Who will be the theatre’s courageous voice?
By D. Paul Thomas
Nearly twenty years ago, New York Times’ theatre critic, Frank Rich, wrote an essay entitled, “Where’s Larry Kramer When We Need Him?” (Arts & Leisure, Sunday, October 5, 2003), a political missive questioning why no playwright had written a meaningful play in response to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. My answer at the time? There is no playwright on the national scene capable of rendering sense out of that senseless tragedy. Even Eugene O’Neill, one of the past geniuses of the American theatre, would have taken years to assimilate the gravity of the event before fashioning a human response vs. a political response to the unimaginable suffering of that September morning.
With all due respect to Mr. Rich’s praise of Larry Kramer’s “enraged call to arms in the AIDS crisis,” The Normal Heart is not a very good play. It had an agenda and served its purpose. Political theatre is by nature topical and fleeting, subject to fawning acceptance and facile praise. Rarely (perhaps Shakespeare and Shaw are the exception), does it ever reach the level of great art, typically waffling between ideological sentiment and blatant agitprop. The answer as to why a great play hasn’t emerged from our national trauma is not a mystery shrouded under a right-wing conspiracy, although judging from critic Rich’s animus of George Bush at the time, you might think that the case. Playwrights mirror the zeitgeist and, like our body politic, many writers, actors, and filmmakers experienced a philosophical sea change after 9/11. For starters, they had to give serious consideration to the fact that there is evil in this world and that evil people wish to destroy us. But reflective playwrights found themselves caught in a no man’s land, pressed between the far left’s sentiment of, “It’s blowback time, we caused this to happen,” and the hawkish neocon’s response of, “Let’s bomb the hell out of ‘em!” In those tumultuous days following 911, reasonable voices were in short order, or have we forgotten the crazed conspiracy theory that 9/11 was a “Zionist plot.” The vitriolic voices were in vogue, capturing the headlines and our attention. Little has changed; if anything, it’s gotten worse. One can only conjecture what an “acceptable” play on 9/11 would look like in the stifling, politically correct atmosphere of today’s theatre. Let’s imagine:
It is a bare stage covered with white ash; a tattered American flag is suspended centerstage, dripping with blood. Out of the ashes comes that dullard himself (as the Left characterized him), George W. Bush, starring in Macbush, a post-postmodern version of Macbeth, with Macbush bewitching us not to Birnam Forest, but to Tel Aviv, where he plays an Israeli tank commander whose major tirades are delivered atop a beat-up Hummer, plastered with made-in-the USA logos and swarming with bleeding, moaning Palestinian children (played by aging juveniles) decked out in fatigues, garnished with belted grenades, LL Bean work boots, helmets with peace symbols, and spewing anti-Bush obscenities to the glee of the hip audience’s itching ears. Predictably, the deus ex machina arrives when the ubiquitous video monitors descend from the rafters and reveal the ghost of Banquo as a PLO freedom fighter, draped with garlands of TNT, ready to exact revenge on the oppressively hegemonic and racist Macbush and Lady Macbush, representing the US and Israel respectively. Wow! Now there would be a play that would “jolt” us, “illuminate the truth” and “remind us what actually happened” on 9/11, as critic Rich opined—a theatre saved from “cultural bankruptcy!”
With today’s radical Palestinians stoking another intifada, methinks Macbush would be a box-office smash, hitting all the right political notes.
Tragically, the theatre has become a self-serving, monotonous voice, frozen intellectually by the constraints of a collective mindset which values the right thought over the independent thought. Unwittingly perhaps, the theatre (a supposed haven of inclusiveness) has excluded a generation of artists—freethinkers who acquiesce to no creed, whether it comes from politics, religion, or the prejudicial pen of the press. And that exclusion may be the real reason why no playwright has written a great drama on the nightmare of that day. For the thoughtful, inquiring playwright, there are no easy, ideological answers, but rather difficult questions which explore the surreal reality of that fateful morning—the same blurred, swirling, sublimely profound questions and thoughts that must have flashed through the falling man’s mind who plummeted, “like an arrow,” between the World Trade Center towers: “I am dying … will I live … again? God! Kill them! Everything … gone … I hate them … forgive me … I hate … I love … oh, my babies … my wife … my God!” These are the nearly ineffable utterances of life and death, of revenge and forgiveness, of despair and hope—the deep utterances of 9/11 that the playwright must wrestle with, ignoring all political concerns, including Mr. Rich’s witless comparison of the “Bush team” to “the school of Hieronymus Bosch.”
Agitprop is not the stuff of a great play. As Eugene O’Neill wrote, “Most modern plays are concerned with the relation between man and man, but that does not interest me at all. I am interested only in the relation between man and God.” It will be a welcoming day in the theatre when its playwrights and critics realize that neither George Bush nor Donald Trump are our villains. The issues of the human heart go far deeper. In the interim, who will be the theatre’s courageous voice? My answer? David Mamet, step center stage, please.
D. Paul Thomas is the co-author of "The Odyssey of King David" and the Creative Director at TGA Productions.