By Isaac Butler
A wonderful mini-essay from Rob Weinert-Kendt on our desire to see "important" plays and what that means:
[Shame about entertainment] has a lot to do with what we mean when we say we're entertained—with what parts of us a play tickles, flatters, stimulates. We feel cheap if it's just pumping us for laughs, flattered if we're allowed space to think for ourselves about what we're watching, stimulated if we're surprised or teased into thinking about something more than what we're watching (other than the grocery list). But are a tickle, a tease, and a release of laughter enough?
You might call this as a tension between theater as performance and theater as literature. But if you see a play, as I do, as a kind of literary performance which, at bare minimum, must arrest our attention and hold it for the moment we spend with it, then I'd say that what Seminar accomplishes is enough—enough to be called a good play that's worth your time. Whether it's great in that larger, lasting sense, I can't be absolutely sure. (Can anyone? Though my hunch, and this surprises even me, is that it might be—that its insights about aspiration, literary and otherwise, about gender relations, ambition, and the perils of sensitivity, may speak to us in interesting ways in, say, 50 years.) For now, I honestly don't think that judgment needs to be called; what I do think is that Rebeck and co. are offering a first-class literary performance at the Golden Theatre that is worth catching while it's there.
You can read the whole dang thing here.
I wonder if this has to do with two other currents within the theater: its irrelevance to the culture at large and the price of its tickets. Do we do this because we're shelling out a lot of money and thus we either want a Big Epic Production OMG!!!1! or we want to know that we've seen something capital-i-Important? Do we also do this because we have anxiety over the art form we love-- whether as audiences, artists or both-- and that the heyday of it as a cultural force in America has been over for some time? Thus, if we're going to go play in our little sandbox, do we need the validation that what we're doing is vital, damnit, even if nobody's looking?
Regardless of the cause, I think there's another way that this pendulum swings, and that's the need to make Big Great Pronouncements As To A Work's Greatness and Importance when at the end of the day a play is instead a well constructed, thought provoking entertainment. I see this as the flip-side... Rob cops to being mildly ashamed to call something entertainment and mean it as a compliment, sometimes I wonder if that is what leads to the embracing of a well-constructed pot boiler like Doubt as something more than what it is.
There's something about advocating for well constructed, intelligent entertainment that sounds like you're pleading for mediocrity. Why is that?