By Bill Marx
If the age turns away from the theater, in which it is no longer interested, that is because the theater has ceased to represent it. It no longer hopes to be provided by the theater with myths on which it can sustain itself. –- Antonin Artaud
Artaud doesn’t mean by “myths” that the stage represents the world by lies or archetypes. Theater compels the attention of the age when it reflects what it means to be alive at a particular time in a way that also connects with the past, that links history with the living, breathing moment. The considerable challenge facing theater now – given the economic crunch, the utter exhaustion of navel-gazing “auteurism,” the explosion of competition and technology – is to supply us with new “myths” that meditate on reality, fresh ways of looking at the conflicts in today’s world that provide a sense of context as well.
This runs against the current bromides mouthed by gurus who insist that the problem of whipping up interest in theater is simply a matter of applying more creativity (theater is about “events” rather than productions), dumbing down for a younger demographic, and/or seizing on whiz bang marketing schemes, which turns out to mean hawking old wine in social networking bottles. What the theater needs is to take chances on plays that bring current realities onto the stage. Once a vibrant connection with the “new” world is made a “new” imagination will follow suit – it is not, as many believe, the other way around.
Right now, too much theater floats free of the real world, a delusional escapist balloon. It doesn’t matter how well acted these anachronisms are or how well they sell to an aging demographic – they do not engage with the world, postponing the day that theater will have to plant at least one foot on post-2000 ground.
The recent demise of the North Shore Music Theatre is a useful case in point: aside from tourists flocking to New York or graying audiences for expensive pre- or- post-Broadway touring productions the hunger for the traditional, middlebrow musical is waning. The kids aren’t interested in the product; for them, video games are a lot more fun.
Repackaging the past isn’t going to work in the long run. Given the power of social networking, such as the huge communities built by Facebook and Twitter, political theater will have to reinvent itself – as newspapers die so will the didactic “living newspaper” approach.
This thought came to mind when reading Louise Kennedy’s boilerplate “Boston Globe” review of “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” at the Gloucester Stage Company. I have seen the comedy and had no interest in sitting through it again, even though I am closer to the age of the lovelorn protagonist than when I saw it decades ago. Yes, it is the lazy summer season, but the script is representative of the zombie-like dependence on the hopelessly dated. What relationship does (did) Neil Simon have with the world we live in?
Kennedy makes the usual safe objections — Simon doesn’t balance out the portraits of men and women in the play, focusing on middle-aged male angst. But even if he did write more complex female characters, does anyone think that the one-liner ridden “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” would have even a tangential connection with life-as-we-know it? Even mildly misogynistic escapism has moved on.