Jun 21, 2013

No Time Like the Present

It's great to see Michael Feingold writing about theater again (kudos to TheaterMania for snapping him up), and with his own self-directed topics. And I love that he starts up his new column with a thread he began in the Voice three years ago, which posited that were are in a "hidden Golden Age" of New York theater; or as he rephrases it here, "A happy subject that has left me more than a little troubled." Essentially, though you wouldn't know it if you caught him in a bad mood or a high dudgeon about a specific play, Feingold is surprisingly sanguine about the quality of work, both in writing and production, at New York's nonprofit theaters, and he feels lonely beating this drum:
Unquestionably, we are lucky. The troubling point is that we don't seem to realize how lucky we are. If anyone other than me has been writing articles full of praise for the batch of exciting new American plays that our nonprofits spawned this year, I haven't come across them. 
Well, I'd argue that he wasn't entirely alone, but that's not my main argument with where Feingold then takes his thoughts. Essentially, he goes on to defend two well-reviewed Playwrights Horizons productions of the past season, Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan and Annie Baker's The Flick, from the reactions of some audiences and critics who, he feels, didn't appreciate the work, or the challenges they presented, with the kind of open, contemplative spirit he feels they deserved.

A fair enough topic, but it feels like small ball. Where I thought Feingold was taking his column was to double down on that lonely-voice-of-optimism angle: Not only will you seldom catch any of Feingold's critical colleagues saying things like, "There were a lot of good plays this season," largely because they very seldom zoom out to look at a whole season's worth of work except in the obligatory year's-end lists or the endless Tony speculation b.s. Instead, you will most often hear critics and miscellaneous theater observers lamenting the state of playwriting today, the trouble new voices have in gaining a foothold, the irrelevance of theater to the larger culture, etc.

I can't deny that there are grains of truth in all these familiar complaints, and I hardly think it's the business of critics to continually pat theatermakers on the back for doing great work. But I guess one reason that the constant calls for revolution and remaking the broken American theater (like this one, say), and the constant laments about how good new plays aren't getting produced, don't resonate with me is because I fundamentally agree with Feingold: I'm a reasonably happy theatergoer and theater observer as long as theaters are producing new work by living playwrights like Baker and Herzog and Sam Hunter and Lynn Nottage and Ayad Akhtar and Lisa D'Amour and Jackie Sibblies Drury and Stephen Gurgis and Stephen Karam and Tarrell MCraney and Lisa Kron and Itamar Moses and Sheila Callaghan and Lydia Diamond and Laura Eason and Robbie Baitz and Melissa Gibson and Yussef el Guindi and Chuck Mee and Liz Duffy Adams and Young Jean Lee and Chris Durang and Robert Schenkkan and David Ives and Bill Cain and Tracy Letts and Rebecca Gilman and Taylor Mac and Culture Clash and Nathan Jackson and Stew and Sarah Ruhl and Qui Nguyen and Dominique Morisseau and Rajiv Joseph and Regina Taylor and Mac Rogers and Gina Gionfriddo and Bruce Norris and Quiara Alegria Hudes and Laura Marks and Mike Daisey and Kirsten Greenidge and David Henry Hwang and Luis Alfaro and Dave Malloy and Jordan Harrison and Kate Fodor and Sean Graney and Katori Hall and Tanya Saracho and Nicky Silver...Do I need to go on? I could. And you probably have a list of your own.

My bottom line: If we don't live in a fertile and exciting time for new American playwriting, what would such a time look like?


David Cote said...

Feingold hasn't seen those articles praising the current crop of playwrights? (Crop, I suppose, to mean 40-and-under or thereabouts.) I'd be surprised if he actually looked. It's not our job to say, "Gee, there sure are a lot of talented writers out there!" Because there ought to be. It's New York for God's sake. More important, what is it about some of these writers that make them unique? That's what I tried to do with my recent review of Somewhere Fun at the Vineyard: http://www.timeout.com/newyork/theater/somewhere-fun.

All due respect to Feingold, but for years I've never looked to him to see what was new in the theater.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Fair point. It's probably the case that because Feingold's tone so often comes off as, "It was better back then," his upbeat columns stand out all the more. Your excellent piece on Schwartz reminded of this one by Feingold's colleague, Alexis Soloski://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-05/theater/new-american-playwrights-live-by-the-way-of-the-word/full/

Thomas Garvey said...

I'm sorry, but there isn't a truly great playwright in that long list. That's what is missing; people aren't wrong to perceive a mixed atmosphere of a wide range of talent reaching a mediocre level of achievement. This is one reason why the culture at large has abandoned the theatre - which leaves it open to the promotion of the products of the new-play-development machine. Most of which are pretty good, but . . .

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Right, the "culture at large" is invariably only interested in the "truly great."

David Cote said...

Also, remember: the "truly great" can be assessed and immediately canonized by newspapers, magazines…and bloggers. No need to wait for history or critical reappraisal.

Thomas Garvey said...

Ok, i guess Rob Weiner-Kendt and David Cote know better than the rest of the culture what is truly great, because they're not newspaper critics or bloggers . . . or something like that!!

I don't rely on that kind of thinking, though. It's obvious what the current playwrights are missing, but I'll state it anyway: their plays lack an internal engine that maps to the culture's current concerns. To be blunt, the culture isn't actually that involved in the progressive politics that drive most of these scripts.

If you look back to the last generation of compelling playwrights (a generation whose last gasp seems to have been Kushner), you can almost always feel some internal dynamic moving beneath the surface of the text that is hard, at first, to fully parse, but that one senses is a valid response to the cultural moment. Shepard, for instance, gives us through a druggy, pop-culture haze the shards of the nuclear family; even Mamet's paranoia at first felt like a resonant response to a masculine culture under assault. Albee is driven by a mother complex; Churchill by a yearning for historical justice; Kane by self-hatred.

These handles are all inadequate and reductive; but it's actually the "is driven by" part of the phrase that counts - the sense of some mysterious emotional response manifesting itself on stage is what makes theatre grip an audience.

You can't really teach a playwright how to have an inchoate internal dynamic, though, can you; the "depth charge" aspect of playwriting can never be "developed" - and explicit political content wrapped in formal "experiment" isn't QUITE the same thing. And this is a deep problem for the academy - the insistence on diversity undermines the coherent communal subconscious that initially responds to great work, and limits our political discourse to Sesame-Street-level utopian discussion.

Hence the current situation.

David Cote said...

I hate to waste time arguing against such chin-stroky, tautological claptrap but I will say that the playwrights in question do actually address "society" "how we live now" "the culture at large" and "our communal subconscious." If they don't do it explicitly and with some moralistic or journalistic agenda, it's because that sort of state-of the-nation playmaking is increasingly impossible in a fragmented culture. (You can still get away with it in England, which is smaller and more welcoming to the genre.) Do I wish there were more big, important plays on national themes? Sure. Are timid artistic directors and twee-loving professors at grad schools partly to blame? Sure. Is the "larger culture" (that monolithic myth) clamoring for such works of sociopolitical summing-up? Not so sure.

But none of this really matters to the playwrights in question, because unless you want to play the zero-sum game of Important Masterpiece or Trendy Ephemera?, we can never agree that a certain set of writers are gifted, trenchant, exciting, worth following and might have lasting power. Then it's just arrogant critical accountancy: totting up the influences, debiting the technical shortcomings, and weighing it all against your own political/aesthetic gold standard. As critics we do it all the time, but this sainting-or-damning business is really rather silly. It's silly for me to do, and it's silly for a blogger to do. Yes there are writers I like and dislike. I just don't try to write history before, well, it's history.

In other words, the jester shouldn't play the kingmaker.