Two of the most critically and commercially successful theatre productions in the United States currently are the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the Goodman Theatre (Chicago) revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Far from traditional audience-pleasers, they are two of the darkest plays in the canon of American drama, and their appeal is due not only to their star casting (Philip Seymour Hoffman in the first, Nathan Lane in the second), but also to the possibility that these plays may be meeting a need in their audiences — a sense of the tragic dimensions of contemporary culture and individual experience, perhaps. Perhaps their popularity is also a result of the fact that so few contemporary American playwrights have as dark a vision — and that the audience, unconsciously, needs to share in it.
This sense may be common enough in classic drama (and this status as “classic drama” may make the sense more palatable to audiences), but what of contemporary drama, and especially contemporary political drama? Yesterday at the TCG Circle blog, Caridad Svich (whose new play The Way of Water, about the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years back, is currently being performed around the world; read about the scheme here) wrote in “An Environment for Change?” that contemporary drama resisting simplistic emotional response is in some danger in the US, and that this danger may be the product of fear, particularly the Lomanesque and quintessentially American fear of not being well-liked — a fear shared by theatremakers, theatres both profit and non-profit, individual donors, and institutional funders alike. She writes:
… our discussion turns to what we think of when we say the words “political theatre,” especially in the US. Creeping into the conversation one of US theatre’s “dirty words,” rears its head. It is a word bandied about quite often pejoratively by administrators, marketing folks, and even within the creative personnel of our wide-ranging industry.
The word is “darkness.” It is a word that tends to send shivers down some people’s spines in this field, as they try to pitch plays to their constituents and disguise “darkness” in blurbs and press packets with any number of adjectives in order to obscure its visceral presence. Darkness, even in dark times, or the intimations of a jangling, upset theatrical universe where not every question is answered by the theatre-makers and/or presented in pop-friendly forms, is the dirtiest of dirty words next to the word “politics” in US theatre. Will the world presented on stage be too bleak? Will we run the risk of alienating the audience? And if we indeed want the audience to mobilise, to feel empowered to at least try to effect a measure of change within their local community, what tools can we offer them through our storytelling in order to instill the possibility without wrecking all reasonable hope altogether?
A recent New York Times article in the Arts and Leisure (Sunday 22 April) was actually devoted to the subject of darkness in plays in lieu of the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a text that is being met by a new generation of theatre-goers with a mixture of awe and mild shock at the “depressing” nature of the piece’s downwardly spiraling story. Has US theatre, for good or ill, and time will be the judge of that, retreated from the portrayal, without exploitation, of the troubling nature of much of the lives of those who live in the US in order to instead “do good?” In this “doing good” is theatre’s potency as a live medium of expression, as a meeting place and communal gathering of strangers, being castrated? What new lies get told in this “do-gooder-ness” and what markings on theatre’s pages are left unsaid in the fear of losing an audience?
The full text of “An Environment for Change?” can be found here.