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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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Political and social theater in NYC

Jason Zinoman's review of Lee Blessing's new play about Bush called "When We Go On About The Sea."

"The focus of the play is on the concierge and his simple deference toward Bush. There are even hints of a religious parable and a suggestion that we revere our leaders instead of holding them accountable. As staged by Paul Meshejian, the play, produced originally in Philadelphia by the InterAct Theater Company, offers up the ex-president as the man we saw in public: no more, no less. That may be true, and even insightful (although I doubt it), but it isn’t very interesting to watch."

Ben Brantley's review of Enron:
"Yet even with a well-drilled cast that includes bright Broadway headliners like Norbert Leo Butz and Marin Mazzie, the realization sets in early that this British-born exploration of smoke-and-mirror financial practices isn’t much more than smoke and mirrors itself. “Enron” is fast-paced, flamboyant and, despite the head-clogging intricacy of its business mathematics, lucid to the point of simple-mindedness. But as was true of the company of this play’s title, the energy generated here often feels factitious, all show (or show and tell) and little substance."
Obviously, these are two different reviews of very different writer's takes on very different productions. I am, though, acutely aware of critical responses to political theater these days. What's interesting is that American playwrights are often whipped for not producing work that is suitably politically challenging or relevant (Enron was famously imported from London); but it's rare for me to see a political play praised in the press anyhow. Even Tony Kusher's most recent work seems more focused on interpersonal relationships, the politics of the household, that on National Themes. The notices in Minneapolis were lukewarm...we'll see how it is received when it hits NYC.

So...what are the standards for what is successful political theater and why aren't we hitting those standards? Lee Blessing's play seems like a modest character study and "liberal fantasy" - but wouldn't The Crucible be accused of being "liberal?" How can a political play be dismissed for having a point of view? Isn't that the whole reason to write a political play?

On the other hand, with Enron, in an effort to turn a story about financial fraud into something theatrical, it seems that the production went all out with intriguing staging. The result? All flash, no substance was the review. Almost too easy a critique? Maybe not if it's true.

Either way... there's a long tradition of great political discourse being carried out on stage. Brecht and Ionesco and Arthur Miller and Shaw and Ibsen. Social commentary. Political diatribes. But would Ibsen's An Enemy of the People be called liberal or conservative? Clearly there's a crusading 'Michael Moore' at the center of the play, but then he sets forth a belief that a majority is always wrong. Is that Democratic?

Those plays that strike out against fascism... they resonated far more during the rise of Nazism than, say, they might now that everyone who disagrees with you is a "fascist."

So... what is the astute and successful model for political theater now? Obviously, one of the reasons it interests me is because That Old Soft Shoe is an attempt to write political theater for today. I am the worst judge of how successful it is. I hope it has been. I believe so. But, like all writers, it would be hard for me to explain exactly why.

Have you seen contemporary political theater that made an impact with you? Is there such a thing these days?


Mariah said...

Interesting musings. It's true, no one seems to give political theatre a break. Then again I haven't seen much political theatre where I didn't feel like I was being preached at. I talked about this more on my own blog - http://nicefeminist.blogspot.com/2010/03/theatre-of-compassion.html. The entry is semi-long, but I think the thesis is this: "you can't change people by yelling at them."

Daniel Kelley said...

The kind of political theatre that I have the most faith in actually doing something is not sort of top down, national scene, this is the way the world is, tremble before my opinion political theatre- but theatre that comes from specific communities and is for specific communities. I feel like theatre, as an art form, has all other mediums beat in this department in terms of their ability to do this kind of a thing effectively, in theory, but I never really see these kind of performances given the kind of resources or productions that the former gets.

Ian Thal said...

This is a huge conundrum for theatre artists who want to be politically engaged with their art and still wish to pay heed to the muses, isn't it?

If we heel too close to a party line we pretty much alienate all but the party faithful-- and we're not really creating a drama and we become just the sort of people who spit out the word "fascism" without being able to define the term.

George Hunka said...

Mariah's right -- "You can't change people by yelling at them" -- and so is Ian -- "If we heel too close to a party line we pretty much alienate all but the party faithful." But not all political theatre is necessarily agitprop; a play which makes one think more deeply about society and culture, especially their roles and responsibilities in it, is certainly a political play; and perhaps political theatre should question any monolithic party line, whether it's of the left or the right. Political theatre defined too narrowly as a play which is to "change people" assumes first that theatre CAN change people, which is simply not true. People change themselves, perhaps goaded by the insights that theatre and drama produce, but it's a voluntary act, and a theatre which seeks to impose a form of "right thinking" on the audience may be itself a good definition of that fascism that Ian mentions.

