In the mega-bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey distinguishes between our "Circle of Concern" (all things that we are concerned about) and the "Circle of Influence" (the subset of the Circle of Concern that we can affect through our actions). Proactive people, Covey says, are those who focus on the things they can affect; non-proactive people focus on blaming things in the Circle of Concern for their situation. Thus, in my post about "New Plays/Old Plays" I asked for us to focus within our Circle of Influence: "How have we (and the generation that preceded us) created this situation? How are we reinforcing it? And is there any way to remedy it?" Notice the word "we." Not "they."
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that we are unable to do that. As artists, we are so used to blaming other factors for our situation that we have lost all of our ability to reflect on our own actions.
Some examples of this:
Matt Freeman points to modern poetry as an example of "how something once considered culturally relevant and even vital can be slowly pushed into the sidebar and reserved for academics." Note the word "pushed." (Also note the usual bashing of "academics," which I will let pass for now.) He continues: "As long as the market is the be-all-end-all of cultural significance, anything that is not easily sold, marketed, and resold has little chance of being picked up by the mainstream. I don't think new playwrights or producers of new work are intentionally causing themselves to be marginalized (although some don't help their cause.) I believe that we have a system that doesn't reward risk; especially when the fundamental economics are already tenuous." The market. Talk about the Usual Suspects. It isn't anything poets are doing, or anything theatre people are doing (at least not intentionally -- I guess there are some people who intentionally want to be marginalized); it isn't that many contemporary plays combine an adolescent attitude of rebellion with the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual depth of a child's plastic pool; it is the tyranny of the market. And as long as there is a market, I guess we just throw up our hands, right? Art and capitalism can't co-exist? Better move to...jeez, China, I guess.
George Hunka agrees with Matt, saying drama and poetry are marginalized "because both poetry and drama (as well as challenging film, music and television) are regarded as leisure-time activities, and for us today, leisure means escapism. The arts have been conflated with this concept of facile pleasures, which indicates a disregard for the place of arts in an individual's life (see, for example, the very name of the New York Times' "Arts & Leisure" section, as if the two pursuits were the same thing)." Again, to paraphrase Laertes, "Society's to blame." The bloody, three-headed beast "escapism." A whole society filled with people who are shallow goobers -- not us, of course, we artists are the only ones who don't want to escape.
To his credit, George does do some self-reflection (sort of): "We don't mind new things so long as they reach out to us to entertain, to amuse; those that challenge certainly don't, or at least the entertainment or amusement factor takes a back seat to others. Playwrights today, fearing failure, all too readily cater to this impulse to entertain, to make jokes, instead of reaching further into the form--to be more ambitious. Audiences may wish us to be more ambitious, more complex, to take ourselves more seriously--like Chekhov, like Shaw." In this case, all those playwrights willing to sell their souls for a buck are to blame. But I call your attention to Aristotle, who said that the purpose of drama was to "entertain," and to Horace, who said it was to "entertain and enlighten." Even Brecht agreed with Aristotle! And to use Shaw as an example -- come on! Many, many of his plays co-opted popular forms (melodrama, farce, costume play), entertained, and made jokes as a way of putting across his ideas. The Fabian idea of permeation was at work in all but a few of Shaw's plays. We ought to take Shaw as a model, I agree, but see him for what he is: someone who used commercial forms as a way of sneaking Fabian ideas into the mainstream. But to paraphrase Laertes, "Entertainment's to blame."
Joshua James, the founder of the feast, says "Deconstruction's to blame!": "That's another of my points - in college we are all taught to desconstruct texts - but in writing a new play we are not doing that, we are constructing a text - it's a subtle difference, but an important one (remember my Pinter Betrayal story?) especially when at that delicate stage of bringing a text alive onstage when it has never been heard before. "
Come on, guys, you can do better than this. Take a good, hard look at the plays that are being written that are not being appreciated: what's the problem? George: what do you mean by "challenge"? It is a word we use a lot in the theatre when we're justifying ourselves. Does "challenge" mean "piss off"? Does it mean "make a festish of obscurity"? Does it mean "means a lot to me and that's what matters"? And what about that market? Are we saying that people aren't in search of things that add meaning to their lives, and aren't willing to pay for it? They're not in search of art that helps them to make sense of the world a little bit? That helps them to understand their trials a bit, and see those trials as having a larger meaning? That expands their sense of empathy, and self-understanding? Or are we defining the market as being that thing that gives audiences a multiplicity of choices other than being ridiculed and beaten around the spiritual head and neck by us theatre folk?
Until we, as artists, begin to examine our own premises, we will be stuck in a non-proactive posture of helplessness, frustration, and finger-pointing. And the result will be plays of helplessness, frustration, and finger-pointing. Which is a pathetic way for artists to look at the world.
(P.S. I have a cold today, so I am more irritable than usual. But come on, let's raise the level of discourse beyond the banal.)