The Playgoer: Whither The Working Play?

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Whither The Working Play?

"Work's relative absence from the [drama] is all the odder when you consider its absolute ubiquity. Not only is it a universal leveller, it is also one of the great venues for social interaction. Even the members of a chain-gang can be guaranteed to speak to each other now and again. Work ought to occupy the [theatrical] imagination as much as sex, money, or power, and yet for the most part the Anglo-American [play] has spent at least half of the first two or three centuries of its development resolutely denying its existence."

-D.J Taylor, The Independent, UK.

Okay I played a trick on DJ's words here. He's writing about prose fiction, so I substituted "drama," "theatrical," and "play" for his literary vocab.

Still--something to think about, ed?

Some theatre blogs (spurred by Isaac) recently had a spirited discussion of the role class plays in the life of the theatre today. Appropros of that, let's also consider what kind of subjects our playwrights take on.

Forget about proletarian settings. How about plays where we see people actually working for a living--even if a relatively comfy middle class one? You know the kind of play where it's never even referenced how the main character actually earns the living that pays for this obscenely fantastical real-estate porn loftspace? Well that's part of the problem.

Which is why I applaud the spate of works lately that have taken up something as basic as office life--Brock's The Thugs, Merriwhether's The Mistakes Madeleine Made, even Washburn's The Internationalist. There's even a company--The Working Theater--whose stated mission is "producing culturally diverse plays that explore the lives of working people and the issues they confront."

This should not be seen as just missionary work, btw, or even social activism. It's popular! It's what's behind the success of TV's "The Office" (in both Brit and US forms) and Mike Judge's cult hit "Office Space." Funny how studios and networks in both cases had only the lowest of expectations of either. After all the subject matter of the daily drudgery under which the moiety of the just-above-water middle class makes its indentured-servitude living--at the mercy of companies that view them as disposable--had been thoroughly ignored as unfit entertainment subject matter for years.

Well, boy, were they proven wrong. Surprise, people like to see representations of how they live.

I guess since it's assumed the average theatre patron is unusually wealthy, maybe they do identify with the leisure class represented in most of the plays produced, old and new. But--not to be blunt--if I ever see another play about idle artists living in impossibly plush surroundings I'll vomit all over the set's leather upholstery.


Anonymous said...

Hi Garrett! I've recently had the good fortune to see a play of mine based entirely in a corporate office accepted into the Fringe Festival. The play is partly about religious fanaticism and partly about the increasing predominance of work in American life. I would argue that the struggle to maintain financial equilibrium takes up more space in the American psyche that religion or sex, easily. Almost everyone I know works really hard all day long and sometimes into the weekends. That defines a life more than anything else.

Anonymous said...

One of the most exciting productions that Lookingglass did in their early days (1990, I believe) was an adaptation of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." At one point, the meatpacking workers were hung upside down, turning them into pieces of meat. A stunning image.

I can't locate the exact quote, but I know Joan Holden, when she was doing the stage version of "Nickel and Dimed," talked about how, in the last several decades, American workers have lost more and more ground in terms of real wages, job security, benefits, etc., even as their productivity goes up. Yet if one judged the biggest problems in America based on what was onstage at the biggest theaters, they'd think it was middle-class to upper-middle-class people who are unhappy in their relationships with their parents and/or children.

But I also would hate to see plays that only posit work as something everyone automatically hates (a la "Office Space," et al). I saw Marty Pottenger's "City Water Tunnel #3" many years ago, and that was a piece that really captured the pride of working on a huge construction project, as well as the dangers. It was damn fascinating.

Kerry Reid