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October 07, 2009


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I keep expecting this flowering of earnest and sentimental works to spring up, but it quite seems to get there. I think the hold of ironic detachment seems so strong. I personally prefer earnestness to glib detachment and try for it in my work. But sometimes I find people are still looking at it ironically.


I like work that's ironic AND sentimental. It can be both, I think. I also think it's not useful to paint broad strokes over what theater should or should not be. There should be room for all kinds of work. I have a couple of beefs with this that I'll lay out in no particular order.

1. It kind of bugs me that baby boomers are taking ownership for something that isn't there's and chiding younger generations for supposedly stealing it. Oscar Wilde would be totally pissed. There was irony before the 50s and 60's just like there is plenty of fucked up shit to expose today. In other words, irony, sarcasm etc. is timeless and is always a useful tool.

2. Sometimes ironic work is MORE sincere than sentimental work. I think, say, "Happiness" is a much, much more powerful film than ca-ca old "American Beauty"- and they touch on the same themes.

3. I also wonder how much of the new ironic work is actually ironic. In other words, when I write a play that has breakaway dance numbers in it or a talking chicken (not that I would write a play that stupid) it might seem ironic, but isn't. It's just part of the dialogue. In (more) other words, as a young writer maybe I've consumed so much irony in my life that it's no longer ironic and, you know, just the new version of the form. Irony is the new sincerity?


Is DOUBT ironic or earnest?

Is PROOF ironic or earnest?

Is PILLOWMAN ironic or earnest?

Is BEAUTY QUEEN OF LENANE ironic or earnest?

Is CLOSER ironic or earnest?

Is FOUR ironic or earnest?

Is AVENUE Q ironic or earnest?

Is THE GOAT ironic or earnest?

Is SUPERIOR DONUTS ironic or earnest?

Is MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS ironic or earnest?

Is THE CLEAN HOUSE ironic or earnest?


Reminds one of the irrelevance of the question Catholics once ironically asked with earnestness: How many angels fit on the head of a pin?

Prince Gomolvilas

Thanks for chiming in, folks. Let me clarify. I suppose my title is a bit misleading because it frames this discussion as a fight between Irony and Sentimentality, which suggests that there could/should only be one winner.

What I'm talking about (and what Wallace suggests, though it is not explicit) is that it seems that more and more young writers approach their work and their craft with a fear of sentimentality. While many will embrace ironic detachment, they recoil at the thought of coming across as sentimental or sincere.

Again, I'm not suggesting it has to be one or the other (as I pointed out, I traverse both), but it seems to me that young writers could stand to drop their guard a bit and not have a kneejerk reaction to sentimentality.

David, I think your list is supposed to point out the abundance of earnest work (am I right?--I wasn't clear), and, if it is, it merely points out that this earnest work is not being pumped out by young writers (by young, I mean beginning) but playwrights who are older, who have been around for a while.

Donovan Keith

It's all about the new sincerity.


My point (and perhaps yours as well) is that it's silly and absurd to pit one style against the other. All of these works are successful in some important way (if not always commercial, certainly aesthetic) and they're all completely different.

I'd also point out that PROOF wasn't written by an old man. Nor was BEAUTY QUEEN. If you look hard enough, I think you'll find that dividing "being earnest" and "being ironic" into old writers vs young writers is, perhaps, just as absurd.

And since I think it would not be hard to find quite earnest and rebellious writers working in the 50s and 60s, it's absurd to say that "irony" is somehow the dominant form of rebellion for the period. For example, ON THE ROAD is a very earnest book. So is HELLS ANGELS by Thompson (and I'd argue so is FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS - which, certainly uses sarcasm and humor, but gets its real punch from being very earnestly critical of America). So is every Tom Wolfe book. In theatre, I think you'll find plenty of earnest rebellion going around too.

And all that earnestness had its ironic counterparts as well.

These trends are mostly invented.

I hope young writers aren't "deciding" that one is hip and one is not. Whichever side they come down on, it's myopic at best.

Mark S.

It seems to me that part of what's at the core of this discussion is the question of what is real and what has value. Seriously. I think it's possible to be earnest only if you believe that something is real and that that something has value. The ironic impulse I think stems from a sneaking suspicion that there is no there there or anywhere. Nothing of value, at any rate, nothing of any true or lasting reality. In itself, that impulse is its own form of earnestness. But once it becomes divorced from the actual search for value or the real which is at its root, then it's a pretty empty pose.

I also think that there's a bit of a difference between what is earnest or sincere on the one hand and what is sentimental on the other. I find sentimentality often very cloying and cynical. (Who wrote that sentimentality is a form of violence?) But the sincere gesture, the earnest gesture is usually an honest gesture.


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