Theater Commentary/Review: On American Stages — No Politics, Please

In 1939, Clifford Odets wrote that ‘we are living at a time when new art works should shoot bullets.” Fat chance of any shots coming from our voluntarily disarmed theaters.

American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice: Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Perspectives by Nelson Pressley. Palgrave/Macmillan, 204 pages, $90.

That Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. Directed by Weylin Symes. Staged at the Stoneham Theatre, Stoneham, MA through March 15. [This production launches a co-operative venture between Stoneham Stage and Gloucester Stage: the companies will stage all four of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family plays. Sweet and Sad will run from May 28 through June 20 at Gloucester Stage. Sorry will be performed at Stoneham Theatre in the spring of 2016 and Regular Singing will be produced at the Gloucester Stage in the summer of 2016.]

By Bill Marx


Explaining why he took up Public Theatre’s artistic director Oscar Eustis’s commission to write the Apple Family plays (That Hopey Changey Thing is the first installment in the quartet), playwright Richard Nelson recalls that he was “frustrated that he hadn’t read any big-cast, big idea plays about the political moment,” adding for good measure that “we’ve become used to viewing our politics and our political landscape through the lens of journalists or commentators who are now comedians.” He is absolutely right – twenty years ago the premiere of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America augured for many the beginning of a new age of engaged American theater. Instead, the ambitious script seems to have pretty much sounded the death knell. In the face of current political issues, from income inequality and climate change to ideological stalemate, our stages stand quiescent, usually approaching issues by way of packaged boomer nostalgia (Guess Who is Coming to Dinner at the Huntington Theatre Company, All the Way at the American Repertory Theater). Ironically, entertainment sparked by hot-button topics has made for some enormously popular television programs, from House of Cards to Madam Secretary. So just what are our stages afraid of? Subscriber backlash? Mainstream fear of being criticized by somebody, somewhere?

The Nelson quotation comes from a genially rabble-rousing book by Washington Post theater critic Nelson Pressley that I would heartily recommend. This valuable volume has not gotten the critical attention it deserves, probably because it challenges the trend toward issues-orientated stage works that specialize in empowerment and uplift (“always leave them inspired’) rather than those that serve up troubling analysis and provocation. As a bonus, there’s a few amusing revelations of backstage machinations, such as this exchange (quoted from a 2004 article by Pressley) between Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith and some staffers at a weekly meeting dedicated to brainstorming about a number of issues, including what scripts should fill one of eight slots on the theater’s two stages. Smith hears from staffers that audience members want socially relevant plays: “They keep saying political. Whatever that means.” Smith’s response is “Politically, everything is changing so fast now. I don’t think we want to do anything right on the nose.”

Audiences may want theater pieces that target social issues, but our stages are reluctant to take aim. Pressley points out that homegrown dramatists who want to put on their political-themed dramas often have to go to London to have them produced. Why do they resort to travel? Pressley’s book raises many of the right questions, and even provides some effective answers — if our theaters are willing to tackle difficult political issues rather than finesse them.

Pressley’s American Playwriting and the Anti-political Prejudice fingers some of the culprits behind the political drought, though the book generally focuses on the spread through the stage world and academia of an apolitical mental default (powered by bogus ‘accepted wisdom’). I believe that board members and donors (along with consumerism and branding) have contributed to the stranglehold of timid theater programming, but Pressley makes a strong argument that, over the decades, theater artists, critics, and academics have come to equate political theater with dowdy propaganda, accepting without a second thought the notion that dramatizing messages about public problems inevitably lead to didacticism. The reigning intellectual mantra of serious American theater is that it must give audiences complexity, not ideology. After all, theater is about creating art, not PSAs. All well and good but, as Pressley shows, there is much more to political theater than message-mongering: Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, American workers theater of the ’30s, and the postwar British tradition of political theater to name a few. The comic kicker to the American theater’s worship of complexity is that it turns out to be an endorsement of a formulaic psychological realism that ends up making everything personal — which in itself reinforces a political point.

Nelson Pressley, a theater critic for the "Washington Post." He has written a about why American stages are so reluctant to mount

Nelson Pressley, a theater critic for the “Washington Post.” He has written a valuable book explaining why American stages are so reluctant to mount provocative political theater.

Pressley’s list of malfactors and angels will raise plenty of objections. Yes, Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood, the major theater critics at the New York Times, have been consistently hostile to politically-committed theater, but why must our theaters follow these unreliable pied pipers? Where does the NYTimes‘s veto power come from? Are there critics calling for political plays? Or are we talking about some sort of national mind meld here? Pressley strongly (and I think rightfully) recommends the work of David Hare and the British school of political playwriting, offering it as an alternative to our current paralysis. Hare’s documentary-based drama makes use of interviews with real life political movers and shakers — high, middle, and low — as a means to treat politics, in his words, as a battlefield rather than a wasteland. This conflict-based approach offers a powerful means to debate issues in a sustained, serious, and nuanced way on stage. I wish Hare was more dramatically exciting — but that might be the secret behind his decades long popularity at England’s National Theatre: he is respectable, mature, and more than a little earnest. His well-groomed scripts aren’t made to rankle, but at least they stimulate and, in the case of his recent adaptation of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, can be moving about the plight of the underclass.

