The Playgoer: where have all the highbrows gone

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

where have all the highbrows gone

After catching up myself this weekend on the Rachel Shteir article I linked to, I'd like to return to one brief point that particularly got my head nodding:

[I]n the 1960s and 1970s, one theme the New York critics return to again and again is that "highbrows" are abandoning the theater. Today, no one really talks about this. The term highbrow is as unrecognizable as gams. It's not just that New York theater criticism and the theater itself no longer carry the status they did forty years ago. The other industries surrounding the arts--all equally important to New York's idea of itself as a center for culture--have shrunk also. No trade publisher is releasing books like the ones Brustein wrote in the 1960s and 1970s--with titles like Seasons of Discontent or The Theatre of Revolt....Any discontent or revolt taking place in the arts community is strictly peripheral. Recent books about the theater have titles like "Adventures in Theater," as though theater were akin to bungee jumping.

We(?) all inveigh against the catering of professional theatre to elite audiences. But when you think about it, aren't those mostly just financial elites? What's surprising--and much more unsettling to me, much more monumental change--is that the cultural elite, my ivy-league educated friends who read trendy novels and go to museums and even the opera, and who, by the way, certainly have the means... couldn't care less about theatre. That's huge as a seismic cultural shift. "Bungee jumping" actually would be fine! No, theatre has become a sideshow--not even in an intriguing "freak" sense, but only quaint--on the cultural map populated by the audience that once was its main patron. Once upon a time, not too long ago, a "cocktail party" conversation about "what have you read lately" would seamlessly segue into "and have you seen any good shows". Yes, they'll go to a blockbuster "prestige" show once or twice a year, usually for an anniversary, or else the tickets were foisted on them as gifts from their parents. (I saw a lot of these folks at the recent big B'way revivals of "Long Day's Journey" and "Gypsy" for instance. And sometimes even at BAM, somehow.) But will they check out the new Richard Foreman even when Ben Brantley says you "must see"?

Ok, some of you may bid good riddence to snooty "boho's" with their "frappacino glasses," Jonathan Franzen under their arms, and Enya soaring out of their Ipods.... But if theatre doesn't have enough cultural cache for them, if even they can't get worked up about discovering the next great young playwright or checking someone's latest take on "Hedda Gabler", then what do we do?


Scott Walters said...

I think the problem is with us. The plays we are creating are just too pedestrian, too unexciting, too crabbed and cranky to draw attention. Perhaps economics forced this on us (how much breadth can one fit into a two-hander?), but we gave in.

Anonymous said...

Beckett's "Happy Days" is a two-hander with breadth. See Pinter's "Ashes to Ashes"? I could go on. But so, if you thought about it for a minute, could you.

Anonymous said...

I don't like Scott Walters's "we" up above. I'm in favor of solidarity among theater people, but I don't buy that we're all guilty of making bad plays. Perhaps "we" have created an infrastructure that rewards and encourages mediocre stuff, but there's always mediocre stuff, and there are plenty of writers, performers, directors and designers working hard to make provocative, engaging, moving theater.

It's just--how to get the good stuff noticed? How do we get people excited about plays the way they're excited about film or music? I don't think the answer is to become more like those things, but to generate the anticipation people have for a new movie or CD; or no, more accurately, for a good show from a band you like. To Playgoer's "quaint" (as to how people think of theater) I would add "stodgy." To lots of people, theater's not cool, or exciting, or fun, even in the way stand-up comedy is. That's the perception we have to battle with.

Scott Walters said...

But that's "us," too, isn't it, Andrew? I wasn't pointing a finger at playwrights alone, but at every one of us who has not fought the shrinking of the theatre. I think the resident theatres have exhibited incredible cowardice in their unwillingness to give full productions to any but the safest, least expensive new plays. The only chances they will take on larger new plays is ones that are written by "names." (I mean, were Steve Martin's plays REALLY all that great???)

And yes, theatre IS stodgy -- again, producers playing it safe. If Silicon Valley was filled with theatre producers and resident theatre business directors, we'd still be using punch cards.

And yes, anonymous, there are good two-handers, but you must admit that the options available in a two-person play are pretty minimal. It is difficult to give much scope, much of a sense of the larger world. Brecht could not write a two-hander and still do what he wanted, nor Shakespeare, nor Sophocles. Even Chekhov needed more than two. Compare Chekhov's full-length plays with his small-cast one-acts if you want to see what happens when the cast shrinks.

Anonymous said...

I just can't get excited about "cool people don't go to plays" and "the theatre is dead." It just seems a waste of energy. But of course a pornographic culture produces such dilemmas... I wish we would Fight the Power. Instead of reading twenty blogs a day, read ten and spend your other twenty minutes memorizing a Wordsworth poem... or rereading a favorite Ibsen passage... or doing a little research on the plays of Shaw for a paper... or WHATEVER. But fuck the celebrity culture, the madness of psychotic capitalist individualism that produces endless laments about the state of the theatre, audiences, bad plays, TV is better, DVDs are better, blogs are better, blah blah blah on and on and on. DO WORK. The daily work of building a civilization -- I say this without irony. Let's just do the work and stop whinging.

Anonymous said...

What I meant up above, Scott, was that I don't think it's a lack of good work that's the problem. Granted, there's never enough good art in any field, but the world is not completely devoid of fresh and exciting theater. Unfortunately the public face of theater doesn't reflect the energy that exists behind it. That's the quaint, stodgy face--and if by your later post you mean that you include in your "we" the resident theater producers that choose boring plays, I understand your point (even though I, as a performer, don't feel particularly connected to them or complicit in their decisions). Still the question remains--how do we change that? And to get back to Playgoer's post, how do we move theater back into the cultural consciousness in a larger way?

As to whinging...oh, but it's fun to whinge! But yes, to work, to work! Still it's helpful to have a plan of action. That's a reason to keep talking about this stuff, not to wallow, but to discover and to decide.

Scott Walters said...

I'm not certain how memorizing a Wordsworth poem helps the theatre much, whereas the sharing of ideas on blogs might actually lead to some useful thought. Most revolutions have started as a result of conversation. Blogs are conversation.

Playgoer said...

Thanks, Mr Anonymous. Keep reading!

...that is, I hope we'll remain one of the 10 blogs you'll cut down to

Anonymous said...

This is a good blog. I will read it. And obviously i enjoy ranting as much as the next guy. But I just want to remind people that we can do better. We can do better than "The Little Dog Laughed," we can do better than Julia Roberts and Matthew Broderick in revivals. But we can't do better ONLY by being angry and cynical and confused... at some point we have to pick our pens/brains/axes and get to work.

Dominic Cooke is succeeding Ian Rickson at the Royal Court. Here is someone with an international eye who deeply believes the theatre can be a place of ideas, can change the culture. And who doesn't go in for celebrity above and beyond anything else. He will try to build a theatre that is relevant and THEREFORE popular, not popular and therefore "relevant." Let's wish him success!