What to say about Charles Isherwood's Sunday essay about "political theatre" (or some strange idea of it). Obviously he ends up saying "the right thing" (that, yes, theatre should take on political issues after all) but his way of getting there smacks of...well something. Maybe it's the way the very premise presumes an implied reader who I find really annoying! I'm afraid in this case, it's some imagine NY Times subscriber who is "serious" about culture and "the world"--yet just can't bring him/herself to like plays where messy looking people break the fourth wall and make us feel guilty for being white Americans. Politics is fine for this spectator when couched in the classy Brit-wit of a Shaw or David Hare, or even the gabby giddiness of a Kushner.
So I don't know whether to applaud Isherwood for his honesty on statements like this or just take it as a reinforcement that he's part of the problem:
The reasons for audiences’ resistance to this kind of theater are not hard to discover. Look into your own heart, regular theatergoer. I’ll admit that I sometimes approach the genre with wariness or a sense of duty, as if lining up for a vaccination against apathy to social or political causes. Publicly avowing an interest in the latest piece of earnest theatrical journalism, but privately deciding that you’re not really in the mood just tonight, is hardly unnatural. (I still haven’t seen “An Inconvenient Truth,” by the way. Anyone know if it’s still playing?)What I object to is not the resistence to art as chore. True art is not a chore. Rather, I resist the assumption that any piece of theatre not geared to entertain must, by definition, be a chore. Homework. Yes, I'm afraid, the NY Times has just gotten a step closer to dismissing the intellectual quotient in theatre.
In that vein, he continues:
First of all, note the fashion references. Brantley, too, it should be noted began at the Style section. Both Times critics seem to be in a virtual contest to see who can outdo the other in trashy pop culture references. (Isherwood memorably made his whole Macbeth review this summer about "Brangelina" somehow.) It's weird (and revealing) to me that the binary Isherwood sets up to illustrate political vs entertaining is "Guantanamo" vs. fashion industry propaganda. "Guilty pleasure" is not the issue here. Spoon-fed consumerism and celebration of shallowness is.
For most of us — virtually all of us — theaters are, above all, places of entertainment. It would be a perverse person indeed who would trip with glee into a theater presenting a play with the word “Guantánamo” in the title, overjoyed at an opportunity to relish the spectacle of human suffering and reckon with troubling questions of injustice.
That quasi-journalistic aspect of much contemporary political theater doesn’t help either. If asked, most theatergoers would say they don’t want to go to the theater to be told what they already know, or can acquire elsewhere. But for the socially conscious theatergoer (and who would lay claim to being a socially unconscious one?), the medicinal element in this genre can be more of a draw than a drawback.
It gives us the pleasant sensation of having received a moral booster-shot or undergone a cleansing fast that flushes out all the cultural toxins we ingest when we scoot off to guilty-pleasure movies like “The Devil Wears Prada” or obsessively watch “Project Runway.”
As for that "who would lay claim to being a socially unconscious one"... I take it this resentment is aimed at those who tell us we must see everything at the Culture Project or else we're not "political". Why bother with such a strawman. Take shows one at a time. Call out the lame ones as lame (I wasn't a fan of either "Guantanamo" or "Exonerated") and criticize them precisely for not contributing to the political conversation.
My biggest problem with the piece though is contained in this section:
In recent seasons, the Culture Project has presented long runs of “Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” and “The Exonerated,” about wrongly convictedPolitical theatre is not necessarily a "genre" unto itself. In fact, if you take the examples in this paragraph along with plays he cites throughout the article (as diverse as "Henry V," Hochhuth's "The Deputy", and "Stuff Happens") you realize these are all very different kinds of plays. And very different kinds of theatre experiences. They don't deserve to be all lumped together under the umbrella of "unpleasant" downtown exercises in confrontation--or as he elsewhere calls them, plays that "make us feel virtuous." At its best "Mother Courage," for instance, should not make anyone in the audience feel "virtuous."
prisoners saved from death row: neither a joyous topic. Other recent successes in the genre include Heather Raffo’s solo show “Nine Parts of Desire,” about the plight of women in Iraq, and “In the Continuum,” Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter’s docudrama about women and AIDS in the United States and Zimbabwe.
Again, what's at stake here is how we talk about theatre that does not choose "entertainment" as its primary goal. I'm really not sure at the end of this what Isherwood is saying about that. I do know he sure seems to be apologizing a lot. Apologizing for defending the right of theatre to be political. "Yet aside from making us feel virtuous," he ventures, "political theater can be a source of real solace too." Or how about this: "If I may indulge in a Hallmark card-ish image, going to see plays that tackle some of the same issues can be like reading the paper while holding someone’s hand." Just who is Charles Isherwood afraid will snicker at him for getting all gushy?
When it's considered "Hallmark" to assert that the theatre is a public forum and focus for public debate, we got trouble my friends.
PS. Interesting, different takes on this from George and Isaac. (And Scott Walters.)