by 99 Seats
I'll admit: on my first read, I was about as miffed by this Carey Perloff article as Lauren Gunderson was. I thought, Really? We're back here again? Didn't we all do this dance, like, two years ago? Are we still feeling bad for poor, neglected Shakespeare? That guy just can't catch a break. I rolled my eyes and moved on.
Then I saw Lauren's post and Carey's great response in the comments (actully most of the comments are great, RTWT). And I re-read Carey's original post again. Now that I see her point more clearly, away from my kneejerk reaction, I see there's a different conversation here, one less angering, but upsetting and intriguing in different ways.
Ultimately, as Carey and others point out in the comments, it's really more a question of education and "cultural" literacy: our new writers (and, by implication, our younger audiences) are writing in a vacuum, not in response to the great works of literature. In the past, writers were steeped in the Great Works of the Great Writers, but now, in the push for the new and relevant, the classics are lost, kept out of the conversation. She calls for a space where new works and old can be presented alongside of each other.
Lauren's response, like my initial one, comes from the place of a the beleaguered playwright: let's not focus on old, dead white guys. Plus the basics of modern drama come from the classics, so we're "in conversation" constantly. One point that I like is that the time is always now: the classical writers wrote for their present, in a language that their audience could readily understand. Why shouldn't we do the same? Now, obviously, Carey isn't saying that we shouldn't. But that's the larger underlying point, isn't it? Who are we in conversation with and what are we saying to them?
Ultimately, in a way, Carey's piece is a lament for the loss of the importance of the classics in the modern world. Classical plays are trotted out for "prestige" productions featuring name actors or for "revinvention" to "translate" them to a modern audience. New plays exist in a wholly separate sphere, unconnected to the classics. Modern audiences, looking for new work, and, in general, having no relationship to the classics, are being deprived a connection to that history, a connection that could be reinforced by theatre. She articulates a lovely vision here:
What if schoolchildren truly had access to the tools it takes to read, perform and understand Euripides, Lorca, Kalidassa, Brecht, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega and the plethora of other dramatic texts we have all but forgotten (not just Western drama, but world drama). Would it not give us a deeper sense of history, a more nuanced view of justice, a richer palate of formal possibilities, a wider range of styles to choose from beyond television realism? Wouldn't the new plays that emerged end up being more complex, more interesting, more formally bold?
Fair questions all and questions that get asked time and again. Won't we be better if we stay connected to the classics?
First, I want to note a couple of things: As Carey laments for a stage that connects new plays to classics, well, there just happens to be one here in NYC: Resonance Ensemble. That's their whole mission. Next time she's in NYC, she should swing by and talk to them about how they do what they do. Also, there's the Harlem9, a collective of theatre companies of color who are gearing up for their second annual 48 Hours In Harlem event, with new ten-minute plays responding to classics of African-American theatre. And then, right in SF, there's the Magic Theatre and Luis Alfaro, who is single-handedly updating the Greeks, it seems. This conversation is happening more, I think, that we know.
But the larger question, to me, is still: why? Why is it important to connect to these works? I don't mean this as a flippant, contrarian response. I'm really asking. Because the underlying reality of Carey's post is that American culture has moved pretty sharply away from the classics, for better or worse. While we retain some of the broad strokes, a modern audience doesn't have the same knowledge bank that they did in Shakespeare's time or even in the earlier part of the 20th century. You're better off referencing Bugs Bunny or The Godfather (though, honestly, with the short lifespan of things now, you might as well stick to Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and Analyze This). Before everyone's knickers get in a twist, I'm *not* drawing an equivalence between Bugs Bunny and Shakespeare (or, more appropriately, Friz Freleng and Shakespeare). Actually, I'm more comparing Oedipus and Bugs Bunny. Or G.I. Joe. Or Star Wars. This isn't the newest thought on the block, but the level of recognition, the place of importance, the connection to the zeitgeist, these bits of pop culture ephemera are our mythology. The trick is how to use it and embrace it, incorporate it into the conversation.
There are many, many people in the field, critics and artists both, who will, of course, say that Oedipus is a deeper, richer, and essentially more valid figure than Bugs Bunny (or Superman or Frodo) and we should be in the business of bringing that richer figure to the audience. I'm on board with that....to a point. Because we don't want to be in the business of being bad teachers, making art an "eat your vegetables because they're good for you" experience. There is an interplay to be found between the cultural touchstones of the audience you want to reach and the Great Stories. That's the role of the artist, the role that Shakespeare filled. His plays are full of contemporary references and in-jokes, alongside classical figures and myths. That's the goal. Which, ultimately, both Carey and Lauren are on board with. So yay! We're all on the same page. Which is actually kind of nice.
So let's just get out there and do it.