Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Conservative Playwrights, Liberal Theatres, and Sir Thomas More

Below, another fascinating article from Terry Teachout.

I found it particularly entertaining when read through the following lenses.  

1) I have a playwright friend (a woman, in case that matters), probably far more conservative than I, who is presently working in the writing internship program at Oskar Eustis's Public Theatre. Incognito, I guess.

2) My Scrabble-induced dyslexia provided a far more interesting headline than the one the Times ran: "Liberal Views Dominate Foodfights."

3) My play REFUGE OF LIES was submitted to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several years back. Either it never got as far as Alison Carey, or she doesn't judge it "conservative" - which is fine by me, it's not a label I would apply to myself or my plays, but I wonder why she wouldn't. (Some might suggest that perhaps she read my play but doesn't remember it. Having myself read my play, I must state that this simply could not be.)

4) Mamet swaps "idealistic vision" - which seems to me to be about human values? - for "a free-market understanding of the world." Damn Yankees, always confusing economics with ethics. (Is this really what troubles Teachout? That no American theatres are running plays about market deregulation and free trade?)

5) Once you've heard from Mr Teachout, I'll append a bit from the September/October Film Comment, in which writer-director David Koepp gives his take on A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, one of his cinematic "guilty pleasures."

6) Damn fine finish. Applause to Messrs Teachout and Chekhov.

Enter, Stage Right?
Why we don't get conservative plays

Wall Street Journal, November 8 2008

Here's one for the been-there-done-that department: A group of women playwrights recently held a public meeting in New York at which they complained that not enough plays by women were being produced Off Broadway. The usual statistics were adduced to prove the point, and the usual male suspects made mollifying noises in a story published in the New York Times, though none promised to do anything in particular about it. "The issue is best dealt with by consistent consciousness-raising rather than a specific program," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater. Translated from Newspeak into English, this evidently means that Mr. Eustis disapproves of quotas for plays by women. Liberalism, it seems, has its limits, even at the Public.

More interesting -- and less predictable -- was another Times story called "Liberal Views Dominate Footlights" that ran a few days earlier. In it a number of American theater professionals were asked to speculate on why today's politically oriented plays are without exception written from a liberal point of view. All gave the same answer: Conservatives don't write plays. "I've never had a play come to me that I could say had a conservative perspective," said Alison Carey of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

True? Probably. Except for David Mamet, who announced earlier this year that he had abandoned the "idealistic vision" of liberalism in favor of "a free-market understanding of the world," and Tom Stoppard, whose "Coast of Utopia" trilogy was a meditation on the destructive consequences of 19th-century utopian absolutism, I can't think of a single well-known American or British playwright whose political views are even slightly to the right of center. Nor do I think it likely that such a person would flourish were he or she suddenly to emerge from out of nowhere: Theater is a social art form, and the culture of American and British theater is 99% left-liberal, if not more so.

A couple of weeks before the election, I was present at a theatrical brunch where the woman sitting on my right was wearing a T-shirt that read "Republicans for Voldemort." I noticed that the other people at the table were giving her nasty looks, and a moment later it hit me that they didn't get the joke. Once I explained to them that Lord Voldemort is the Dick Cheney of the Harry Potter novels, they perked right up.

Is this lockstep ideological unanimity a problem? Some theater professionals claim to think so. Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of London's National Theatre, has said that he longs to commission a "good, mischievous, right-wing play." But he gave the game away when he added that what he had in mind was "a play that ended up in a position that, for instance, was highly skeptical about abortion rights. I would like to see a play about the white working-class communities that were completely displaced by waves of immigration. These are the offensive plays we're not doing."

Mr. Hytner, in other words, wants to produce issue-driven conservative plays that are just like today's liberal plays, only in reverse, whereas the problem with today's political theater is that its practitioners see their plays not as works of art but as means to an end. In such tedious exercises in left-wing agitprop as Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell," Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" and Tim Robbins's "Embedded," we are presented with a black-and-white universe of victims and villains, a place where every deck is stacked and never is heard a surprising word. Why would anybody with half a brain in his head -- even a fire-breathing McCainiac, if such a creature exists -- want to suffer through their right-wing equivalent?

It's possible for playwrights to engage with political subjects in a way that doesn't insult the intelligence. In Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons," which is currently being presented on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the martyrdom of Thomas More is turned into a parable about the rule of law. "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, the laws all being flat?" More warns a colleague who wants to "cut a great road through the law" and arrest one of King Henry's spies. But Bolt didn't write "A Man for All Seasons" in order to persuade those who saw it to go out and vote Labour. His purpose was to make viewers of all political persuasions reflect on the dangerous consequences of using extralegal means to pursue desirable short-term ends. The result is a deeply political play that is neither liberal nor conservative -- and one that succeeds as a work of art.

I don't doubt that the American theater would be a more amusing place if it harbored a few uncloseted conservatives. But when the curtain goes up, I don't care whether the author of the show I'm about to see is a Republican, a Democrat, an anarchist or a drunkard, so long as he's taken the advice of Anton Chekhov: "Anyone who says the artist's field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing. . . . It is the duty of the court to formulate the questions correctly, but it is up to each member of the jury to answer them according to his own preference." That's what great playwrights do: They put a piece of the world on stage, then step out of the way and leave the rest to you.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every other Saturday and blogs about the arts at www.aboutlastnight.com. Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.

And, as promised, here's the further commentary on A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS from the the Sep/Oct issue of Film Comment. In the "guilty pleasures" feature, David Koepp (writer-director of the upcoming GHOST TOWN) provides these insights into A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, which he lists as Guilty Pleasure #10...
One of the all-time greats and you don't need me to tell you that, but here's the guilty part: early on, I started to have this nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, Thomas More was kind of a jerk. I pushed it out of my mind but it kept coming back, and by the time his poor wife starts yelling at him in the Tower of London to just sign the damn thing and come home already, I couldn't suppress it anymore. 'Yes, you pompous fool, what is your fucking problem?! Your family needs you!' I watched it a second time a few months ago just to confirm. Yep, he's an asshole."
Now there's a substantial critique. 

Give me the potty-mouthed Kevin Smith any day...

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