Tuesday, April 18, 2006

When it rains, it pours

Trying to report new information on books and literature can be an uphill battle. Sure, we had it good with the JT Leroy/James Frey debacles (which gave me something to talk about for most of January), but the books world is often slow and of interest only at specific times to people of specific interests.

It's been a pretty good week, though. The Pulitzers were announced on Monday. March, by Geraldine Brooks won for fiction (beating The March by E. L. Doctorow), and Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson won for poetry. No prize was given for drama.

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with an old friend about who the really important poets and dramatists of the past few centuries are. To me, at least, the unspoken undertone was that the very fact that we needed to have the conversation at all underlined the relative irrelevance of the fields. (Perhaps more so for drama than poetry) How many people attend plays regularly? How many people that you know would say that their life was changed by a play? (You're excluded from that question, Mr. Hungerford, since you work in theater.)

I was able, without much hesitation, to rattle off a list of the four most important American playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Clifford Odets (with August Wilson a likely and worthy fifth). Who else really matters? Edward Albee? (One great full-length, one great one-act, and a lot of others that don't quite measure up.) Tony Kushner? (Come on.) What would it take for a contemporary play to break through into the cultural consciousness? (An HBO movie, like Wit or Angels in America? A feature film with an entirely different cast like Proof? And if this is the case, are they really plays anymore?)

Anyway, while Tim wasn't entirely with me on Odets, I can at least cite a positive review of a revival of Awake and Sing! in today's New York Times and a short profile by John Lahr in the New Yorker to mark Odets' centennial. (It's also Samuel Beckett's centennial, and Harold Pinter won last year's Nobel for literature, so it has at least been a good year for, uhm, old plays.)


Andrew said...

I agree with your assesment. As I recently wrote in an essay of sorts, "We are losing the idea of going to a play as a cultural legacy. There are more and more people who have never considered going to see a dramatic work on stage. It's not that they wouldn't want to, necessarily, it's that the option isn't even on the radar."

Part of the equation in my mind is price. If we could keep ticket prices comparable to those of films, I think it would be easier to find an audience.

Part is availability. TV is vaudeville in a box, as summed up by an article which I'm too lazy to cite. It is always there. In a lot of places, to find a play one has to drive an hour or more.

The UK still seems to have a playgoing culture that the US has lost. Every town has it's theatre. The national companies often tour those towns, helping to keep up a unified cultural identity that is not so solely rooted in television. Also, theatre is made accessible through concession pricing.

I think the US is too spread out to make a similar network feasible, though regional theatres are trying more and more to band together.

Part of why I devote myself to an increasingly irrelevant art form, is that I think it's a vital part of human culture to get a bunch of people together in the same place to see/hear live actors tell a story. The modern world is sterile enough as it is. The trick will be finding ways to convince other people that I'm right.

Andrew said...

And also, I recently saw Jeff Daniels' new play "Guest Artist" at the Purple Rose. It was excellent.

The central characters are a young apprentice at a two-bit theatre in Steubenville, Ohio, and the Pulitzer winning playwright who is coming to town to premiere his new work. Daniels' uses the piece to muse on the state of American Theatre, among many other topics.

I don't know what it will take for a play to get on the national radar. I hope that one does soon.

With regard to your list: I would probably consider Lanford Wilson for the "Great American Playwrights" canon before Tony Kushner.