Pressley looks at how America’s major playwrights, because they dismiss politics as a wasteland, degenerate into purveyors of broad parody when they attempt to engage directly with government and ideology. His chapter “American Shenanigans” offers some strong, well-reasoned takedowns of plays by Sam Shepard (The God of Hell), David Mamet (November), and Arthur Miller (Resurrection Blues). (Eve Ensler’s O.P.C. at the American Repertory Theater was a ripe example of Pressley’s slapstick genre — it proffered limp cartoons rather than substantial conflict.) The chapter “Erasing the Playwright” explores how the vogue for the documentary form, as practiced by Anna Deavere Smith and others, raises disturbing issues about the fragile place of the imagination in today’s theater. Is the power of fiction and that of individual playwrights waning in the face of the growing demand by audiences and artists for art that is dependent on the authenticating power of ‘real life”? (Theaters feel much less heat when a controversial play is based on “true story.”) But the truth is that documentary scripts can be (and are) shaped in ways that will “go over” with ticket buyers — ugly or radical perspectives are air-brushed away.

Pressley raises a lot to think about and argue with, including quoting some thoughtful critiques of current stage programming from Kushner and others. Still, the book has its drawbacks. It is published by an academic press, so there is abstract theory stuffed in to meet the demands of the Ivory Tower: Derrida makes a cameo appearance, but Pierre Bourdieu is the French thinker who gets the most ink. Prepare for a wooly paragraph or two or three. More of a problem is that though Pressley draws on Todd London’s excellent study Outrageous Fortunes, he doesn’t connect the dots between American theater’s dismissal of politically committed scripts and the dominance of corporate mentality at our large non-profit companies. Money, aging subscription audiences, increasing competition for eyeballs, and branding opportunities play their hand in programming decisions. Perhaps, because he is a working critic, Pressley is reluctant to delve into the clout of the donor and grant-making classes, how they influence what ends up on stage. But there is a reason that political theater is nervier in England than here — sizable government support of the arts.

Also, Pressley is a bit too taken with the power of “mainstream traction” — he seems to agree with critic Finlay Donesky, who suggests that unlike playwrights such as Edward Bond, John McGrath, Tervor Griffiths, and Howard Brenton (I would add Howard Barker and John Arden to that list), Hare “can write angrily, but unlike the others is rarely didactic.” Hare is the ‘establishment’ playwright on that list (the National Theatre has blackballed Bond and Arden), but making your points politely (or diplomatically) for the sake of reaching a wide audience is not the only way for political theater to go. Given the current lack of engaged theater on our stages, my feeling is to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ — why not foster dramas about the distressing state of our polity that embrace anger, tragedy, poetry, and outrage? Why not an iconoclastic response to the recent trend of staging plays that are intended to foster uplift: battling racism being the reassuring cause de jour. Why not produce dramas that generate dialogue, despair, or anxiety? According to Soren Kierkegaard, the latter is “the dizziness of freedom.”

Photo: Mark S. Howard

Karen MacDonald, Sarah Newhouse, Joel Colodner, and Laura Latreille in the Stoneham Theatre production of “That Hopey Changey Thing.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

Sometimes it is not about a political play being too angrily didactic, but that it takes on a subject that genuinely divides audiences. For example, Ian Thal has pointed out in The Arts Fuse that no company in the Boston-area has yet produced Tony Kushner’s play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With A Key to the Scriptures. Might part of the problem be that the script deals (positively) with unions, and that an anti-union bias neatly unites conservatives and many liberals? Economic issues are rarely taken up seriously in the American theater, no matter how wide the income disparity grows, how painfully traumatic the Wall Street meltdowns, how many best-selling books raise objections to Capitalism (Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century the most recent). Does this silence on issues of concern for the increasing number of have-nots in our society say something about who calls the shots in our theaters? Pocketbook issues may be the American theater’s ‘third rail.”

The call for political theater to venture into dangerous waters brings me to Nelson’s That Hopey Changey Thing at the Stoneham Theatre, which falls into the psychological realism category. Set on election day in 2010, the drama gives us the Apple family, three sisters and a brother, chatting during a dinner together in Rhinebeck, NY. They are standard-variety liberals, though the brother, a lawyer, leans in a conservative direction. An aging uncle, a renowned actor, suffers from Alzheimer’s-like symptoms: his confusion between present and past is meant to stir up Chekovan pathos aplenty. (Literally — he even reads aloud from The Cherry Orchard.) Encouragingly, Nelson’s script infuses some sharp political talk into the usual wearying intimations of family dysfunction. Conversation about the failures of the Obama administration lead to a sense of helpnessness before the magnitude of the problems given America’s lack of political will. Nelson is courageous in that he looks at the odds against change in That Hopey Changey Thing — and suggests that truth overwhelms ideological positions.

Still, though I respect the judgement of Joann Green Breuer, who wrote on the New York production of this play for The Arts Fuse, I will need to see more in the series to agree that “we care so much for the Apple family because they care so much for each other. Nelson’s art is an act of love, as art is meant to be.” The Stoneham staging features fine efforts from a stellar lineup of Boston actors (Joel Colodner, Laura Latreille, Karen MacDonald, Paul Melendy, and Bill Mootos), but the evening felt slackly directed to me, emotionally sloppy when it should have been taut.

Ironically, while Nelson clings (too) tightly to Chekhov, he alludes to an alternative approach to political theater in That Hopey Changey Thing. One of the sisters talks about writing a short story inspired by Helen, a play by Euripides. (I wrote an essay on this enigmatic drama in college, so I was delighted to hear it referred to.) The text postulates that the Trojan War was fought over an illusion of beauty — the real Helen was hidden away in Egypt, far from the fighting. The destruction, the bravery, the slaughter, the Homeric poetry – it was over nothing. Is the play angry? A tragedy? A Grecian exercise in Theater of the Absurd before it was invented? Perhaps Pressley would classify Helen as a ‘Euripidean Shenanigan,’ a heavy-handed anti-war satire. Whatever the play is, Euripides wanted to wake up a complacent audience by shoving an ugly reality into its face — a good premise for any political theater worth its salt.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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