May 17, 2011

For the Children?

Today George Hunka offers us a lengthy and despairing quote about the depredations of collective human behavior from critic George Steiner, which is all fine and well. But Hunka adds his own spin in what I presume is his own intro, saying:
A context for the 21st century tragic consciousness, from critic George Steiner. In its refusal to acknowledge this, American drama remains in the hands of children.
I don't engage with George Hunka very often, for reasons I've mentioned before, but I'm moved to challenge him here. Who exactly is he calling "children"? Artistic directors? Playwrights? The audience? Critics? I know a lot of foolish and benighted people who toil in the theater, and several in greater positions of power and influence than I would like, but I wouldn't go so far as to question the adulthood or seriousness of the entire field.

And I'm curious, for the record: Would George call Oskar Eustis, Martha Lavey, or Bill Rauch, just to pick a few names off the top of my head, "children"? Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Kristoffer Diaz, Tracy Letts--"children"? Come to think of it, I'm also not fond of "children" as a default putdown; like the word "amateur," it's a shorthand that needlessly dismisses a whole category of people. (And I should add that a not inconsiderable segment of the American theater actually creates work--even "drama"--for children.)

There's a lot one could say about the state of the American drama, its parlous economics and its apparent irrelevance to the mainstream of our culture, that I might take seriously, and on balance George does contribute meaningfully to this dialogue. But I just have to call this sentence out for making him look more sloppy and snobby than I know he is.

UPDATE: On the other hand, George's post today on tragic consciousness is a good one. I don't share his monomania, but he has seldom expressed himself more forcefully than here:
If suicide is not a viable option or course (as Schopenhauer believed), the question then becomes, in the brief light between birth and death, what one is to do with oneself, how to perceive and interpret the world and behavior with which one is presented, and how one is to conduct oneself in a world fallen by its very nature. (The tragic consciousness seems to be the only means by which the twentieth century itself makes sense; to view it through a comic or melodramatic prism is either madness or idiocy.)
What's most striking here, given our recent back-and-forth, is the religious language, though that should hardly be surprising. Tragedy, after all, assumes brokenness--or fallen-ness, to use George's word--which perforce assumes prior or essential wholeness. The question for the 20th century drama and beyond has always seemed to me to be, Can we have tragedy without gods? Maybe so (cf. the work of David Simon), but it seems clear enough to me that the language and logic of tragedy is at the very least informed or haunted by a religious sensibility.

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