The Playgoer: In Defense of "Whimsy"?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Defense of "Whimsy"?

I'm pleased to see my posting on Kristen Kosmas's Hello Failure has sparked so much discussion.

Point taken on the "whimsy" question--i.e. whether it's sexist to brush off a certain selection of currently well-regarded young female playwrights as "whimsical" (i.e. "impulsive, playful, unreasoning" according to the dictionary) for adopting a tone and language that seems "lighter" (i.e. less "rational" and "hard edged," grr!) than what we expect from "serious" drama.

By "point taken," I don't mean the word should be off the table, though. It's a good word. But it does behoove critics to define and specify further the complaint.

(For the record, the phrase "realist whimsy" was not my coinage but Helen Shaw's in Time Out--one I found quite useful. I should also point out, though, that Shaw did not implicate any other writer by name in this "school.")

As if joining this conversation we have Sarah Ruhl in last week's New Yorker, given the full John Lahr treatment. Here's Ruhl, I sense, defending her voice against the "whimsy" charge:

Her nonlinear form of realism—full of astonishments, surprises, and mysteries—is low on exposition and psychology. “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life,” she has said. “Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.”

Lightness—the distillation of things into a quick, terse, almost innocent directness—is a value on which Ruhl puts much weight. ....“Lightness isn’t stupidity,” she said. “It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.”
And also...

“I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably,” Ruhl said. “The acting style isn’t explicated, either. It’s not psychological.” In “The Clean House,” for instance, one stage direction reads, “Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time.” To Ruhl, this kind of emotionally labile performance is a “virtuosic” exhibition of behavior. “It feels true to me,” she said. “Children are certainly that way. I’m interested in these kinds of state changes. ‘I was happy, now I’m sad.’ ” She continued, “If you distill people’s subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don’t get realism.” The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl’s plays continually return. “I don’t want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past,” she said. “Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”

In Ruhl’s plays, turbulent feeling can erupt at any moment, for no apparent reason; actors are challenged to inhabit the emotional moment without motivation. Sometimes, during rehearsal, an anxious actor will approach Ruhl to try and pin down the role. She thinks to herself, “Oh, come on, just ride it.” She told me, “I prefer an actor who says, ‘My character doesn’t have a backstory, so I won’t concoct one. I will live as fully in every moment as I can. I will let the language move me, as opposed to a secret backstory of my own.” She likes her actors to have “a sense of irony,” and to be “touched with a little brush of the irrational.”

Or at least, this seems to be addressing certain criticisms of her work so far.

And I totally get what she's after. Clearly, the kind of rational-naturalism that has defined "good playwriting" for the last century (something we could call the Ibsen-Arthur Miller axis) is beginning to look like it's outlived its moment and doesn't serve the present time or the present generation. (At least as theatrical live performance. On film and especially TV, it reigns supreme and thrives. Sopranos and The Wire, anyone?) And in this contest, Ruhl is clearly an heir to the Absurdists.

But what I don't see in either hers or anyone's work now is what made the real Absurdists deeply effective--the willingness to stare into the abyss, too. This is why I found Eurydice (and , for that matter Hello Failure) ultimately forgettable--it lacked any real pain for me, so coated is it with deflective chuckles alternating with comfy happy feelings.

Lahr, largely complementary of Ruhl's oeuvre, makes one point at the end about Dead Man's Cell Phone that I felt captured exactly my misgivings about her previous Eurydice--namely "the oddness of the play’s ironic detachment and its unabashed optimism."

Mind you, I don't consider this in any way some uniquely feminine trait. I feel it's generational. Not universally generational, of course. But common in the crop of heralded young playwrights--including men like Noah Haidle, for instance. I'm uncomfortable with irony and cynicism being invoked half-heartedly, put in the service not of social critique but just another happy ending. Irony doesn't seem earned anymore, just put in service of easy laughs. And invoked as cover, to apologize for and excuse the essential earnestness--and, yes, sentimentality--underlying the play all along. For all the myth-busting and fractured fairy-tale aspects of Eurydice, for instance, I felt nothing really challenging about it at all--except maybe for the suggestion that young women today might have mixed feelings about marrying.

With Hello Failure, there are other issues. I think I (and now Jason Zinoman, who shares many of my misgivings in his Times review today) am responding to an almost anti-theatrical insistence on listening to the playwright's language over taking it all in as a dramatic event. As fine as Ken Rus Schmoll's production is, it and the script seem to be working on parallel wavelengths, rather than fusing together. That's because, as Zinoman says, "the actors seem secondary to the words"--as opposed to the words coming from the actors, or I should say, characters. Helen Shaw in her review puts it another way, faulting "an air of wistfulness: a lazy emotion that fritters away the propulsive qualities of Kosmas' superb dialogue." By "lazy" I actually take Shaw to mean not lazy writing, but inactive characters.

Chekhov and Beckett's characters, of course, are famous dramatic lazybones. But it's usually not for lack of trying.

I realize I would have more of an argument if I could back it all up with more examples. So forgive me and consider this a rough draft. I guess my main point is: call it whimsy or call it whatever you want--something seems to be going on with a group of plays by young writers (some by women, some not), some new mix of irony and sentimentality that skirts the usual expectations of comedy or tragedy.

You might think it's bad, you might think it's good! Either way, I'm serious when I say this will be something interesting for future scholars of the drama of our times to ponder.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, Garrett, thanks for these. I respond here.

Anonymous said...

If I might clarify for a moment: Helen's reference in Time Out to the "school" of realist whimsy was connected to a line of thought that I have been suggesting in the magazine for a while. Reviewing John Cariani's "Almost, Maine" last year, I wrote of Cariani’s "whimsical literalism"; about Noah Naidle's "Rag and Bone," I wrote that it was "the latest example of a theatrical style we might call literalist whimsy." It may or may not be of interest to note that both of those playwrights are men.

Adam Feldman