Thursday, October 13, 2005

OK, Not a Good Metaphor

One of the truly wonderful things about the blogosphere -- and I mean this sincerely -- is that, when you go too far, there are many people who will let you know about it, and give you a chance to right yourself. That happened yesterday with my rape analogy.

Isaac, from Parabasis, was the first to accuse me of "straw manning of people who disagree with you." He goes on: "I can think of no American theater artist who views the audience this way. There are some who have disregard for their audience, some who may even have contempt. But the only artists I can think of who fall into your rapist mentality are film makers and novelists. In fact, the only one who really comes to mind is Lars VonTrier."

Isaac is probably right (not about Lars Von Trier, whose work I don't know) -- the analogy is much too harsh, not to mention tasteless. The artists I am talking about are those who have "contempt" for their audience, as Isaac says -- contempt is not rape. Perhaps a better analogy would be that of pornography, most of which displays a contempt for women that is definitely not making love.

I would have been tempted to disown this line of analogy completely if it weren't for George Hunka's hilarious, yet meaningful, contribution: "On the other hand, all too many playwrights and theater artists, serious or not, want to give lap dances to the audience, and I think that constitutes the greater danger. Can we give NEA grants to those artists instead? The last time I was in an adult entertainment club (and this was a long time ago), a lap dance cost about the same as as a theater ticket, come to think of it. Since then, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the ladies' prices have gone up, while the price of a ticket to "Loot" has stayed the same. Lap dances, last I noticed, were neither government-subsidized or funded by foundation grants. More's the pity, maybe."

So now we have three different analogies for the theatre artist/theatre audience relationship:
  1. Making love
  2. Rape/Pornography
  3. Lap dances

Why am I suddenly feeling like Lenny Bruce?...

At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me try to de-sexualize these metaphors to get at their root. The difference between making love and a lap dance (now, just keep it to yourself, all you jokesters) is the difference between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship described by Buber. (Buber is now spinning in his grave at being included in a discussion of lap dances.) Lap dances are pure economic transactions where the payor buys the services of the payee. There is no equality between the two people involved, no sense of the two as being people sharing anything. But when you make love, there is communion, communication, a recognition of the personhood of both people. Now, if you add in a little hostility to the lap dance, you have pornography -- same refusal of personhood from a different viewpoint.

Perhaps what I am suggesting is that we, as theatre artists, should strive to develop an I-Thou relationship with the audience, and also with the characters we create for the stage that, after all, often represent the members of the audience. Isn't that the genius of Chekhov, of Shakespeare -- that they do not judge their characters, do not refuse to look at the world through the eyes of even the most morally corrupt? There are no fingers pointed at the audience in Chekhov and Shakespeare. We empathize with Macbeth and Iago as much as Macduff and Othello.

Perhaps if we stopped judging the audience, and our characters as stand-ins for the audience, then we would escape both the lap dance and the porn relationship. The problem is, we feel so unappreciated as theatre artists. We end up having to beg our theatrical partners to make love with us, which leads to a certain sense of hostility once the accept.

Matt Freeman asked, "Who are these particular "serious" playwrights you're referring to? Stephen Adly Guirguis? David Mamet? Tony Kushner?" Good question. Of those three, I would only characterize David Mamet as one who displays a hostility toward the audience through his characters. I don't know Guirguis, but when I read a review of his latest play, I thought it sounded very human -- sort of like a 21st century The Iceman Cometh. Kushner, I think, along with August Wilson, are two of the most humane playwrights now writing. All you have to do is look at the depth, and even empathy, that Kushner showed in the way he portrayed the morally despicable character of Roy Cohn to understand the type of playwrighting I admire. Similarly, Wilson shows us the humanity of people we might not agree with -- say, the deeply-flawed character of Troy Maxson.

Mamet, on the other hand, writes heartless melodramas. He wants the audience to choose sides, or stand condemned. The difference between his Glengarry Glen Ross and Miller's Death of a Salesman is that Miller helps us to empathize with Willy Loman, and shows us that it is possible to grant that "attention must be paid" while at the same time realizing that "the man didn't know who he was." But at the end of Glengarry Glen Ross, all we have been shown are characters who are desperate and consequently dishonest. The plot twist is more important than people. We emerge from his plays like a martini: shaken but not stirred. His message is the point of a finger: see how it is???? The same is true of Oleanna -- both characters are presented without any sense of understanding. We're supposed to be interested in the arrangement of the events of the plot, not the characters. We have no insight into either character at the end. Again, we are left with the message: see how it is??? Salesmen are amoral cut-throats; teachers are pompous assholes, and students use postmodernism as a weapon.

So I withdraw my rape analogy, and draw your attention once more to George Hunka's beautiful essay about making love to the audience.

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