July 25, 2009

I can't stand being preached to in the theatre.

Socio-political bloviating on the stage is nothing new, of course; Even the great George Bernard Shaw penned some truly unwatchable plays with heavy-handed social messages. Still, I tend to cut Shaw a lot of slack because his strange maunderings sometimes approached surrealism, and because he had a sense of humor. (Plus, we Irish playwrights have to stick together.)

Shaw's idiosyncratic musings are a far cry from the humorless political message plays of today. Combine zeal for current-events topicality with the ongoing trend towards shorter, simpler, smaller-scale plays and you have a lazy liberal's wet dream: something that's easy to stage, and invokes certain buzzwords that look good on certain kinds of grant applications.

And so we see more and more plays that consist of just two or three characters (or even better, just one monologuing his or her heart out) on a minimal set, talking about "relevant social and political issues." If you ask me - and I know you didn't - that kind of "Theatre of NPR" jazz is about as interesting as watching a staged reading of transcripts from the Congressional Record.

And so we get "anti-war" plays wherein a couple of people sit around talking about how awful war is. We get "socially important" plays in which people stand around discussing how sexism sucks, how racism sucks, how the Government sucks, how this sucks, how that sucks.

Problem is, anyone who wants to know these things knows them already.

By preaching to the converted, these oh-so-topical issue-mongers marginalize themselves by creating a play whose effect is a foregone conclusion. Some say they're "challenging audiences" by talking about these allegedly controversial topics, but come on. Archie Bunker doesn't open the paper and say "hey, honey, there's a play opening about political injustice in Third World Countries! Start the car!"

  • David Hare's Stuff Happens presents us with Bush Administration figures standing around onstage talking about terrorism and war. We're supposed to be impressed that the dialogue is taken largely from actual existing sources. To paraphrase the great Truman Capote, that's not writing, that's just cut-and-pasting.

  • Madeleine George's The Most Massive Woman Wins is a short and sparse onstage gab session in which four women - a mother, a feminist, a self-cutter and a bulimic - share their feelings with each other about society's body ideals while waiting to get liposuction. (I swear I'm not making this up.)

  • Sherry Kramer's When Something Wonderful Ends, a hit at the 2007 Humana Festival, is a one-woman lecture about the gender-role message of Barbie dolls, America's dependence on foreign oil, and also includes a slide show about the war in Iraq. Seriously.

  • Kia Corthron's Trade, also one of the 2007 Humana Plays, consists of two women, one of whom is an American wearing a burqa as a form of protest, talking about politics in the Middle East. And that's it. Not kidding. According to the Feminist Spectator's review of the show, "Corthron crystallizes issues of identification and empathy that overshadow our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the politics of the Taliban, and the detentions at Guantanamo".

    Well, that's just great. If I wanted to watch CNN, I would have stayed at home and done so.

    Having said that, I am clearly in the minority here as all of the aforementioned plays are/were very popular and got predominantly rave reviews. Who am I to argue with success?

    Then again, I'm someone who finds more beauty, power, majesty, meaning, pathos, artistry and keys to the human condition in the dream sequence of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma than in all the lefty "message" plays of the last half-century put together. (And I say that as a card-carrying lefty myself!)

    Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com

    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com