A recent comedy advertised itself as "not just another play about relationships."
You knew exactly what the ad writer meant. Theater audiences are not dying to see another play in which a young woman comes to terms with her mother, or a young man comes to terms with his gayness, or a long-married couple comes to terms with somebody's infidelity.
Those are valid subjects, but they are starting to feel picked over. We seem to know what the actors are going to say before they say it. We seem to have seen the story already, on TV.
It's not just the subjects that feel overdone. It's the attitude of the playwright: the sense that all that we finally have in life are relationships. This leaves out some rather large tracts of human experience. We want a more inclusive dramatic statement, one that pushes the issues of life beyond the psychological, and also one that makes larger claims on the imagination.
This, and not the desire for vulgar spectacle, may explain why the biggest musical of the 1980s ended with the ascension of a fallen soul into heaven, trailing clouds of glory and a barrage of laser-lights. That the soul was attached to a diseased alley cat didn't diminish the wonder at all. "Cats" was about redemption--a big unprovable notion with great emotional power.
"Cats" was a synthetic legend. The danger of that approach was evident in its successor, "Starlight Express," which seemed to have been fabricated for an audience of robots: all sensors, no hearts.
Compare Peter Brook's magnificent retelling of "The Mahabharata" for the Los Angeles Festival. Here was a many-folded legend offering as many relationships as one could want (the problem was keeping them straight) and a fine assortment of theatrical tricks as well.
But the tricks had a purpose: to suggest the existence of another world behind the world of appearances that the characters moved in. And the basic relationship wasn't between the characters, but between a hero and his destiny. A hero: someone whose choices changed the world.
"The Mahabharata" had the size, the richness and the imagination that we had been craving in the theater. Yet we weren't perfectly at home with it. We hadn't grown up, most of us, knowing about Yudhishthira and his brother Arjuna. Lord Krishna wasn't a familiar presence. We couldn't fill in the blanks of the story by ourselves. We couldn't match this telling of it with others we'd heard.
What would a Western "Mahabharata" be like, the dramatization of an epic myth that everybody had come to the hall knowing and, in some cases, believing? Just such a play was being performed at UC Irvine during the Los Angeles run of "The Mahabharata." And it used a much older script.
The story of Jesus Christ does not, of course, predate that of "The Mahabharata." But Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere wrote their adaptation of the latter only recently, while the texts of UC Irvine's "Corpus Christi" cycle went back 600 years.
These were the plays that the guilds of an English town would present over one long day, starting before dawn with Adam and Eve and ending at dusk with Christ's resurrection. The townsfolk knew the story, but needed to see it in order to take it to heart. So reasoned the church fathers, the original sponsors of medieval pageant theater.
They also realized that the plays had to be good shows, or people would get tired of standing around. So they threw in plenty of jokes, devils and smoke bombs. Paid for the earthquake and setting the world afire: 8 pence, reads a parish record book.
UC Irvine has been presenting the plays over a three-year cycle, part of an inter-departmental project in medieval studies. This year's chapter, the last, was devoted to Christ's death and resurrection. The audience didn't receive it with the faith of medieval villagers and yet did, for the moment, believe what they were seeing.
Director Robert Cohen didn't stage the plays outdoors under daylight. We sat on the stage of the UC Irvine theater, on either side of a runway connecting two playing areas--Golgotha on the right, Caiphas' temple on the left.
The surrounding darkness suggested a place of worship, but also provided a place for figures to appear from and to disappear into--Cohen, too, had some tricks up his sleeve. And he had reminded his performers (largely students) to stay away from the pious sort of line readings that you get at the Crystal Cathedral. It was a play, not a Good Friday service.
Where Brook's "The Mahabharata" had to trace everybody's story to the beginning, a couple of reminders immediately caught us up in the action. The young man hotly denying that he had ever seen the traitor in his life: that would be Peter (Rex Slate) and here was the crowing of the cock.