Thursday, December 20, 2007

What do you do when a "great play" sucks?

I admit I have a little list called "Great Plays That Suck," and on it are Goethe's Faust (both parts!), much of Aeschylus, and good chunks of Marlowe (Tamburlaine), Jonson (Volpone), and other well-knowns.

And now, after sitting through Boston University's disastrous production of The Weavers last weekend, I suppose I can add to the list Gerhart Hauptmann's sprawling horrorshow about the starving proles of Silesia and their doomed attempt at revolution.

Like most of the plays listed at top, Hauptmann's drama (the author, at left) is "rarely staged" - and it turns out that's for a reason; simultaneously overwritten (philosophically) and underwritten (dramatically), it's a long slog through a series of bald debates that devolves into a crudely ironic melodrama.

But it's important - and I mean that quite seriously. Faust is important; the Oresteia is important. They just no longer hold the stage.

Of course at one time they did - which casts an interesting light on the problem of intellectual content in the theatre. Were the themes and political import of The Weavers strong enough to disguise - or render irrelevant - its flat emotional impact and ungainly structure? Everyone seems to have thought the play was devastating in its day (1892) - it was banned, and Lenin was a fan, and Hauptmann eventually won a Nobel. And in formal terms, The Weavers is clearly interesting: Hauptmann attempts to do without a hero or heroine, for instance, concentrating on his weavers en masse, and even eschews "plot" per se (we never actually see the end of the weaver's rebellion), instead exploring different facets of their crisis.

The masses flee down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin.

Whether or not all this experimentation actually works is another question. It's hard to pretend, for instance, that Hauptmann has Brecht's cool instinct for heartless climax, and while it's true The Weavers sometimes feels incipiently "cinematic" in the manner of Eisenstein's October or Battleship Potemkin, it utterly lacks the great Russian's gripping sense of rhythm. Instead, it meanders, then meanders some more. Perhaps the play is an intriguing case of a formal construct created before its appropriate medium had appeared. Or perhaps Hauptmann was simply a visionary thinker without all that much theatrical talent - a tricky commodity to define, admittedly, and one that can never be pinned down in a treatise, but which is immediately apparent onstage. (It's telling, I think, that The Weavers is not unusual in the Hauptmann canon - the rest of his work for the stage has vanished from sight, too.) And thus a literary man like Bill Marx, for instance, after suffering through the play, may spend his energy erecting a defense of it on intellectual terms, but he could only convince me to read it again, not see it.

Of course it's still entirely appropriate for BU - and other theater schools - to revive plays like The Weavers. The problem is how to make the production beneficial to its participants, rather than just a checkmark next to a historical box. And it has to be said the BU production failed pretty much utterly on that count.

To be fair, challenges were everywhere for director Elaine Vaan Hogue - her cast, which constantly proclaims itself malnourished, was obviously fresh from the food court, so she opted for stylization rather than naturalism (the play's original mode). Said stylization, however, proved unsatisfactory - Sascha Richter's costumes were cheerily color-coordinated, while Eric Berninghausen's set was streamlined, pseudo-rough-hewn, and beautifully lit. Short on both squalor and starvation, Vaan Hogue tossed in a few theatre-school oddities, like Indonesian music and shadow-puppets, for good measure (perhaps because those are the new toys of lefty academics). The results were both Cambridge-style ditzy and powerfully soporific - I found myself nodding off more than once.

As for the students, I think they all learned how to paint gaunt hollows on their pretty cheeks - a skill I doubt they'll need again. Convincing physicalization, however, was rarely in evidence, and there was little sense of epic-theatre distance in their delivery of the dialectic - sorry, I mean the dialogue. They declaimed their lines naturalistically, while moving through a prettified epic-theatre set, to the strains of East Asian music. Lenin would have had a conniption.

Which brings me to the political point of the production. The Weavers is one of the few depictions of capitalism at its unfettered extreme - its middle managers are literally starving their direct reports. Yet this isn't quite what Americans are experiencing from capitalism today (its current exploitations are far more sophisticated and disguised), so even the play's intellectual case seems naive. In a way, this makes the failure of the production all the more troubling - it somehow discredits its own critique. And we need that critique more than ever. But finding a way to make The Weavers benefit its audience as well as its actors may be the greatest challenge of all.


  1. I guess it's Kismet-fate, but John Gibbons' often-very-rowdy classical music blog has a similar post on "The Island of Misfit Scores" -- at --some of which I agree with.

  2. What do you mean by "sucks" -- doesn't stage well?

    Because I saw Tamburlaine last month by The Shakespeare Theatre in DC, and they made an impressive show of it.

    It's playing thru (I think) January 10 if you want to catch it.

  3. Interesting to hear someone has finally cracked Tamburlaine. My guess is that this was accomplished with extensive cuts, but maybe that's just me being catty! I would, actually, consider going down to see it, except I'm in rehearsal for my own show . . .