But to respond to your question, Matt -- the best political theatre I've seen in recent years is Venice Saved produced at PS122 last year, which I wrote about here. The change came from the encouragement to question perspectives: to doubt any form of "right thinking." If anything, Venice Saved was about the nuances and dangers of producing political theatre.

Freeman said...

Good recommendation, George, and thanks for the link to your post Mariah.

Part of the pressure of the "party line" comes, I think, from the absolutist attitude that the two party system creates. For example: I personally think Barack Obama is handling the job admirably and I voted for him. My latest play criticizes the continuing detention policies. I was concerned about contributing to the mostly irrational unrest about his Presidency. But that shouldn't silence an actual and deeply held view, even if it falls outside the orthodoxy of other "party line" views.

Then again, people demand nuance about Bush in a way that, to me, belies more exhaustion than truthseeking. Bush did terrible things that, in some instances, were given too much deference. Still, though, people are so exhausted by the sound of him being whipped they simply tune it out.

George Hunka said...

Well, the fascist forces have won if people like yourself restrain your criticism of the administration you yourself support in the interests of a greater show of party-line solidarity. So good on you.

Freeman said...

Perhaps our the political theater of our time is that which moves forward the cause of equal rights for LGBT citizens. That's a strong tradition in theater, and definitely political work.

Art said...

To George's point:

I'd also like to suggest that a certain type of "political theatre" is being completely usurped by news channel infotainment.

Conflicting political ideologies are dramatized in at least a competent fashion by news organizations - not to mention, they do it at an astounding rate of speed.

Just one example: The BP Oil spill and all of its inherent political and policy questions has been turned into a daily epic drama, complete with a cast of characters.

I imagine that there is at least a playwright, (or two,) writing, or tinkering with, a play about the crisis, a la Enron.

When will the Oil Spill play appear, and what will it illuminate beyond what the general public will know from consuming 24-hour cable news? This is the challenge for the playwright trying to tackle some large "top-down, national scene" issue. (To borrow Daniel's phrase.)

Aaron Riccio said...

Political theater can't just iterate what we already know (or think we already know). That's self-serving and shallow entertainment, at best. Instead, it should do what theater--and fiction--does best: help the audience to at least *see* another side of the picture, even if it's one they leave the theater still disagreeing with. In my book, that requires a great deal of subtlety and craft, though such writing can hide itself in illusory bombast, sucker-punching you, ala Young Jean Lee, at the last possible second.

George Hunka said...

Funny you should mention that, Art -- I mused about it just last week.

Jason Zinoman said...

I find it puzzling that you describe my take this way "How can a political play be dismissed for having a point of view?" when my entire review was structured to make the point that the problem of the play is NOT the point of view. I was hardly subtle. The first line was "The problem with “When We Go Upon the Sea” is not that it’s yet another derisive play about George W. Bush," and then i went on to describe the real issue is the dramatic failings. Frankly, i would have preferred a stronger point of view and i think that's pretty clear in the review. My point in your quote is presenting a character study of Bush that just stays on the surface is not very interesting, nor is seeing the same thing over and over again. Political plays should be judged the same ways other plays are: character, theme and plot matter too.

Freeman said...

Jason -

Thanks for commenting.

That's a fair question. I guess I zeroed in on the "liberal fantasy" line as illustrative of something I'm wary of. It's clear, reading your review, that you take issue with the flaws in execution and not the content.

It's likely that your solution is the simplest clearest one: just apply exactly the same criteria you would to any other play.

robert said...

Last night I saw what I think of as a good example of political theater, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." It had some issues with execution & staging, but pulled off the remarkable feat of dealing with a few very dark historical issues -- the United States' treatment of Native Americans, the dangers of mass democracy -- and having the audience laughing almost the entire show. It was gutsy even in attempting the feat, and probably smuggled a lot of subversive ideas, or at least questions, into the audience's brains by using humor.

It made me think that so-called "political theater" is theater that deals with difficult and complex issues, at the societal rather than the purely individual level. It succeeds when it acknowledges the complexities of the issues and poses difficult questions -- that's art. It fails when it thinks it already knows the answer and simply has to enlighten the audience -- that's a speech.