Friday, August 06, 2010

the wackness

Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold had something pretty astute to say nine years ago about theatre:
The world's bursting with stories, the public loves them, but artists somehow feel embarrassed about telling them. In the theater, dramatic narrative has become the last taboo.

I've been thinking about this because it's only partially true, in my recent experience. Playwrights I know are telling stories - but the stories they tell seem to be aimed at being as wacky and random as possible.

Apparently incoherence and illogic are thought to be cool, or even the dread "cutting edge." But this is a huge problem because you need coherence and logic in order to accomplish cause-and-effect, which is the basis of a satisfying story.

I can think of four recent plays right off the top of my head written by playwright acquaintances that start out by having possibly something of value to say, or an intriguing concept - and then it gets shot all to hell with random wackiness or lack of logic.
  • A play where a dead woman has a fistfight with The Devil. Even though she's just a regular, albeit dead woman, with no discernible superpowers and he's The Devil presumably with almost god-level powers, she defeats him. Later there is a large closed box, which appears to be there for no other reason than to give the author an excuse to make a Schoedinger's cat reference. People time-travel, they suddenly have magic powers then lose them, they come back from the dead, then go away, then come back. No explanations, no rhyme or reason and virtually no cause and effect. Just "stuff happens."
  • A play where the Earth is besieged by zombies. At least I think it's the Earth although the humans don't act like Earthlings - on the planet I live on humans have proven themselves capable of slaughtering other humans with perfect ease on the basis of religious or ethnic differences - but in this play they are incapable of even cremating zombies to make sure they don't come back. And this in spite of the fact that the zombies are already dead and therefore can't even be "murdered" - and the zombies are also causing disease and pestilence in the world. Then there's the complete lack of rules for re-animation - sometimes you become a zombie many hours after being infected with zombies germs - but other times it happens minutes later. Basically you become a zombie whenever it is narratively convenient. There were other logic disconnects but I've forgotten them - and really the ones I mentioned are perfectly sufficient to torpedo the play. Yet this play was actually published.
  • A play about a woman who is writing a play and she's stressed out about it and she hallucinates all these people and events - or DOES she? We never find out. If she's just hallucinating, why do I give a shit about it? Stories about crazy people with crazy ideas just aren't that interesting, especially since the big issue of this play was whether or not the protagonist wins a playwriting prize. This play was brought in by a former member of NYCPlaywrights - I knew she was going to be trouble when she joined, against my better judgement, when she insisted that she didn't need to follow any stinking standard playscript format in order to facilitate the timing of her plays. Right then I knew she was too full of herself to ever write a good play - she is incapable of editing a single syllable of the precious pearls she lays down on a page. And while there were entertaining moments in the play and she could write dialog, I knew that the plot itself would ruin everything. She didn't want to listen of course - her attitude was that if people found her story incoherent it was because they were too fucking stupid to get it.
  • Another play by a member of NYCPlaywrights - again, some interesting dialog and concepts, but there's no coherent cause-and-effect - random stuff happens for no apparent reason, there's an angel for no apparent reason, there's a talking fish for no apparent reason. And then... the end.
But based on the responses of other people to these plays I must be one of the very few people who values coherence and logic over wackiness for the sake of wackiness. I'm often told I "think too much." Apparently thinking excessively is a rare trait, one that few other theatre-goers share.

As usual, Schopenhauer nails it:
When any genuine and excellent work makes its appearance, the chief difficulty in its way is the amount of bad work it finds already in possession of the field, and accepted as though it were good. And then if, after a long time, the new comer really succeeds, by a hard struggle, in vindicating his place for himself and winning reputation, he will soon encounter fresh difficulty from some affected, dull, awkward imitator, whom people drag in, with the object of calmly setting him up on the altar beside the genius; not seeing the difference and really thinking that here they have to do with another great man....

...So even Shakespeare’s dramas had, immediately after his death, to give place to those of Ben Jonson, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, and to yield the supremacy for a hundred years. So Kant’s serious philosophy was crowded out by the nonsense of Fichte, Schelling, Jacobi, Hegel.

Schopenhauer really hated Hegel.