This weekend marked the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks; despite the events of that terrible day being permanently seared into my mind, there were innumerable accounts and reminiscences over the past few days to remind me. (Given the percentage of the population too young to have a memory of that day, I have to reluctantly admit it’s necessary.) Given the milestone of the twentieth anniversary, those reminiscences went beyond a minute-by-minute replay of the attacks and their aftermath. My various timelines and newsfeeds were filled with scores, maybe hundreds, of people detailing exactly what they were doing twenty years ago when they heard the news. There have been plenty of think pieces about how our history has progressed from that day to this. And there were lots of reminiscences about the world we knew just prior to the attacks – that long-ago lost world of the late 90s, before Everything Changed.
It’s those reminiscences I’d like to talk about today, since they’re very familiar things to those of us who do theater in New York. The theatrical scene of the late 90s gets looked back on as a lost Golden Age. It didn’t feel that way at the time, of course – the Golden Age is always in the past, the productions of years ago a standard that can’t be matched. But compared to today, there were far more spaces available for independent productions, and they were far cheaper to mount. Mayor Giuliani had either successfully cleaned up the city or flamboyantly conned people into believing he’d done so (take your pick), so audiences were more willing to trek in to the city and see shows beyond Broadway’s Main Stem. And since the internet hadn’t become all-pervasive, print publications like Time Out New York and The Village Voice were still dominant, still hungry for ad revenue, and just about any production, even a scrappy non-union affair running a few weekends, could get a listing in their pages. Compared to today’s landscape, just about anybody could get a production together, put it up before a New York audience, and have their say.
But what the heck were they actually saying?
The shows I did at that time, just starting out in the city? A bunch of kiddie theater. Some perfunctory productions of classics in hole-in-the-wall venues, done by people who wanted to say they’d mounted a Shakespeare production without any special insight into the text. And a whole host of new plays involving young professionals, temps and other cogs in the professional machine, wondering if they had to have the strength to break free – not because of any particular ethical fears they might have, but because their bosses were annoying and they didn’t want to have to wear a tie. Evidently, this was the extent of our worries in the late 90s. And this tracks with the reminiscences we all heard this past weekend, casting the period as a time of lost innocence.
But how is that possible?
There’s a clear line from the first Gulf War, in 1991, to the al-Qaeda attacks a decade later. A whole decade of dangerous activity outside our borders. A decade of bad calls here at home, our leaders’ judgment obscured by greed and arrogance. And all of that stemmed from a daisy chain of mistakes throughout the decades prior, since before I was born. Our domestic divisions have never really gotten past the fault lines of the Sixties; our foreign policy is still stuck on a course set by Eisenhower in the Fifties. (I like Ike as much as anybody, but installing the Shah of Iran is a decision that’s still liable to get us all killed.). And most of the events along this dark path happened in full public view. We could have – were supposed to have – voiced our misgivings, sounded the alarm, well before hand.
It shouldn’t have taken the attacks of September 11, 2001 for us to have lost our innocence. Just as it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic and a civil insurrection – happning simultaneously – to realize how bad things are now.
Tomorrow, the cold reading series I co-host will start up again (remotely, alas) for the fall, and I’ll once again exhort our writers to respond to the world around them in their writing. And the ambivalent twinge I always feel will be a little stronger, so close to this anniversary. Because the time to respond to these kinds of tragedies isn’t after they’ve happened, if you want to have any impact as an artist. It is, instead, well before.