old stuff and TEARING IT THE SHIT UP.

  1. Though we should still study the history of it and how the technicalities of acting worked back then, if only in order to tear it the shit up with meaning.

  2. braak says:

    Well, I don’t know why anyone would decide, “I want to do this play,” without having spent a substantial amount of time investigating the context in which it came from.

    How do you even end up deciding you want tear up The Three Sisters, if you haven’t already spent a lot of time reading into The Three Sisters?

  3. Sorry, I’m already too used to Hollywood people. I forget that most people who go in for the artistic side of life are at least half intelligent.

  4. Blaze Tarnen says:

    Some of the posts on this website are truly self-congratulatory mental-masturbation.

  5. braak says:

    Well, so are some of the comments.

  6. Isn’t that what the internet is in its entirety?

  7. braak says:

    Well, no. It’s also regular masturbation.

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