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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Godfather / The Ultimate Vanity

On George Hunka's blog, he does a rundown of his recent wave of praise and of the comings and goings around the tiny scene. What I find lovely is that after being praised for keeping the theatrical blogsphere aware of itself, he goes on to do precisely that. Can't even help it.

He does, though, attempt to deflect my "Godfather of the Theatrical Blogsphere" line.

Hunka, you misunderstand. I mean it in the way that one might mean "Godfather of Soul."

Now... Get On Up! Get on the scene-a. Get on the scene-a.

Ahem. Enough of that James Brownishness. We're writing about theatre here. Turn on something classical before I start having fun.

And on that note: Theatre Ideas posted from Denver today, regarding the "purpose of playwrighting" issue. As usual, all of this is entirely subjective. I'm sure some playwrights think of themselves as makers of meaning, and others think of themselves as bookbinders. Shakespeare thought he was a businessman; Andrew Lloyd Webber thinks he's a composer. So it goes with self-awareness, such as it is.

Now that's established my opinion as pointless, I'll give it: I still have no idea what "making meaning" really is. Meaning doesn't come from the writer, it comes from the person observing. I get choked up when I watch Sam pick Frodo up on his shoulder in Lord of the Rings. My girlfriend says "Which one of them is Frodo?" That scene has great meaning for me. The scene itself is shown to both of us, and we find the meaning for ourselves.

Scott asks if playwrighting itself isn't the "ultimate vanity" when he's pressed on the idea that "making meaning" is vain itself. I would say there are far greater evidences of vanity than expressing oneself; if anything it's a far more generous form of vanity than others one might find. Running for public office requires far greater vanity than writing a play, especially a good play, which I think requires a great deal of humbleness and honesty. Humbleness and honesty will only get a person elected to the school board, if that.

Playwrights (and novelists and poets) are open to charges of vanity only because our society so rarely sees a desire to express as a generous act. Neither Scott nor Allison Croggon are being fair to one another by making the assumption that within expression, inherently, is a sense of self-importance. If a person feels self important (Tony Kushner) or not (Kafka, Emily Dickinson) they can still express powerful truths. Vanity is not inherent to expression. If you are vain, your writing will have that quality. If you are passionate or earnest or shy, it will reflect that. The truth will out in the work itself.

Whether we choose to "make meaning" or "tell stories" is really what makes us distinct artists from one another. I would write a play differently than Scott or Allison, I'm sure, which is precisely as it should be.


devore said...

A playwright must believe that what he is writing is the most important thing ever written.

And he must hold onto that lie, even when he knows it's not true.

Freeman said...

(Hangs head in shame)

What if you're right? What then?

devore said...

Ha. Hahahahahha.

In that case, one can only hope the writer never really believes his (or her! her! sorry!) own hype.

At the risk of taking all of the fun and freedom and pain out of writing by dissecting it... it takes a certain courage? Arrogance? Vanity? Crippling insecurity and back-stabbing ambition? To write anything.

Somewhere between the eagle and the vulture, squats the writer?

Anonymous said...

I seriously question your assessment of Tony Kushner as self-important. In almost all of my encounters with him (not personal, mind you, I mean in interviews, when he spoke at vassar's commencement in 2002 etc.) I've found him to be quite humble.

At the same time, he is taking advantage of the bullhorn given him. That is not self-importance, that's using your stature to try to change the world. I grow weary of people attaching pejoritives to people who speak up and say their mind. Especially since the pejoratives only ever seem to get attached to left-wingers. And it is usually left-wingers themsleves who do the attaching.

As for the rest of your post... I agree with you, the audience makes the meaning, or rather, the entire experience constructs the meaning for all those involved. I have serious serious issues with artists (like, for example, Moises Kaufman) who attempt to impose meaning on an audience. It gives me the jibblies. Ah jibbly jibbly.

Perhaps i've just read "Death of the Author" too many times...

-- Isaac (parabasis.typepad.com)

Freeman said...

I challenge, here and now, Tony Kushner to a duel.

alwaysabridesmaid said...

It's not just something on our sweatshirts, Matt: Expression really is necessary to evolution.

Freeman said...

Yes, but what is necessary for intelligent design?

(And by "Design" I mean "Jesus.")

Joshua said...

I have nothing to add except maybe an "Amen!" to the chorus.

Amen, brother!

Scott Walters said...

OK, OK, a playwright doesn't "make meaning" -- sheesh! The meaning is already there, he just makes us see it. And before you grin your neo-nihilist grin and ask what meaning means, I mean: significance. Significance does not rest on some transcendent being -- significance can be existentialist-I-made-it-myself stuff. But it is something that helps us feel like we're not just a bunch of pool balls carooming randomly around the universe.

The anonymnous post that says "I have serious serious issues with artists (like, for example, Moises Kaufman) who attempt to impose meaning on an audience." What do you mean by impose? (Don't ask me what I mean by mean -- I already defined it.) I haven't read his work, I'm ashamed to say, so I am asking this for real. For me, meaning is earned, it is demonstrated, it is shown through the action.

By the way, as far as vanity is concerned, I meant it in a good way. I think an artist has to believe that what he has to say is worth listening to, is better than life -- otherwise, why waste his time and ours? If Real Life is more profound than your play, you need to consider Hotel/Motel Management.

Ty Unglebower said...

Mr. Scott Walters mentions in his previous comment that playwrights should consider another vocation/career, "if real life is more profound than your play".

As important as having a profound experience at the theatre can be, I would ask if every playwright, or every production, of any era, has profundity as its soul purpose.

Even when profundity is the target at any given time, what if a playwright wrote a play that was exactly as profound as real life. No more and no less. Would not a decent percentage of the audience be semi-enthralled by the nod inspiring familiarity of the piece?

Freeman said...

Scott, et al:

I agree wholeheartedly with you when you say that a play helps us feel like we're not just pool ball carooming (great word) around in the universe.

I'm not a nihilist, don't get me wrong. In fact, I think that plays have great meaning to me personally. I think we actually see this is a similar way and are expressing it differently.

The anonymous post (Isaac from Parabasis) is actually expressing something I think we all agree with, or at least should consider: that forcing a particular meaning on the audience is often less effective than presenting something "meaningful" and letting the audience decide in what way it is so.

P'tit Boo said...

Ooh things are so crunchy these days in the theatre folks blogosphere. Stop being so interested people, I have plays to write !!!!

No, but in all seriousness, I also think Kushner is incredibly humble ( what I've heard and what i've heard said about him ) . I think being a good political writer requires humbleness.
Also I don't know if I agree with the statement that we have to believe we are writing the bible.
I think we have to believe in ourselves. We have to have beliefs and know what they are ( lots of people have no idea what they are !) and we have to have a lot of questions. I believe that I tell stories best when I am attempting to get to the root of something , when I am wrestling with something that i don't understand. It is our responsability not to waste people's time but I can't believe that what I write is the most important thing ever written.
And I can't hold onto lies either. Or truths for that matter. I have to ask questions and let my characters wrestle with them.
That is what Mr. Kushner does and he does it beautifully.