Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why OUR TOWN is great

There is a segment of the theatre world who consider Thorton Wilder's play OUR TOWN nothing but a bunch of sentiment and nostalgia. You would think that people who care about theater would tend to be more sensitive, perceptive and empathetic than the general population. But you would be wrong.

But those of us who pay attention recognize that OUR TOWN is every bit as abstract, philosophical and intense a portrayal of the human condition as WAITING FOR GODOT.

Part of the problem of OUR TOWN is that it is popular and frequently done by amateur outfits and community theatre. This automatically makes it mind-poison to those who consider themselves cutting edge and who crave novelty for its own sake to satisfy their jaded sensibilities and fill up their vast stretches of free time.

GODOT is popular too, but it ranks higher in the theatre world's hipometer for a few reasons. One, because there are no females in GODOT, and Samuel Beckett's storm troopers scour the world looking for any attempts to cast females in any of the four roles of GODOT. This abhorrence of the feminine fits very comfortably in today's theatre world. Theatre people at the present time are very anxious about feminization. The fear is that although literature has "chick-lit" and film has "chickflicks" - concepts that safely ghettoize and stigmatize art aimed at the majority (51%) of the human race - the entire theatre world is in danger of becoming chick. This is why the current fashion is for plays that reject anything soft or humane, culminating in THE PILLOWMAN with its torture death of a little girl.

The other big strike against OUR TOWN is that it portrays non-disfunctional families. This is an absolute taboo in contemporary theatre. Critics and playwrights and directors, who mostly come from the upper class, like nothing so much as a good wallow in the squalor and disfunction of the bourgeoisie. OUR TOWN gives them the exact opposite of what they crave.

This is not to say that there is no pain and suffering in OUR TOWN. In fact, the pain and suffering are so affecting exactly because the characters who experience them have been shown to us in their mundane existences. Existences with facets that are familiar even to members of the upper class, like parents and siblings and breakfast and love.

But to be a hipster, as you must be to be a respectable theatre person in New York, you must divorce yourself from common human emotions, especially soft, sympathetic, "feminine" emotions.

That's why GODOT will remain more respectable than OUR TOWN - it's about the human condition, but it's not overly emotional about it. If OUR TOWN is done right, and you aren't a block of ice, it will make you cry. And boys don't cry.

It's a fact that the New York theatre world is longing for its very own Quentin Tarantino - young, male, macho, violent, opposed to feminine weakness.

There are plenty of young men who heed the call. As the founder of a playwrights group with an open-door policy, I've seen my share of them.

Case in point: a former member of my group wrote a play called ANATHEMAVILLE which is supposedly his response to OUR TOWN. He did a production in the past year, and it was reviewed by Martin Denton in As he says:

Venters uses the classic play Our Town as point of departure and framing device. Venters co-opts the structure of Thornton Wilder's play, most of its famous scenes and images (i.e., he gets two characters up on ladders talking about life near the end of Act I; shows us his young couple on a date in a 21st century shopping-center version of a drug store; etc.), and even makes use of a narrator (Uber-Mart greeter/security guard Leo stands in for the earlier play's Stage Manager). Venters's notion, I presume, is to juxtapose the idyllic American way of life supposedly depicted in Our Town with the crass present-day plastic life epitomized by mass-marketing goliaths like his Uber-Mart.

Alas, here's where Venters starts to go badly astray, for he makes the wrong assumption about Our Town (i.e., that it's sentimental claptrap) and indulges in parody—of the Wilder play, not of life in Wal-Mart-Land.

I'm glad that Denton understands how wrong Venters is about OUR TOWN.

I didn't see the production, I only heard a table reading a year before, so perhaps the script changed somewhat - although I doubt it. In the table reading, one female character recounts her childhood sexual abuse, and it is played for laughs - she's raped in "funny" ways with various articles of food. When I expressed my disgust after the reading was through, I was shocked to find that nobody else had a problem with this. The problem was me - I was taking it too seriously, according to them.

The playwright was not only a young attractive white male, he had tattoos and various facial piercings. No way my opinions would count against such a paragon of hipness.

I am grateful that of the two reviews I found for the show, both slammed ANATHEMAVILLE. I think it's more because of the flagrant self-indulgence of the play, which came in at four hours with two intermissions than the wanton and pointless cruelty. And of course Ben Brantley of the NYTimes never got to see it - he might have loved it as much as he loved PILLOWMAN.

Another show that was just as bad for many of the same reasons was recently produced by another former member of my group. APATHY was not as universally panned as ANATHEMAVILLE, because apathy, being devoid of those unsightly feminine emotions is just too fucking hip. But believe me when I tell you this play is a huge reeking turd. In fact, I'd say it's worse than ANATHEMAVILLE because at least that play was trying to say something about Wal-Mart, albeit in an absolutely incoherent manner.

APATHY is about a bunch of assholes sitting around being mean to each other, pointlessly and endlessly. The play's hero is a fucktard who makes prank phone calls to his senile grandmother. Plus, oh joy of joys, half-assed rock tunes, which makes this into a "musical."

The author provides the best review on his web site which says: "Apathy: The Gen X Musical is full of the kind of people who'd annoy the hell out of you if you were dumb enough to attempt a friendship with them. But at a safe emotional distance, they can be very entertaining."

I agree - if you think having a root canal is entertaining.

These people are just wanking off, and nothing that they do will be remembered in ten years. Because while posing as too cool for soft "feminine" emotions may make you popular with the idiots who decide such things, it will make you write nasty forgettable plays.

OUR TOWN does not shrink from empathy, even for females and the middle-class. And unapologetic, abundant empathy is the critical ingredient for a great play.

More about OUR TOWN

PBS web site

OUR TOWN at Amazon

The video version with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, my favorite.

Aaron Copland wrote the score for the 1940 movie version of the play. It has a beautiful, haunting theme.

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Some critics had second thoughts about THE PILLOWMAN:

Charles Isherwood of the NYTimes


Charles McNulty in the Village Voice