Monday, March 01, 2010

Formal Exclusion

Yesterday, my department completed a run of Naomi Wallace's play The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. For the most part, I like Wallace's play, which is set in 1936 and is the story of the effects of the Great Depression on the people of a small town: a father who has lost his job at the steel mill, and as a result doesn't know who he is anymore; a mother whose hands have turned a toxic florescent blue because of a change in chemicals at the factory where she works, and who is getting involved in a workers' attempt to take over an abandoned glass factory; and two teenagers, Dalton and Pace, who fall in love while planning to outrace the 7:10 train across the titular trestle. It is a mystery, as the story moves back and forth in time, investigating Pace's death seemingly at the hands of young Dalton. I admire Wallace's obvious empathy for the working class characters in their struggle to hold onto hope in the face of a national economic meltdown not unlike today's.

But I am less enamored of the parts that fall under the category "formal experimentation," and I will explain why in a moment. It's not the part about racing trains, which we recognize as a variation of playing chicken with cars that we saw in Rebel Without a Cause, or the reckless racing of motorcycles sung about by Bruce Springsteen in Born to Run -- it is a trope that we recognize, and that we understand.Nor is it Wallace's use of a slightly difficult structure that goes back and forth in time -- again, nothing we haven't experienced in countless movie and TV mysteries throughout the years. It's the scenes where the action seems to disconnect from reality and reside in the land of symbols that bothers me, or rather bothers me on behalf of others. For instance, the father has an unexplained compulsion to break plates, and there is a scene in which he and his wife toss a plate back and forth while they talk; the father spends all his time in the dark making animal shadows on the wall with his hands; a jailer spends his time describing to the incarcerated Dalton the actions of another inmate in another cell, the owner of the glass factory who has gone mad and is spending his time pretending to be a variety of different animals, bugs, and buildings; the same jailer describes his relationship with his son, who was also killed trying to outrun the 7:10 train, and the way that his son started to batter and bloody himself so as to save his father the trouble of doing it every morning himself; Pace's ghost shows up throughout the play, sometimes interacting with Dalton (which makes sense), another time interacting with Dalton's mother, which makes less sense. Individually, these events have an evocative quality, but together they muddy the water of the story being told. But the thing that tips the play over into obscurity is the psychosexual supernaturalism of the relationship between Pace and Dalton, in which Pace kisses Dalton on the back of his knee and insists she is kissing him on the mouth, in which their identies eventually become so intertwined that they are able to have sex without touching, so that when Dalton touches himself he believes he can put his hand inside himself as if he had Pace's vagina. The end of the show, the moment that is supposed to explain the mystery of Pace's death but instead makes it even less understandable, centers on an intense but ultimately baffling scene of supranatural sexual union that shifts the play's focus from a tale of desperation to one of some sort of momentary transcendence of the physical plane.

This is the kind of stuff that the playwrights in Outrageous Fortune seem to see it as a badge of honor, a sign that there is some "real" playwriting going on. But ultimately, the effect is to alienate the audience. This is illustrated by an elderly couple who attended the show Saturday night. These are two people, probably in their late 70s or early 80s, who attend all of our productions, many of which are very challenging. Last night, after having watched the 2 hour and 30 minute production, they stayed for the post-show discussion afterward. By now, it was past 10:30 -- they were very tired, but they stayed out of some desire to understand what they had just seen. They listened carefully to the discussion, which was quite good, but afterwards they approached the director and pleaded with her to give them a synopsis of the play's events that they could take home and study. When the director explained that she didn't have one, they asked again -- "Are you sure you don't have a synopsis? Maybe I can find one of the internet -- you can find anything on the internet."

These were two people who in 1936 were likely around the same age as Pace and Dalton, people who perhaps could identify with having a parent who had lost a job in the Depression, or who knew what it felt like to have the wolf at the door. In other words, this was a play that could have deeply affected them. But instead of being able to bring their experiences to bear, instead of being reminded of the parallel between then and today, they were left desperately trying to figure out what the hell happened. Instead of trusting the power of her story and the humanity of her characters, Wallace had turned her play into an elaborate puzzle.

Naomi Wallace, a native of the small town of Prospect Kentucky, is someone who has experienced small town life, and is also someone who takes the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed. As Wikipedia says, "She is a dedicated advocate for justice and human rights in the US and abroad, and Palestinian rights in the Middle East." I know Wallace -- early in her career, she did a residency at Illinois State University when they did an early production of her play Slaughter City, and I spoke with her occasionally. Many of her plays are about the poor and uneducated, and she has a deep sense of commitment to such people. But she writes like an artist-specialist with a grad degree (Univ of Iowa) writing for other artist-specialists and for people whose education makes them capable of deciphering narrative lines and exploring obscure symbols. The people about whom she writes, like the elderly couple in the audience a few nights ago, would find it very difficult to understand what she was writing about, even though she is writing about...them.

