Thursday, April 06, 2006

In Defense of Isherwood (and Reality)

Also, and more significantly, I can't stop blogging now because of this big brouhaha on some playwrights' blogs (variously, here, here, and here) over Charles Isherwood's review of this year's Humana Festival.

Now, perhaps it's not fair for me to chime in, since these others are taking issue, in part, with other reviews in the Times (by Isherwood and others) that I haven't read. Since I'm not seeing shows in New York City on a regular basis right now, I don't routinely read the Times theater reviews. So I'm hardly an expert on Isherwood, and I can certainly understand how a critic can rub someone (or a whole lot of someones) the wrong way. (I feature my favorite film critics, while winning an award for an assignment mocking Roger Ebert's writing style, for much the same reasons.)

With those disclaimers, let's look at Isherwood's most controversial remarks:

There's not much point in aiming high if you can't hit your target. And is it really necessary for playwrights to dream up new worlds? As Ms. Rebeck's intimate and affecting play reminds us, the one we live in still provides durable material for theater that moves us, makes us laugh and allows us to see even a small frame of experience in a new light.

Now, for the context. The first sentence follows a paragraph about a play described as a "dark sci-fi comedy" that Isherwood found "annoyingly lacking in internal logic," before declaring the play "handily takes the festival prize for sheer ambition" yet failing miserably as a "mostly obvious and jejune" satire.

It's that failed ambition that leads into the first controversial sentence. I suppose you can interpret the admonition as applying to all playwrights, not just the author of the sci-fi piece. Even so, I take it as a warning against overambition, not any ambition. You have to have a certain amount of ambition to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) day after day, draft after draft, to even have something to show to actors and send to theaters in the first place. Part of Isherwood's point here, as I take it, is knowing your talents and abilities -- and also your limits -- and working within them.

Then there's that question that's caused so much grief, and the follow-up praise of Theresa Rebeck's piece. This has been read as an endorsement of "bourgeois conservatism" and of one single theatrical style (quoting Isaac at Parabasis): "the kind of cookie cutter reenactments of our culture that we get almost-for-free every day on our television sets"; "in our age, only Realism will do."

This would surely be a problematic claim if made by a leading theater critic at the nation's leading newspaper in the nation's leading theater city. The only problem is, I don't see how you squeeze that sour juice out of what Isherwood said.

To paraphrase, I take him as saying: Many playwrights think it's necessary to create fantastical and highly theatrical new worlds in their works today (whether it's to get produced, connect with a distracted audience, etc.). However, it's not necessary for those ends, and may not even be sufficient, since many of these same plays (as he criticizes them earlier in the article) fail to say or reveal much of substance about the verities of human experience -- the way people think and act and love and fear and try (and sometimes fail) as they make their way through life.

It's on these grounds that he praises Rebeck's play, both while talking about it earlier, and in the final paragraph: "As Ms. Rebeck's intimate and affecting play reminds us, the one [world] we live in still provides durable material for theater that moves us, makes us laugh and allows us to see even a small frame of experience in a new light."

Rebeck's play sounds like an exemplar of contemporary theatrical realism (small cast, one imagines relatively short scenes in multiple locations with minimal sets, at least from the pictures on the Times slideshow). But, as I read the review, Isherwood isn't praising the play for its use of realism. He's praising it for its reality, what it reveals about the actions and emotions of its characters, which corresponds in some recognizable and meaningful way to the actions and emotions of real people in the real world. He's praising the play first and foremost for what it presents and reveals, rather than how it presents and reveals (e.g., its theatrical style).

Sorry if I'm getting all pedagogical here, this point (realism vs. reality) is one I spend a lot of time on in my theater history courses. Certainly all the great plays from earlier eras (that is, the ones we still have, still read, still produce) reflect the realities of human experience very deeply and resonantly -- otherwise, we wouldn't still be coming back to them. And in saying that, I include the widest possible range of theatrical styles, aesthetics, and approaches, from the highly stylized plays (comedies and tragedies) of the Greeks, to Shakespeare and his highly affected (not at all realistic) language, to the wide range of latter-day avant garde playwrights, from Beckett to Reza Abdoh.

