Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Athol Fugard problem

Elaine Vaan Hogue in The Road to Mecca.

I spent last Friday at nearly the last performance of Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, as staged by BU's Boston Center for American Performance (BCAP). I went with some trepidation, after having suffered through the same company's very bad production of Good - and left confirmed in my feeling that BCAP had once again chosen to showcase, for reasons unknown, a piece of high-minded claptrap.

This time, at least, the production itself was pretty strong - buoyed immensely by brilliant work from set designer James Fluhr and lighting designer Aaron Sherkow (both MFA students at BU). Together, these two conjured beautifully the play's magical setting - the famous "Owl House" in Nieu Bethesda, South Africa, which, as tended by its eccentric occupant/artist Helen Elizabeth Martins (known as "Miss Helen"), became a kind of zoo of naively (but powerfully) rendered sculptures - all of them facing east, toward Mecca.

But if the design was terrific, the play itself was still pretty terrible - indeed, it only becomes at all complex, and thus bearable, in its second half (nearly two hours into its 2 3/4 -hour running time).  Until then it's a kind of ham-fisted harangue in which the audience is exhorted (again and again) to live bravely, fight injustice, and love one another forever (in that order, I guess).  It's so amateurish, in fact - both morally and artistically - that it begs the question: just how good a playwright was Athol Fugard, anyway?  And behind that question looms the larger one of "Just how far are we willing to forgive poor artistic quality in the name of political enlightenment?"

A great man - but a great playwright?
For make no mistake, while some of Fugard's work (Master Harold . . . and the boys, The Blood Knot) may indeed be great, much of it . . . well, looks second-rate, especially now that the evil regime the heroic dramatist (at left) was fighting has long since fallen.  But how are we to begin to approach that problem?  I hope not with the impassioned piety that director Judy Braha and her talented cast brought to The Road to Mecca.  That way, I think, madness lies.  (Or at least serious tedium.)

But it's a madness I'm becoming more and more familiar with.  Judging from my e-mail, and the comments I hear at the theatre, for many artists and audience members, it seems the distinction I'm talking about between art and politics no longer exists.  If a play "fights" racism, say, or "celebrates the human spirit," then for many, it is inherently of artistic quality - its political intents and its artistry are as one, or at any rate the one trumps the other.  This argument is made over and over in the blogosphere, of course, but it also seems to  have become the lingua franca of the actual theatre audience as well.  And anyone who resists this blurring together of two very distinct forms of human endeavor (as I do) becomes victim to knee-jerk political smears.  I can't tell you, for instance, how many times I've been called a racist simply because I pointed out the artistic flaws of a play that declared its opposition to something that, well, just about every enlightened individual in the world opposes.

But then I'm so benighted that I actually imagine criticism is a legitimate endeavor - a contention that it seems many believe is merely a blinded form of "elitism."  For as the blog Parabasis has put it more than once, "Every critical opinion is just as valid as every other."  Of course the problem with this kind of diversity-babble is that it implies every political opinion must also be just as valid as every other - i.e., the Nazis were just as right, in their own way, as Athol Fugard was in his.  Most theatregoers would no doubt be horrified by this equation.  But why, precisely, political opinions can be deemed "correct," while artistic opinions are inherently invalid, is a conundrum today's audience members never seem to ponder (perhaps because to do so would be their undoing).

Ah, well; I'm not really sure how to fight this Orwellian delusion.  But I am sure of two things: Athol Fugard was (and is) a heroic man.  And he is sometimes a mediocre playwright - perhaps even a bad one.  If we are to accurately assess his legacy, we can deny neither of those two facts.

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