Give my petards to Broadway

Why more people will be watching "The Sopranos" than the Tonys on Sunday night.


Give my petards to Broadway

Dear Theater World,

I know Sunday’s your big moment, and I don’t want to spoil anyone’s party, but I think you know not many people will be tuning in for the Tony awards that night. It’s not just because “The Sopranos” series finale will be on at the same time, though, frankly, that you scheduled the awards to run directly against it — essentially shrugging your shoulders at the culture-minded audience members you claim to court — does seem startlingly symbolic.

You seem to have trapped yourself in a system of theater creation in this country that is positively Soviet in its unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness. A system that, for the last 50 years, has reacted to television not by learning from it but by “distinguishing” itself from it — and thereby neutering and bleeding itself into desiccated, rarefied irrelevance. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Tell me something: How come the go-to insult for theater critics and theater makers is still the word “television”? And how come none of you who use it seem to have any idea how much you sound like grumpy old coots, sneering at the printing press, or the electric light? I say this as a friend, as someone who has acted in, directed and written for the theater: You have just got to get out more. I mean, the same elements that are considered avant-garde in the theater today were considered avant-garde in 1918. The theater still thinks dissonance is a daring musical gesture, and that nonlinear storytelling is new. It’s embarrassing how proudly it seems possessed by not only the aesthetic, but the ethos and issues of another era.

You know that people who write for film and television aren’t just doing it for the money anymore, right? They do it because their work won’t be developed to death by an endless supply of places with “mission statements,” because they know they will have more artistic freedom, more fun and more opportunities to do the kind of interesting work the theater once provided, about, you know, recognizable people in dramatic situations, struggling with the human condition.

If the theater is going to return to anything like its former position in our culture, it has to change. Why are some of you so resistant to the idea of marketing to young tastemakers, the 20- to 40-year-olds who enjoy sophisticated art and music, who are the potential defibrillators of the American theater? When you start producing more plays for and about the people in Nicole Holofcener’s movies, or David Chase’s television shows, you’ll be on the right track.

Some of you already are. There have been some good plays produced in the last 30 years — “Angels in America” sure was great — but there haven’t been enough of them. “Spring Awakening” and the upcoming “10 Million Miles” appeal to people who might not have been to the theater in a while, and that’s a very good thing. If you keep doing shows like that, keep producing plays that sound like they were written by people who might read Michael Chabon, or listen to the Decemberists, or watch “Weeds,” I promise you, more of those people will come to the theater.

But right now they’re more likely to see plays that sound as if they were written by the light of a candle in a Chianti bottle. Plays filled with cringingly unconfident writing that muddies the waters in order to make it all appear deep; writing full of insufferable name dropping and artless declaiming of Big Ideas, with a campy, brittle sense of humor right out of 1959, performed in a teeth-gratingly earnest, over-enunciated style that has become a parody of itself. Richard Greenberg’s insistent assertion of his bona fides as a collector of intellectual arcana in “Three Days of Rain,” the late August Wilson’s dogged refusal to trim his character’s verbal output to a level that would articulate their inner lives rather than the playwright’s high regard for his own ideas in plays like “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and Jon Robin Baitz’ determined obtuseness in plays like “A Fair Country” are symptoms of a theater community that has been too cloistered for too long.

Hasn’t our culture moved on a bit since, say, William Inge, and don’t we all kind of take it for granted, for instance, that sexual repression is bad? Why do we need to see yet another sexual awakening story, even if it’s by Terrence McNally (“Some Men”) or Jon Robin Baitz (“The Paris Letter”)? A lot of the better television shows, even back in 2003 or 2004, were weaving what was happening in the world into their stories in subtle, surprising, even funny ways, like it is in life, but the theater gave us two David Hare plays solemnly breaking the news that war is bad and George Bush is an idiot.

Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is “important” and “ambitious.” I’ve got news for you: People aren’t staying away from the theater because it isn’t ambitious enough. They’re staying away because it’s relentlessly “ambitious,” because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary.

To be sure, when theater is great, it’s really great, and it can be transcendent. Of course, so can sculpture, and folk music, and animated movies. But the theater hasn’t been great for a long time now, and during that time, other storytelling forms, especially television, have seriously outpaced it. Do any of you think that there have been enough theater productions of note in the last 10 years that achieve the creative unity, the complexity, the appreciation of moral ambiguity, the timely insight, humor and, most important, entertainment value, of “The Sopranos”? Or “Six Feet Under” or “Arrested Development” or “The Simpsons” or “The Wire,” “The Larry Sanders Show” or “30 Rock” or “Deadwood” or “South Park” or “Prime Suspect” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “ER” or “The Office”?

This is not accidental. It’s because the theater has been hijacked. It’s been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration. To even suggest, at any of the endless symposiums that the theater community can’t get enough of these days, that the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending “outreach” programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it’s been reaching out to, is to tempt the derisive wrath of a community whose motto might as well be “You’re with us or against us.”

This is why the theater many of us grew up with, that was so often moving, funny and fun, has been replaced by a bloodless, sexless, outdated facsimile. There are still exceptions, of course, like John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” a play confident enough in its own ideas and emotional honesty to speak in a voice that’s lucid and thrilling instead of opaque and soporific. But most of the time when I see a play these days, I feel like I’m being read to from the journal of a bored, entitled graduate student. I often feel like I’d rather have watched a good episode of “Scrubs.”

The great artists of the theater’s Golden Era — many of whom would have scoffed at that characterization of themselves and insisted instead that they were craftsmen — great heroes like Abe Burrows, Noel Coward, Mary Martin, Bert Lahr, Frank Loesser and the rest, applied themselves to the modest and deeply difficult goal of creating work that was entertaining, and so, they invariably, and often inadvertently, created work that was profound. But now profundity is the unembarrassed goal. These days it seems like every other interview with one of you guys includes two or three unabashed pronouncements about your work’s importance. Way too many of you plead the case that theater people are great artists, unfairly ignored by a television-watching world that is too ignorant to appreciate you.

Which makes me wonder: Why are you asking for attention from people you look down on? It seems to me you should stop the us vs. them, and join the party. Because, and I say this only as someone who cares, you would do yourselves and everyone who loves you a big favor if you just broke down and got cable.

Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Los Angeles

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>