I am in agreement with John McGrath, whose excellent book A Good Night Out I recommend without reservation and have quoted from before. McGrath is a well-known English director whose focus has been on theatre for the working class. He writes apropos of Harold Pinter, but also of plays such as Wallace's and others that think that good playwriting requires "formal experimentation," that:
many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have happened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as... in need of education.
People like the old couple are robbed of the theatrical experience they might have had, and that seems counter-productive and mean-spirited somehow. Which brings me back to Tom Loughlin's poignant post I mentioned yesterday:
If there is anything that is of interest to me these days, it seems to be the people I meet who have absolutely nothing to do with theatre or academia. The man doing my bathroom is a great guy and wonderful to talk to. He knows so many local people that I feel jealous. I ate lunch yesterday with a complete stranger at a local diner and had an interesting conversation about next to nothing. He was just a plainspoken, friendly guy. I always have these wonderful little conversations with Angela, the woman at the cash register in the student center where I get my bacon/egg/cheese sandwich some mornings. She talks about her vacation in Florida and how her husband is down there fixing up their small trailer, getting it ready for their retirement (retirement!). And Sue over in Cranston Dining Hall always asks about my son Eric, with whom she worked for a few months. They have their worries and concerns, I am sure, but at least they don’t appear to be trying to impress anyone. I wish I knew how to create theatre for these people. I’m depressed that I don’t. They deserve better of me.
I come from a working class background. By having gotten a doctorate, I was lifted into the educated middle class. I was taught over the course of a decade of higher education to appreciate ambiguity, to develop my play analysis skills so that I can understand plays such as Wallace's (I even wrote a textbook about it -- Introduction to Play Analysis), to seek out parallel structures, metaphoric significance, open narrative structures, wordplay and any number of "formal experimentation" techniques that playwrights have been fond of since Symbolism showed up as a rejection of Naturalism. But most people don't have the benefit of having spent their lives learning and teaching this stuff. They simply want to experience a story that helps them to understand themselves and their world more fully, helps them experience life more vibrantly, helps them find significance in the experiences that make up their lives. And instead, they encounter plays that deny them this, that seem to exist to confuse them, to point out their interpretational inadequacies, to tell them that they are not part of the "in" crown that understands these things.

And after being involved with theatre for 35 years now, I must confess that I am tired of it with the same sort of weariness that Tom expresses in his post. I'm tired of inwardly blanching when one of the housekeeping staff in our building asks what the play is about and whether they would like it. I don't like seeing the expressions of bafflement and disappointment on the faces of so many who leave a performance. I don't like the way these plays seem to tacitly filter out all but the educated. I want to find ways to reach everybody, not just the educated, not just the wealthy, and not just the city dwellers. I seek a profound theatre that enriches everybody, not just people who have as much education as I have. Wallace's play took the working class experience seriously, the small town experience seriously, but she couldn't write for them -- she had to signal that, while she was on their side, she is still a member of the intelligentsia, the artist-specialist class. And this seems sad to me. With so few people who can write from experience of these issues, it seems a lost opportunity and a shame.


cgeye said...

I'm going to wonder whether this is a chicken-or-egg problem: Does Wallace and other class-crossing writers feel compelled to add stylistic complexity as something to interest readers and decision makers? Something to make a director say, why not direct this instead of Waiting for Lefty?

Perhaps that's the burden of having a world theatre literature that has a body of plays speaking to class that We Don't Do Now, because they're now judged to be politically unsophisticated or passe. Perhaps it's the burden of writing something "new", and unvarnished recollections of experiences aren't enough.

lucia said...

Bravo. And if the writer must provide something that can be understood by all, a universal and important story, compelling and understood at some level by everyone, passing the Paula Vogel "2 hrs closer to death" bar - isn't that a greater challenge for the writer and lead to greater work? I couldn't agree more with this entire post.

WSG said...

Both Cultural Appropriation and "Tourism Theater" are, sadly, alive and well in the main-stream middle class theater circuit, both pro and semi-pro.

Artistic Directors and audiences are thrilled to now and then dip their delicate toes in the dramatic lives of "The Other" (be it racial or class based) because their "Primitive" lives are so "Exciting" and "Authentic" in their dramatic passions.

An all white audience watching "Two Trains Running".

An audience with a 100k average income watching "Buried Child".

And where are the African Americans or the Blue Collar Americans in this discussion? Is this how they see themselves? Is this how they understand their lives?

I don't know, because I generally don't see them at these theaters.

Is this because they somehow sense that even when the stories told are about them, they're not for them?

