Perhaps this season of Brits invading off Broadway is a fluke, and a year from now our non-profit companies will go back to American plays of the dysfunctional-family and identity-politics variety. Then we'll all sigh and say that English drama is sharper and more relevant, and hope we can afford to fly to London to see what's on at the National or the Royal Court. And after that, we'll trudge over to the Park Avenue Armory and see Shakespeare "done right" – thanks to generous American donors.
- David Cote, in the Guardian Theatre Blog
We do seem to consume a lot of instant topical satire these days, something that used to be fodder for revues and even for full-length Gershwin musicals. And I think the theatrical machinery works today more slowly than it did in the 1930s, when the theater was a more bustling and robust industry. By the time a “topical” play has been developed and workshopped and tried out in a regional theater, say, the point it addresses may have gone stale. This may be why there are not a whole lot of prominent American playwrights writing dramas about, for example, the insane political stagnation in Washington these days. (Any takers?)H/T on that last link to Rob W-K.
- Charles Isherwood in the New York Times
In the talk about why there seem to be so many fewer Great Plays, we talk about limited access and about the quality of playwrights. Some insinuate that today's playwrights just ain't no damn good. Some whine that the theatres are too old, too stuffy for challenging work, that audiences aren't there with them. The studies show that there may be truth in all of that. But one factor that isn't given its due is the lead time.
I remember reading once about the news business, how radio and TV and, now the internet, are great for breaking news and constant updates, while the newspapers give you a little more distance and perspective and then finally, the news magazines give you the fullest view of the story, since they're the last to hit the street. In terms of entertainment, the same model seems to hold true. I can record a quick, YouTube video responding to the stories of the day, or write a blog post, or even write a quick ten-minute play and post it on this blog. If I want to write a ten-minute play about, say, Tiger and Elin Woods, talking before he makes his big apology speech, I can write that and have it out on the world on the internet in minutes. (Not a bad idea...except I'm pretty busy today.) But, if I submit that play to a theatre, I'll have to wait months to get a response, even longer to get a production. We're the magazines of the entertainment world.
In some ways, this works towards Great Plays and enduring works. A play about Tiger Woods' marital difficulties is going to have a pretty short shelf life, no matter what. We can't spend our time running after whatever is on the scrawl at the bottom of CNN or on TMZ right this second. It may be an important story. It may be Jon & Kate Plus 8. We can only really tell what's important with time and distance. Plays shouldn't be SNL sketches. Hell, most SNL sketches shouldn't be SNL sketches.
But, like everything, there's a flip side to waiting to see what's important: we lose a bit of relevance. And that bit can be important. We can miss out on stories, miss out on moments when the iron is hot to strike. By the time theatre gets around to a story, everybody's heard it, decided what they thought and moved on. We cede ground to Law & Order.
Part of what gave All My Sons its resonance, originally, was that it was about the current day, about the things that the country had just lived through. If Miller was writing All My Sons now, especially as a second play, coming right on the heels of a failure, chances are it wouldn't get produced right away. It would work its way through the bowels of play development hell, get tweaked, rewrite, get more notes, have reading upon reading and then finally emerge. Would All My Sons have the same resonance in 1950? Or 1955? Would, at some point, he have to consider "updating" it to the Korean War or even the Vietnam War? It's a terrific play, so it probably would have withstood that...but maybe not.
The long development and planning periods of institutional theatres and their risk-averse nature are both factors in the lack of topical plays. To be completely honest, playwrights are, too. I think too many of us live in an airy world of thinking about theatre and art as separate from the concerns of everyday life. In some ways, we're reaching for the universal, the Big Idea, but when we do that, we miss the small details that can make the Big Idea happen. Arthur Miller's mother-in-law shows him an article from an Ohio newspaper and he spins a classic out of that. I can't tell you the number of times I've talked to playwrights who profess to not reading the newspaper at all, to not following the stories of the day. I want to shake them vigorously.
We're not developing topical plays here in this country the way I think we should, and the blame for that goes around. But let's also remember that it's a trade-off. You want more topical plays about the issues of the day? You're going to get more bad plays, plays that are less polished and tested, plays that might be divisive and dangerous. You want polished, already Great Play material? You lose on the topical front. But if we can find that sweet spot, that place where the time and the play meet, hoo boy, we're in business. The question is how to get there. Isn't that always the question?