We are happy to welcome guest celebrity blogger playwright Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose plays include Broadway's Mauritius and Off-Broadway's Omnium Gatherum (co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros), Bad Dates, Spike Heels, The Understudy, Loose Knit, The Butterfly Collection, The Water's Edge, The Scene, Our House and more. Rebeck, whose play The Novelist will be presented at the Dorset Theatre Festival in August, has blogged for Playbill.com all week; her final entry follows.
Last year I got myself in a lot of trouble by writing a blog about how Agatha Christie wasn't so bad. The Dorset Theater Festival had presented a pretty good production of one of her many plays, and the audience was just lapping it up, and I got to thinking that doing plays that audiences might actually like was a pretty good idea. Everybody's always nervous about how theatre audiences are shrinking, or getting older, and how are we going to get them to come back? For me the answer has always been, well, maybe we should produce plays that they like.
That doesn't mean Agatha Christie, necessarily, or even at all; I'm a living playwright, I think everyone should produce more new plays rather than just keep doing revivals. I do hear from many sources—producers and managing directors, usually—that "audiences don't like new plays" but I don't believe it. I think audiences like new plays. They certainly liked them when Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were writing them. Why would they change their minds? They liked Mauritius and The Scene and The Understudy. They liked The History Boys, and that was a play about a bunch of kids going to a British public school. But it was a very interesting and entertaining contemporary play, by the esteemed Alan Bennett, and it had great characters and some very good jokes, and some striking moments and, well, audiences liked it.
My friend Rajiv Joseph, who is a very hot young playwright right now, told me once that the word on the street is that anything "conventional" is frowned upon by literary departments. I'm sorry to hear that, and I hope it is becoming less true. "Outrageous Fortune," the much-discussed study of the lives of contemporary playwrights indicates that audiences in fact DO like new plays, and even respond to challenging material, but that they don't respond to challenging new forms—they really don't get deconstructed post-modern forms of dramatic storytelling, and they don't want to sit through it.
In "Realism in the Balance," Georg Lukacs defended the wholeness of vision of the masterpieces of realism against what he saw as the "one dimensionality" of modernism. He went even further, claiming that the struggles to understand and interpret the avant garde leaves the mass of men far behind—excludes them, or "yields such subjectivist distortions and travesties that ordinary people who try to translate these atmospheric echoes of reality back into the language of their own experience, find the task quite beyond them."
Okay it's possible that I just quoted Georg Lukacs to put some backbone into an argument that suggests that "populist" is not necessarily a dirty word. And why not? He writes beautifully about the efficacy of art, and insists that "through the mediation of realist literature the soul of the masses is made receptive for an understanding of the great, progressive and democratic epochs of human history." I love how hopeful that sounds. I for one choose to believe he's right.
I'm off! Got to go write a play.