The Playgoer: Wilson detractors

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Wilson detractors

That was quick. I guess the August Wilson grace period is over. Some are already speaking out to challenge the understandable laudatory chorus of superlatives lavished over Wilson's oeuvre the last few days. Rachel Shteir seems to be the courageous first in this Slate piece. Terry Teachout pleads agnosticism and bravely admits to being a major drama critic unfamiliar with the bulk of Wilson's finest work! (At least he's honest)

First let me say: of course Wilson was a problematic writer. Of course many of the plays are messy. And, of course, to give him merely reflexive, groupthink praise as just an Important Black Playwright does as much disservice to him as to the whole critical enterprise. This kind of debate over his work is actually long overdue, one could say, since it is actually a necessary step toward properly "canonizing" an artist, as opposed to just bowing to hype or pc pressure. In other words--yes, let's expose the flaws of August Wilson in exactly the same way we're, by now, used to rehearsing when discussing O'Neill, Williams, Miller and those other "flawed" giants.

As for Shteir, here are my quibbles. Her main complaints seem to be that Wilson failed at such dramaturgical elements as plot and character complexity. But her use of those terms strikes me as bound to a kind of realist, or at least psychological, drama Wilson constantly sought to transcend. She dismisses the end of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for instance thusly:

At the end of that play, Ma storms out of the studio and Levee, whom the producers have double-crossed, stabs another band member. This seems less like playwriting than agitprop.

Maybe so. But that hasn't lessened the gut-punching impact of that moment on stage when I've seen it, the image of a black man stabbing another in the back, against the backdrop of the burgeoning and exploitative Chicago record producing industry. Agitprop? How about: point of view. Wilson had one and if he felt more strongly about the lessons of the real world than the nuances of his fictional characters, I've always felt it was a fair trade-off.

That is--because he expressed that "lesson" so compellingly! The tired old saw of "if you want to send a message get Western Union" has been a terribly limiting crutch for dramatic criticism. The truth is, no one likes a boring lecture. But Wilson didn't just write rants and his language was anything but prosaic. Nowhere does Shteir even reference Wilson's use of language. Perhaps she takes that as obvious by now, or a tired point. But the sound of a Wilson play is what is always remembered. And always will be.

Sound and sight. That's what great theatre is about in the end, if you ask me. And Wilson knew the power of the image. Think of the music from that ghostly piano finally bursting out in The Piano Lesson; the character of the "people-finder" in Joe Turner and Gem, who comes and goes, earning his living locating the lost kin of the post-slavery migration; and, my favorite, a plain old slab of ham, which a muttering loser finally bursts through the door with at the end of Two Trains Running, claiming just a piece of what he believes is what's owed him. Could Wilson's symbolism be ham-handed at times? Sure. So was Ibsen's. But no one since Ibsen, I would argue grasped so powerfully the potential meaning of objects on stage. (of props!) Shteir actually mocks comparisons of Wilson to Chekhov and Ibsen. Well, if we can take those two giants off their pedestals for a second... why not!

I'm surprised Shteir does not raise the issue of gender in Wilson's work. The obsession with maleness and frequent marginalization of female characters has certainly troubled some, I know. I'm sure that will continue to be part of the critical legacy. Again, all this debate should be welcome, and so Shteir is owed some thanks for getting it going. In fact, I won't be surprised if we now witness a general dip in his reputation, as happens to many great writers in their last years, before they are rediscovered or reappraised. (How many people thought of Tennessee Williams when he died as our finest playwright, as opposed to a has been pill addict?) But--and, please, Terry Teachout!--understand that the more we debate Wilson, the more seriously we should contend with his work. It's here to stay, and will be produced and studied more than ever, whether his star rises or falls.

By the way, any bets on him getting a posthumous Nobel Prize this year? I can't imagine he hasn't been shortlisted. And maybe they were just waiting for him to finish the cycle!

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