It might sound patronising, if not positively undemocratic, to suggest that people who don't want to see plays should be instructed otherwise. But that's precisely what the NEA proposed after its 2004 survey Reading at Risk disclosed that fewer than half of American adults read fiction or poetry. When the study noted that 4 million fewer Americans read fiction in 2002 than in 1992 (the same number who have apparently ceased attending drama), Gioia declared a "national crisis" and established the Big Read, a programme that sponsors literature-related activities in 400 communities.
Gioia, a poet, didn't suggest that people had stopped reading poetry because the supply of stanzas had outstripped demand. Rather, he argued that this was a problem not merely for authors and publishers, but for all Americans. He warned that the decline in "engaged literacy" would result in a nation "less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose."
Similar arguments could be made for drama. The idea that theatre enables catharsis is rather musty. But few would deny that the immediacy of live performance encourages empathy more immediately than television or film. Unlike reading or watching TV, theatre is a communal exercise, encouraging interpersonal exchange – if only at the theatre bar. A compassionate and socially adept populace should be as welcome as an active and independent-minded one.
In service of equal time, George Hunka wrote his perspective on this same issue and comes to, unsurprisingly, a rather dire conclusion.