The Playgoer: Times Tony Touting (+ Isherwood vs Journey's End)

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Times Tony Touting (+ Isherwood vs Journey's End)

photo: Paul Kolnick
The anti-Chorus Line? That Journey's End end.

Actually some good reads amidst the puffery in yesterday's "Arts & Leisure" Tony-spread.

First, kudos to opening things up to cover the regional award (a profile of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre) and not only Off but Off-Off B'way. (Jason Zinoman introduces Sunday Times readers to two plays that hardly need introduction south of 14th St--"The Thugs" and "God's Ear".)

And here's an interesting graphic on the economics of everything. Two glaring trends you can see in the numbers decade by decade: In the 1946-47 season, 42 new plays opened on Broadway. This season, 11. Then, the "average paid admission" was $36 in today's dollars. Now, $76.

Do I sense a correlation?

This is not to say Broadway ticket prices should be lowered to encourage more new plays. I'm not out to make producers lose money. My point is to use this as yet another wakeup call for "the drama" to just give up on Broadway and go where it's affordable.

Then, there's Charles Isherwood dissing "Journey's End" for the 2nd week in a row! What's up with that? (Yes, I'm all for being a contrarian, but with a show that's not a hit?) Last week it was this where (in comparing the play's fizzling to the similar box office performance of Clint Eastwood's similarly unjingoistic Iwo Jima dyad) he said,

''Journey's End,'' written by a veteran of World War I, may well have invented some of the insights about the everyday experience of war that have now calcified into clich├ęs, but there's no way we can hear them with fresh ears. The play takes place in a grimy bunker in the thick of the trenches on the war front. Its characters are an assortment of British soldiers tensely awaiting a German assault. The soldiers gripe about the food and engage in diverting raillery to keep their minds off the harrowing matters at hand; undertake dangerous missions with stiff upper lips; endure the loss of their fellows on the battlefield with both tears and dignity.

But as each of several vignettes unfolded I found myself wearily checking off familiar war-story elements. Oh, this is the bit where somebody comes to the realization that the Germans in the trenches 50 yards away aren't such a bad lot-- in fact they're just regular blokes like us. Oh, this is the point where the officer unhinged by nerves gets a tough talking-to by his superior officer and finds the inner resources to carry on.

And I found myself actively resisting the kind of emotional manipulation that you often submit to without thinking. The play is terrifically acted, but I was drawing away from it out of a feeling that to go along with it would be to give in to a kind of cathartic release of emotion that could be better put to use outside the theater.

Pause--I really don't know where "outside the theatre" is in this case? Perhaps, optimistically, the voting booth? Or does he mean at home in front of our tv's. Where else but the theatre, Charles??? Sorry, continue Mr. I:

Several years into a confusing war with complicated foes and several years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we may have finally reached a point where the old forms of war fiction are no longer capable of giving us the solace and understanding we look for from this kind of material. Stories of noble sacrifice amid the comparatively uncomplicated moral climate of the two world wars seem so remote that emotional indulgence in them seems too much like escapism,[???] a turning away from the truths that we need to keep our eyes sharply focused on.

He concedes people in the audience are having a "catharsis" but he suggests it's the wrong kind:

But as I listened to the sniffles of the audience at the play's conclusion, I wondered if those around me were really exercising those feelings or simply exorcising them.
So, basically he's saying "Journey" is just not relevant enough to today's war. I hardly agree that the circumstances of World War I were a "comparatively uncomplicated moral climate" (no one's called that one "The Good War"). And I suspect that if today's soldiers themselves could watch these fictional characters in a foxhole that almost seems deliberately timeless in its dark sooty abstraction, waiting interminably for pointless skirmishes leading no closer to victory...they would find much to relate to indeed.

This week's piece takes on the British Invasion en masse. He recaps his "Journey" argument in one sentence: "The World War I drama “Journey’s End” was a beautifully restored relic that seemed oddly out of step with the current climate, given its predictable depiction of the horrors of war." So depicting "horrors of war" is just "predictable"? Tell it to our president! And once again, I hardly think the reason the Broadway demographic is staying away from this show is: "Gosh, I do hate war, but this play just won't be anti-war enough." (Funny to see Mr. Brantley below the fold of the same page--in a profile of the Tony-nominated actors--call it "a show Broadway theatergoers have foolishly resisted embracing.")

But, hey, I don't want to come off as someone saying "love 'Journey's End' or die." The creaky conventions of 1920s dramaturgy are of course fair game. And it's political subversiveness should not be overstated. ( has little reason to get excited, I admit.) But I do think Isherwood has completely misread the play politically and perhaps not factored in the specific historic background of WWI. I'll forgive him this, though, for some of the other strong points he makes in the piece about Brits on Broadway this year--namely how unbankable (or less reliably bankable) they've become, despite last year's "History Boys." (See "Coram Boy"--or don't see, it's closed.) And get this on Stoppard's "Utopia" on which he already famously dissented a few months back.

That production [note "production" not play] was without doubt the best of the season’s imports — and a pretty safe bet to take the best-play prize at the Tony ceremonies next Sunday. But it did monopolize the resources of one of the city’s (indeed the country’s) leading nonprofit theaters for a whole season, while two adventurous new plays from young American playwrights, “The Clean House” by Sarah Ruhl and “Dying City” by Christopher Shinn, played at the company’s smaller stage downstairs. (Neither would have filled the Vivian Beaumont, but the company regularly produces at other Broadway houses too.)

You have to wonder what the many millions of dollars spent on all these productions might have brought in the way of benefits to American writers and artists if such sums were not so regularly channeled east. The lack of important young American playwrights on Broadway is often bemoaned, but an aspiring playwright could well be discouraged that the country’s premiere showcase for theater seems to be colonized by the British in such large numbers, season after season.

I wonder if Lincoln Center will counter-argue that because their gamble on this epic undertaking paid off (at least I hope so at $100/$300 a ticket) they can now fund beaucoup de Yank plays. We'll see.

One more note on Journey's End: in the "Indelible Moments" section Jesse Green finally clarifies the confusion we were having here on just what is the sequence of events in that stunning coda/curtain call.


Anonymous said...

interesting points. the thing that bugged me most about the british invasion article is not touched upon here - its when Isherwood moans about English writers and English directors taking over New York without a strong American voice. Now, I didn't see the production of KING LEAR at steppenwolf that he is referencing and saying is the best thing he saw this season. Perhaps it is very strongly American in its tone, its actors, etc. However, two things are very clear and cannot change: the play is very old, and it is not by an American. Figure out what you're asking for, Charles.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you got around to that JOURNEY'S END piece. I was also baffled by Isherwood's comment:

Stories of noble sacrifice amid the comparatively uncomplicated moral climate of the two world wars seem so remote that emotional indulgence in them seems too much like escapism.

Noble sacrifice? Uncomplicated moral climate? Either he completely missed the point of JOURNEY'S END--which spends more or less its entire duration exploring the ways in which war is inglorious and dehumanizing--or he's deliberately misreading the play to fit his argument.

Anonymous said...

From what i understand, Andre Bishop is opening a black box theatre as part of Lincoln Center Theatre, whose mission will be to produce new plays by younger writers...could POSSIBLY be something exciting. Or maybe just facsimiles of trie boring plays by older established writers...time will tell