In the course of not writing the stuff I’m supposed to be writing, and procrastinating by scrolling social media coverage of our latest calamity, I encountered the following tweet. If, like me, you work in the theater (or would if we actually had theater happening at the moment), it’s likely to give you a rueful chuckle. Again, I can’t take credit for it; follow the musings of @dangerfishback if you enjoy the following:
Also can I just say: if I wrote a play where Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies on Rosh Hashana a few weeks before a referendum on fascism, every dramaturg in NYC would be like: MAYBE THERE’S A MORE SUBTLE WAY YOU COULD COMMUNICATE THIS POINT.
I don’t think you need me to tell you how significant this weekend’s passing of Justice Ginsburg is, how perilous our historical moment as become (like it wasn’t perilous already). There are already plenty of sources offering suggestions for how to donate to campaigns, demonstrate, and take other actions. You don’t need me for that, and besides, this is an arts professional blog I’m running here.
So I’m going to complain about dramaturgs.
Because the point mentioned above is absolutely correct; this convergence of events, presented in prose or drama, would be lampooned as ham-fisted and obvious plotting. The gatekeepers of our culture, armed with MFAs and titles from respected non-profit institutions, would cluck their tongues and take out their red pencils, and make precisely the sort of edits and appeals to subtle dramatic construction that serve as the punchline above. It wouldn’t be the first time during this administration when they’d feel the need to do that; it wouldn’t be the first time this month. That whole thing with the flotilla of boats where the large boats thoughtlessly swamped and sank the smaller ones in their wake? Again, far too obvious a piece of symbolism. And the dialogue of all these characters is just atrocious – they just blurt out the awful plans and prejudices that we’re supposed to couch in elliptical dialogue fraught with subtext. Real life, it seems, makes for terribly simplistic drama.
Which means something has gone wrong with our concept of drama.
Euripides and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Marlowe – the tradition of world drama begins in epics of primal passion, archetypal stories full of howls of grief and rage. They aren’t the least bit subtle, which is a large part of why they continue to work. The rules we instill in artists today – demanding oblique and indirect plotting from our dramatists, telling actors that “anger is not an interesting choice,” and so on – have come much later. They’ve come from a mindset that the arts are rarified, removed from the common folk. An elite pastime.
Subtlety, in other words, is something you have to be able to afford. A luxury – of a time we’re no longer living in, if we were ever really living in it at all.
So as we rebuild drama from the wreckage of shuttered theaters and zoom readings, let’s take a moment to remember why we have to rebuild it in the first place. Let’s resolve not to repeat our mistakes, and create an art form so removed from people’s lives that it loses any sense of relevance to them.
In other words, if you haven’t already done so, get angry.