Sunday, April 15, 2012

Theresa Rebeck on stupid postmodernism

I just discovered this piece by Therese Rebeck from 2009 and it's excellent. 

I haven't blogged about Mac Wellman and his postmodern theories on playwriting recently, but had to post this because Rebeck totally nails it here:
I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. "All that structure, all that story," he growled, pouring himself more wine. "What a nightmare."

"I love structure," I confessed. "I think it's beautiful."

"Yeah, the audience loved it too," he sneered.

OK, I condensed that conversation; there was actually more yelling and drinking involved. But the essence of the exchange is accurate: He was a great artist who looked down on structure and managed to admit that he looked down on the audience too.

The two seem to go hand in hand. One time a critic made fun of the "crowd-pleasing ending" of one of my plays. The play was a comedy and the review ticked me off. "What kind of an ending was I supposed to write for a comedy?" I asked my husband. "Something that made the audience really sad? It's a comedy."

"You promised me you wouldn't read those things anymore," he answered.

I, of course, lay the blame for all of this on postmodernism. Fiction writers got over their fascination with postmodernism -- why can't we? That stupid postmodern emphasis on image over content has slammed us right into a dramaturgy that willfully leaves the audience behind and then resents the fact that they don't "get it." Which leads us to the question behind the questions: Is theater a populist or an elitist art form? Is it an obscure poem that no one is meant to understand? Or is it television?

Like many theater artists, my answer is "neither. It's neither."

Structure is not our enemy, it is the form that makes content possible; it is the meaning that holds the image and imbues it with specificity; specificity is not our enemy; intellect without heart is not more, it is less and in the theater sometimes less is just less. Contemporary playwrights don't need to toss away all that has come before us, nor could we if we even tried.