An honest cultural exchange would be groups of people sharing stories with each other about how they see themselves and their experiences.

A dishonest cultural exchange is the appropriation of the "Colorful" elements of one culture for the entertainment and titillation of another.

Ian Thal said...

I don't know how The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek fits into Naomi Wallace's ouvre but I just saw Whistler in the Dark's production of her One Flea Spare and besides having the most poetic language and emotional depth of any recently written play I've seen in quite a while, it had a rather straight forward storyline.

Greg Redlawsk said...

It seems to me that there is some question of universality inherent in this discussion. The thought that because a plot line avoids the straightforward and speaks evocatively is certainly challenging for the majority of audiences. In some ways there is truth to the notion of Naomi Wallace's writing catering to the elite (or at least the elite in the artistic mindset). However, I don't feel that this sort of "alienation", this writing for not the masses but the few, is a problem at all. Personally as a person in theatre I find Naomi Wallace's work to be very inspiring. In fact, it is her language of symbols that draws me the most. The language of symbols is absolutely necessary in performance, because theatre is a medium beyond language alone. While the linguistic values of Trestle is obfuscating at times, I don't believe that the play is merely about the story being told, because theatre to me doesn't seem only about the story. Effective theatre comes in a multitude of ways, including theatre that effects us viscerally (if we are open to it), but not logically.
This ended up rambling a bit, and for that I apologize. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that there is room for the aesthetic of Naomi Wallace, just as there is room for the aesthetic of site specific works grounded in one culture and in one place. Even though a show like Trestle is set in a very specific time, the work elevates beyond the prosaic by virtue of the symbols included in the story. It is because of this that I, a twenty-one year old directing student, can appreciate and feel the meaning in a piece such as this, even if I don't completely understand it logically.
Also in the interest of full disclosure, I'm certainly influenced by the fact that Noami taught me in a playwriting class (which was fantastic), but I had always enjoyed her work previously and continue to enjoy it today.


Scott Walters said...

This is a crucial sentence, Greg: "Personally as a person in theatre I find Naomi Wallace's work to be very inspiring."

And that's great, and I am not suggesting that Naomi Wallace shouldn't have written the play, nor that there is no room for the "aesthetic of Naomi Wallce." What I am saying is that certain artistic choices have ramifications. I know Ms Wallace as well, and from what I know of her, I doubt that she wants an audience composed only of theatre people, or even of educational elites. But I am communicating the experience of two older people, and my wife also communicated the experience of a non-theatre person who even has the advantage of being married to a theatre person, and what this admittedly small sampling indicates is a level of confusion about what happened (i.e., the foundational part of the play, the plot) that seemed to prevent a full understanding and appreciation of the play.

It certainly is possible to say, "well, I'm sorry, but that's the way it needed to be written" and let it go at that. But then to complain, as so many playwrights in Outrageous Fortune did (and I am not saying Naomi Wallace says this), that the audience wasn't open to "formal experimentation" is to blame the victim. When people see a play, they want to like it and understand it and be moved by it -- anything that prevents that from happening is a shame.

Ian Thal said...

What I can't help but notice when you say that the couple who were "probably in their late 70s or early 80s," and "attend all of [your] productions, many of which are very challenging" yet according to your narrative, only had a problem with this particular play.

(Leaving aside that the fact that I know plenty of folk in their 70s and 80s who enjoy "challenging" work.)

Obviously, this couple are long time theatre attendees, so I wonder:

Have previous seasons really been as "challenging" as you suppose?Did the rest of the audience seem to "get it?" Sometimes I'm the audience member who doesn't particularly feel that the story was aimed at me.

Again, maybe this was just one of Wallace's weaker works, because my only experience shows that she can write linear narratives.

Scott Walters said...

The median date of writing for plays in our season over the past ten years is about 1984 -- these have included "Marisol," "Thousand Kites," "Equus," a deconstruction of "The Tempest" using object theatre, and so forth. But this really isn't about the seasons, is it?

Let me be clear: I kind of liked this play, but I've been doing theatre for almost 40 years, and even with my experience I found the plot hard to follow and some of the scenes puzzling.

I'm not certain this is about linear narratives, but sort of introducing the inexplicable into the events in ways that made it difficult to understand.

Ian Thal said...

I would say that if the couple are regular attendees then maybe it is about the seasons; The piece may not fit in to what they are accustomed to seeing as they presumingly understood Equus et cetera.

Of course, since even you had trouble following the plot (which makes me wonder if the students could have followed it, and thus performed it convincingly) I'm guessing that this older couple were not simply outliers in your audience and we have to consister that either it was a bad fit between script and company or a seriously flawed work by an otherwise talented playwright.