The point is, we can find all kinds of great plays from the past that in no way correspond -- in their original time, or in adapted productions now -- to our 20th/21st century American concept of realism (which is more like the original theatrical concept of naturalism, but that is another topic for another lecture).

As for the plays of today -- whose disputed quality is causing so much controversy -- I have to agree with Isherwood. I've definitely noticed a trend in the last five or ten years of professionally produced plays (at Humana and elsewhere) that seem to rely very heavily on various theatrical tricks and spectacles without having much of anything to say or reveal about human experience. Now I suppose some will say this is unfair, since, given my grad student budget and love for reading plays, I read a lot more plays than I see, particularly when it comes to those of this type.

As an example, take Isherwood's critique of Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady. Isherwood says there is lots of "diverting frippery," which, brushed away, leaves "Mr. Harrison's tidy homilies about the fluidity of gender and the inspiring power of 'art' look[ing] flimsy."

After blaming the playwright for a failure to contextualize the drag -- and comparing the rural 1920s drag queens to their more polished sisters in Charles Ludlum, there's this: "Even the most outlandish of Mr. Ludlam's plays, I'm afraid, have a greater respect for psychological and social truths than Mr. Harrison evinces here."

It's those "psychological and social truths" of human behavior that Isherwood, and I, and so many others, are looking for in plays, regardless of their theatrical style or particular brand of frippery. Of course, on this I can only speak for myself, and perhaps also for the various yentas I've chatted up during intermissions and before the lights go down.


At 9:21 AM, Blogger parabasis said...

BT: thanks for sending me the link to this! I think that you are infering that Isherwood is saying some things. Things that you agree with and want said publicly. The problem is that it doesn't seem clear to me at all that he said them.

He didn't say playwrights shouldn't do fantastical plays that have no deeper substance, he said playwrights shouldn't do fantastical plays full stop. His prohibition against "aiming high" was also not pitched at people who have "no hope of hitting the target" (which would be over ambition) but rather "if you can't hit your target" which is just regular ole ambition (I mean, how would you know until you try?)

He has made the mistake of conflating reality with realism, or (really) reality with truth. It is truth that we should be getting at, even though said truth doesn't really (in a platonic sense) exist. What Isherwood specifically advocates for are plays that are set in our current world.

What I think this betrays on his part is a prejudice against plays not set in the here-and-now or the every day. Such plays will have to get over a hurdle, namely that Isherwood thinks that they are less suited to getting to truth, in order for him to see that they are (indeed) getting there.

(I think also that perhaps you find that a play showing us the emotions/motiviations/etc. of characters is more necessary or compelling than I do. Part of me just thinks that the idea that we can know why someone does what they do is, well, laughable. But maybe that's because I'm working on more allegorical material mysefl right now).

Honestly, though, as I tried to say on my blog, I think it could easily be excused as really sloppy writing (and editing) on his part. But that's a distrubing problem in and of itself.

anyway... keep the good thoughts flowing!

At 10:56 AM, Blogger BT said...

Hey, Isaac! Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments!

Perhaps I'm inferring things that Isherwood didn't actually say. I think I did so drawing from the logical language he was using, which I will explain in a moment.

Did I infer him as saying things I agree with? In this case, yes. However, I would not have gone to the trouble of the post if I didn't think it logically followed from his language here. I don't like picking random fights with people I don't know. However, in this case, I felt that you (and a few others) were rather off the mark, so I tried to explain myself.

Now, I should say that, in my part time job, I've been teaching a lot of LSAT classes, which means I've been spending a lot of time teaching and thinking about logical reasoning structures. And what struck me right away about that controversial last paragraph is that Isherwood employs the language of formal logic, in different ways, in each of the first two sentence.

The first sentence is a classic if-then structure, which I think we are both taking to mean: "You should aim high only if you think/know you can hit your target." Now, in formal logic, X only if Y translates to if X, then Y, so it becomes "If you aim high, then you think/know you can hit your target."

Thus, the trigger (if you aim high) is sufficient to bring about the result (you think/know you can hit your target); it's not the only way to bring about that result, but it's sufficient to do so. For instance, it's logically consistent (though Isherwood does not mention this) that you could hit your target not by aiming high but by aiming somewhere less than high, somewhere in the middle (this is what I meant in distinguishing overambition -- a word Isherwood did not use, but that I took his critics as characterizing his remarks as implying -- from any ambition. To me, "aiming high" doesn't include more modest goals and ambitions, which would have one aiming somewhere closer to the middle.)

