"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." It's been exactly 30 years since Allen Ginsberg wrote those words. I have felt of late that our theater could use a little madness. I feel that I am watching the best minds of my generation being destroyed by logic .
There is an irony in the fact that as new-play programs continue to proliferate, the script itself seems to be the theatrical component that is trailing the pack. Performance art and the "high concept" production of classics have richly amplified the aural and visual components of theater, helping us transcend the relatively recent notion of "real rooms, actual sounds and natural light." In most cases, however, our playwrights have not made their language rise to the occasion.
We continue to subsist on that good old realistic dialogue that the small minds in the theater value as gold. Not even a set with obtuse shapes, neon light and a throbbing synthesizer score dislodges our dependence on realistic language. The designers on such a project may have succeeded, but the playwright, in all likelihood, has given us a grocery list.
And, more to the point, we probably demand it of him/her. The words of illumination, the dangerous cadences, most certainly the poetry, have fallen helplessly into the stage manager's wastebasket as the playwright ruminates on the comment made at one of his/her first public readings: "Your characters don't talk like \o7 real people\f7 . At least not like anyone \o7 I\f7 know."
Dutifully, the playwright scribbles this comment on a legal pad and that is that. Another new voice is slaughtered. Another mad writer tamed.
Who workshops lighting plots? Who dramaturgs ground plans? Designers of all kinds, formally trained or not, put their faith in \o7 effects\f7 . And well they should. These artists make empty space valuable. We set them loose to shape the theatrical arena in a way that will have an intended, if not always definable, effect on an audience.
In most new-play development programs, however, we preoccupy our playwrights with \o7 cause\f7 .
What causes this character to do this monologue at this point in the play? ("I love the writing, you understand. But it just doesn't fit the character's \o7 emotional logic\f7 .")
What caused you to end Act I that way? ("I love the way she storms out of the room, but where is she \o7 going\f7 ? I'm afraid we'll lose her \o7 through-line\f7 .")
And here's my personal favorite: "I think Joe's speech to the audience is a bit \o7 bald\f7 , a bit \o7 too direct\f7 . I think the stage time would be better spent giving us some insight into the early years of their marriage. I'm not looking for \o7 explanations\f7 , you understand, I'm just \o7 curious\f7 about how he and Cindy met."
That's not text. That's homework. Often I think the perfect play to hand the lazy director goes like this: CauseCauseCauseCauseCauseCauseCauseBLACKOUT. There must be no effect that cannot be traced to and overwhelmed by a cause.
The defense of this method, of course, is that it helps "flesh out the character." In most cases, \o7 homogenize\f7 would be a better word. Consistency has never produced a memorable character. Contradiction has. Flirt with madness. Bring us some effects.
So, what are the playwright's weapons? \o7 Poetry, action \f7 and \o7 story\f7 seem to me to be the most at risk, the most in danger of being "developed to death." A popular new-play comment is: "In listening to your play, I became too aware of the poetry."
But the theater's first language is poetry, not prose, and to think otherwise is to sever our ties with greatness. Months ago I heard a director tell a young playwright: "You should listen to the way \o7 ordinary\f7 people \o7 really\f7 talk. As David Mamet does." But Mamet is not a tape recorder. Mamet is a poet. If people actually talked--day after day--like the characters in Mamet's plays, it would cost you $12.50 to get into Chicago.
Today's plays of action--those that move freely through time and space and dirty up Aristotle's theories--generally encounter the following comment at some point in their development: "What I think you have here is not a play. It's a film. It's too expansive for a play."
This implies that the things we used to do \o7 very well\f7 in the theater (action, suspense, surprise, journey) are now the province of the Tube 'n' Screen. It implies that the theater should content itself with being home to character studies, not adventures.
But the fact is that the Tube 'n' Screen does miniaturizations (war, breath spray, new cars, John Hinckley, beer, bigotry, mink coats, famine--they're all the same size), while the theater does magnifications. Because of its immediacy, the theater prioritizes the world, while the Tube 'n' Screen, under the guise of offering limitless opportunities, actually homogenizes it.