Monday, February 14, 2011

It's St. Valentine's Day, and so thoughts turn inevitably to whom - and what - we love.

And one of the things I love is theatre - but I have to admit, the poor old thing's been having a rough time of it lately. Some would even argue she's on her last legs; luckily, however, everybody's got a remedy for her. If she'd only drink this elixir, or drop that habit, she'd be back to her old self in no time.

To be honest, just last fall Boston theatre seemed, indeed, to be hale and hearty; in October we even seemed to be enjoying a golden age of sorts. But lately the news has not been so good - perhaps it's just the cycles of the moon, or El NiƱo or something, but I've sat through one weak play after another for what seems like weeks. Oddly, performances and production values have remained strong - it's the actual plays themselves - the new plays, the supposed engine of the whole enterprise - that seem to be conking out.

I know many playwrights reply to this kind of claim with the counter-claim that no, it's the critics who are conking out, that we "hate" theatre, or are out to stifle innovation, or are racists or I don't know, whatevah (you can check Parabasis for the latest revision of this meme!).  I only wish these people could spend an hour or two at one of the contentious meetings of the IRNE committee, in which critics go head-to-head for the shows they believe in and care about.  Such fracases are hard to square with the vision of reviewers as hostile to theatre, trust me.  Indeed, you leave such meetings convinced that critics actually care too much, that we're the last constituency that really and truly loves the theatre in and of itself.

So it strikes me that it will not be the critics who undo the theatre - instead, it may be all the other people who insist they love the form who actually may be loving it to death.  At any rate, it seems most observers already feel reviewers are tangential to the whole declining enterprise.  One need look no further than the ongoing imbroglios over Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark - critics finally descended on the production after weeks (and weeks) of previews, and rendered a devastating verdict.  But most of the commentary on the web has centered on the ethics of reviewing a "preview" (even when it's not, obviously, really a preview), or has questioned whether even the combined forces of the entire New York press can stop Julie Taymor and Bono's juggernaut.

This of course, boils down to the question: "Does it matter if it's bad?"  I, of course, feel it does matter if it's bad - and although I've only met a few people who've seen Spider-Man, they've all agreed it's really bad.  Virtually all the reviews said it was bad; the Times claimed it was one of the worst musicals ever.  It's bad.

Yet many people still seem to think it should be a success of sorts.  It doesn't matter to them that it's bad - the aligned forces of pop and finance have created a "phenomenon," and therefore it should be allowed to go on, regardless of its quality.  They're of a kin with the people who feel we should see less of the classics, and cut back on Shakespeare - they essentially ask the question, "Does it matter if they're good?", which is really only an inversion of the query, "Does it matter if it's bad?"

I'm not sure, however, how long a cultural enterprise can go on when everyone knows deep down inside that it's bad.  The writers who boo the classics and insist that new writers be heard whether or not they're any good strike me as quite a bit like those financiers who pushed junk mortgages on the public not so long ago - the lack of quality of those financial instruments didn't matter then, either, because the market would "always" go up.  Just as theatre can "always" survive whatever we throw at it.

Well, count me out of that whole boondoggle - and count me in as a regulator of sorts.  I may not be able to triumph over the current theatrical administration, but at least I'll go down trying.

Because I really do want to save the thing I love.


  1. Do you think this is a Boston phenomenon? Perhaps the cozy comfort of the city is not amenable to good theatre. You may need a good dose of hardship to draw out innovation. To put it another way, in other parts of the world, do critics find the same dearth of novelty and quality?

  2. My gut is that the problem is global, not local, and basically a product of the nation-wide development farm league, which pushes forward plays more often for the connections or politics of their playwrights than for any genuine artistic quality. Without the support of various factions within the development community, half the scripts I sit through would never see the light of day. Of course the question arises - are these pseudo-scripts pushing aside genuine artistic achievements, or not? Let's just say I hope that genuinely interesting scripts are still out there.

  3. Boston might provide an local twist to the problem, but a large number, maybe even most, of the weak scripts I've seen produced on Boston stages have been previously produced in New York, if not elsewhere, before reaching our "cozy" hamlet. Without naming names, I'd even go so far to say that there is one company that seems to have made a mission of presenting the Boston premiere of weak scripts previously produced in New York.