Then there's that necessary clause -- what's really important to Isherwood is that playwrights hit their targets. Now, I am wondering if perhaps you are reversing the if/then clauses here, taking it to mean "If you can't hit your target, then you shouldn't aim high." Actually, then we're not that far apart, since that's the contrapositive of the statement I was working with above -- it negates and reverses the necessary and sufficient clauses (so the absence of the necessary -- hitting the target now not possible -- proves the absence of the sufficient -- that you are not someone who should aim high.

That's a harsh judgment, I admit. But I don't think it's an unfair one, and I don't think I strayed from it, logically, in my original comments.

Now, for that aggravating question: "And is it really necessary for playwrights to dream up new worlds?" Here, we have a rhetorical question (the kind that tends to confound my TOEFL students), and, again, we have the language of necessity.

Here, Isaac and I really do disagree. I don't see how you can take that question to mean that "he said playwrights shouldn't do fantastical plays full stop."

I take him, quite literally and logically, as saying it's not necessary for playwrights to write fantastical plays. That doesn't mean they shouldn't; it only means that they don't have to.

I was reading this comment, in part, in conjunction with the article's opening paragraph, where he says that many of the playwrights brought out their big theatrical packaging for Humana; however, through the course of the article, he finds time and again that much of this, delightful as it is, isn't more than wrapping trying to conceal that there's not much in the box.

Does Isherwood have a general bias against fanastical plays (dealing with other worlds/times), and a preference for those set (however theatrically presented) in the world of today? From what I know of him, I'm happy to concede that he does. I'd say, though, that I share this preference, at least to the extent that it seems to me that some playwrights spend lots of time (and lots of plays) developing highly fantastical works (with other worlds/times) in part to avoid dealing with (or to compensate for their inability or disinterest in dealing with) the truths of human behavior (what I think I, in the original post, called verities).

Now, so that I'm not accused of conflating reality with truth (or, since I used the plural before, truths), let me touch on this point to finish. I take reality to mean our ways of experiencing the world, interacting with each other, and making decisions. In other words, dealing with other people, with surfaces, which means we can't always know (or even ever figure out) what's going on on the inside.

Theatrically, there are a lot of different ways of representing that reality. For instance, you could use what we are both calling realism, say in the current sense of lots of short scenes, multiple locales, relatively short dialogue -- very close to the way people actually talk. This style is the grandchild of the old-school fourth-wall realism (where you recreate a room in detail with the fourth wall, between the audience and the proscenium, removed).

Contrast this, say, with any kind of expressionism, where the audience experiences things as the characters experience them. Theatrically, this can mean all kinds of sound effects, lighting effects, other stage images that are not literal or real but that express the character's experience. (Take, for example, The Emperor Jones, or the many non-realistic sequences in Death of a Salesman.)

Then contrast both of these with the recent plays that feature a great deal of narration -- whether from characters (as in Take Me Out) or actors (as well as characters, in The Laramie Project) who may create more traditional scenes, but do so always in the context of awareness of the audience. I'm not sure if there's a word for this, but it does seem to have developed into a theatrical style in its own right.

These three styles (and they're hardly the only ones) are all different ways today's theater can reflect reality (again, meaning, roughly, the way people really behave) as a means of getting at the verities of human experience -- those emotional/psychological truths we come to at certain points.

Hopefully it's clear by the way I say this that I don't mean that at any time there is always one very clear, neat, tidy reason that anyone does anything. That's hardly the point. Real life is much messier than that. And good plays are usually similarly messy -- in their organized way -- with their truths. It's usually not as simple as everything boiling down to Reason A. There are so many complications, conflicting motivations and loyalties -- just as in life.

Do I think plays should, or have to, be this way? I'd like to have some new plays each year that are. That doesn't mean that all have to. But, as I said before, virtually all of the plays from earlier eras we keep coming back to operate on this level (whatever their theatrical style). And yes, I would like to see a few more contemporary playwrights aiming at this target, however high.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger frank's wild lunch said...

I've enjoyed your dialogue with Isaac about this. I put in my two cents over at his blog if you're interested.


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