First published on 7 April 2011.
From Ben Brantley’s “The Joys of Feel-Bad Drama,” in today’s New York Times:
Still, more than three decades after it was written, [Wallace Shawn's] Marie and Bruce … continues to make many people recoil. And that’s because it is the opposite of a feel-good play. It’s a feel-bad play. That means it lacks the emotionally redemptive features of other works with similarly bleak worldviews: the catharsis of classical tragedy, or the outsized, blazing pessimism of Strindberg’s plays of marital warfare or the exquisite, compassionate lyricism of Chekhov and Tennessee Williams’s melancholy dramas. …
Similarly, we still expect the theater to abide by certain conventions of style. If you’re going to say something nasty, or flout taboos, say it with satire or poetry or larger-than-life passion. The Book of Mormon, this season’s hot-ticket Broadway show, makes fun not just of Mormonism but pretty much all religions, and it has a relentlessly foul mouth. But it is also a classic feel-good musical. Even the dark, violent Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph’s new play about the war in Iraq, uses the artifice of comedy to keep us at a distance.
The last show at which I sensed the kind of unease I felt among the audience of Marie and Bruce was the New York premiere of Sarah Kane’s Blasted several years ago. This British drama imagines an England in the grip of an internecine, nobody-wins civil war (inspired by accounts of the Balkan wars), and everybody in it behaves about as badly as people can. Unlike Marie and Bruce, Blasted is a shocker. It features acts of rape and mutilation. But it shares with Mr. Shawn’s play a hopeless view of humanity that goes way beyond cynicism. …
At a time in the theater when anything goes (to borrow the title of an old comfort-making musical now being revived on Broadway), making audiences squirm isn’t easy — and perhaps not even desirable. …
Brantley may be offering that last clause (emphasis added by myself, by the way) as a rhetorical gesture to spur further conversation. Or perhaps not; it is hard to tell whether Brantley is speaking for himself, or if he is speaking for what he considers to be the mindset of the audience (a mindset which, to grant him the benefit of a doubt, he may not himself share).
Classical tragedy, Strindberg and Williams are all found to be “emotionally redemptive” (whatever that may mean, whoever is to be redeemed, whether it’s the characters in the play, the dramatist or the audience), but Shawn and Kane apparently fall short of this laudable goal. In this, the conservative quality of contemporary theatre is to be found: the need for catharsis far outweighs any discomfort which might be created in the spectator, lest the spectator be expected to take that discomfort home with him. Regardless of the headline on the story, there seems to be very little joy in what Brantley characterizes as “feel-bad” theatre. The catharsis of classical tragedy was a social convention as well: the haste with which so many Jacobean and Elizabethan tragedies seek to tie up any loose ends bespeaks a fear that the tragedy has unleashed ungovernable energies that can’t be tied together in Aristotelian closure: the ending, the catharsis, is imposed, not organic to the dynamics of the drama.
As Mr. Brantley says, “We still expect the theater to abide by certain conventions of style.” Indeed; it is expected to behave with propriety, to refrain from exploration beyond those formal and topical limitations; a theatre work must be a “classic feel-good musical” or adhere to the “artifice of comedy,” however much its energies may lead it astray from these apparent virtues.
I was speaking the other day to a friend who has seen more — and written more about — theatre over the past several decades than I possibly ever could hope (if that’s the word) to do; I wager she’s also got Brantley beat by quite a few miles as well. “I don’t go to the theatre for fun,” she told me. “If I want to have fun there are plenty of other things I can do that are far more fun than the theatre. I go for a walk or I watch TV or almost anything else.” The theatre should be a place that opens us to those “undesirable” recognitions that are denied to us by the television or film or music that must appeal to a far broader audience. Its intimacy makes it the pre-eminent arena for the searing investigations that the best theatre offers. But indeed, they do not close at the end, but should remain open: open for us to bring to our homes, to consider both our selves and our place in this world. And this, it must be said, is a talent at which Kane and Shawn excel.