He doesn’t volunteer, he doesn’t do sports, he doesn’t sing a cappella. He does do theater. But even in theater, there are things he just won’t do, namely give in to the forces of post-modern pretensiousness. Patrick Huguenin bemoans the horrible, horrible hypocrisy of it all.
This is a column about things I don’t do at Yale.
If you don’t know that, then you haven’t been reading it. Which is okay. I don’t read either.
But perhaps the time has come to talk about what I do — those rare occasions when I haul my ass out of bed, put on shoes and show my bleary, unshaven face to the world. Chances are, when I emerge from hibernation, it’s for theater.
But even if I do theater, I refuse to do art.
Art is trouble. But it hasn’t always been this way. Once, we had nice pictures and sweet little songs. Then things got out of control and before you knew it art was a crowd gathered around a photo of the back of someone’s head, a collage made of eyelashes, a symphony composed from a car alarm and the bleating of a goat.
I’m not saying this stuff can’t be brilliant. The most brilliant art causes the worst dismay, especially in the theater. A brief history of modern drama — 1889, Norwegian censors cancel the first performance of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”; 1907, Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” causes the worst riot in the history of the Abbey Theater; 1926, the Los Angeles cast of O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” is arrested for obscenity; 1957, Beckett’s “Endgame” baffles audiences, just as it does today.
One thing can be said for sure: all of the above are great plays. Art. And look at the results — chaos.
Yes, if there’s one thing a young student of writing must be careful about, it’s to stay clear of art. Eugene Scribe figured this out by the end of the nineteenth century when he prescribed his formula for the “well-made play,” a lovely little recipe that encourages the writer to give the audience exactly what they want: cliffhangers, surprises, a hero who triumphs, and a heroine who misplaces identifying jewelry at precisely the wrong time. We could still be watching this kind of theater today if Beckett amd his crowd hadn’t screwed it up for everyone. Now we have to schlep ourselves to the movie theater and see it there instead.
And since the movies get all the good stuff — naked girls, explosions, this year’s subtle, unrepentantly brilliant Crash — what is theater to do? If it’s going to survive, it has to convince people that it’s artistic. And that’s where the trouble starts.
The young playwright is expected to be an artist. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. He is most likely a boy who played with dolls or a girl whose strained relationship with her mother led her to create an active imaginary life.
And then there’s me: the kid who just wants to be entertained. When asked about my process, I don’t have a good answer. “I don’t know … I guess I thought it was kind of funny.” After all, there will always be a demand for funniness, and if I’m good enough at it, I might be one of those lucky few chosen to think up the animated captions on Blind Date.
But in the university setting, funny isn’t enough. The playwright is encouraged to delve deeper, to come up with something new, to push the limits of analytical thought. And despite a long history of examples, he does it. The farther he’s pushed, the more avant-garde the he becomes, and unless he was an avant-garde soul to begin with, his “art” starts to get in the way of entertainment.
He writes a play about a woman whispering into a vase for an hour. That’s art.
Eugene Scribe would be horrified. So is the audience. They don’t take kindly to art. They’ve just come from the movie theater, where they were told that Sandra Bullock sobbing in the arms of her patient Hispanic maid just qualifies for an Academy Award. Endgame would never qualify for an Academy Award. Unless Heath Ledger was in it and Hamm and Clov were gay.
It’s a crippling dilemma. What can I write that will make an audience respect me? What can I write that the audience will enjoy? I can’t have my cake and eat it too. I settle for the middle road, a drawing room comedy with nice characters and a few jokes, sometimes a little physical fighting to spice things up. Some “hm” moments. Some “ha” moments. Everyone’s happy.
But in the world of my dreams, the stage is filled with a circus on motorbikes and a rotating tank full of sharks and good-looking mermen. In the play of my dreams, entertainment is elevated to a level so baroque that it becomes the artistic sensation of the century.
The critics are going to hate it.