Friday, October 22, 2010

Isherwood: Stop Talking to Me

Isherwood has taken young playwrights to task over at The New York Times theater blog for overuse of the "direct address." I see his point about how the device can be used to cover up lazy writing. I'm sure we've all seen examples of this. But the post also generalizes an entire generation of playwrights, is painfully euro centric and conservative, and reeks of old fogey-ism. This, of course, concerns Youngblood.

A key bit of the post (though you should read the whole annoying enchilada) is:

I sometimes think the decline of naturalism as the standard format for contemporary drama has simply made it easier for writers to get sloppy in ways that were more or less forbidden to contemporaries of Ibsen and Shaw and Wilde. Young playwrights these days employ direct address indiscriminately, breaking the spell of essentially naturalistic works because they have failed to grapple with some problem of structure. One reason the work of Annie Baker (“The Aliens,” “Circle Mirror Transformation”) stands out is her very sparing use of direct address.

The idea that you have to know the rules – even master them – before you break them seems to have lost some of its currency, because in our post-Beckett theatrical landscape there really are no rules.

Yay for the Annie Baker love, but still... really, dude? Isherwood especially (and rather unkindly) calls out emerging playwright Kristoffer Diaz:

Examples are almost too numerous to bother citing. A particular offender from last season was the Kristoffer Diaz play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” about the colorful world of professional wrestling. I’d estimate that at least three-quarters of the play consisted of, um, elaborate monologues from one or another character describing events the playwright was unable to dramatize or chose not to. This secondhand description was particularly frustrating in a play about a sport that thrives on the display of combat. Conflict, that key ingredient in drama, is hard to come by when the characters in a play refuse to engage with one another.

I didn't get to see Diaz's play, but the reasons why Isherwood is dead wrong where the direct address is concerned are numerous. I'd list them all now, but lucky for me I don't have to. Diaz has already done it over on his blog. Seriously, read it.

I happen to fucking love the direct address. As an audience member and as a playwright. Do I like fourth wall dramas as well? Totally. It seems to me the theater lacks diversity on every front - lack of women, people of color, working class playwrights- but we also lack diversity in form. Isn't there (or shouldn't there be) room for everybody at the table? For all voices? It just seems to me that these sweeping proclamations about what plays should or should not be are poisonous.

I've noticed lots of criticism about young playwrights. We're too quirky! We don't follow the rules! Just google Sarah Ruhl, the queen bee of new and "quirky" playwrights, and you'll see what I mean. Some people spew perfect vitriol at her.

The thing is, we're not quirky at all. Just like every single generation before us, we have a different voice and our own rules. Whether Isherwood chooses to take part in our stories, to support our voices, is up to him.


Anna said...

Thank you, Josh, I'm with you 100%. Isherwood's ideal relationship with the artist is like a mythical king and his servant who isn't worthy enough to look him directly in the eye.

Also, in response to his implication that Chekhov is "arguably (inarguably?) the greatest modern playwright," I'd just like to say that all of Chekhov's long-ass plays rely on blatantly expositional dialogue. I think they're boring as hell.

Many many people disagree with me, and that's fine (I still think they're crazy, but whatever). The point is, why should Chekhov be the gold standard when he puts me to sleep? If I don't like the "greatest modern playwright" does that mean I don't like theater? Many people see one play in their lives on a school field trip and are so freaking bored by it that they decide never to come back. They think that because they hated "The Three Sisters" they are incapable of being moved or excited or touched by a play. And we wonder why theater is struggling.

There should be room for many different approaches to storytelling, because not every audience member is Charles Isherwood.


joshcon80 said...

Anna, you are my soul sister.

Amy Wratchford said...

My main question is why both Isherwood and Peter Marks (over at the Washington Post, who also had a recent rant about breaking the 4th wall) have decided that the laws of Shaw and Ibsen are better than the rules under which Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote. Why do we have to play by rules that are, in the grand scheme of theatre, recent additions?

Meghan Drrns said...

Man, who made these guys the boss of me, anyway. I got enough self-doubt without their boring old haterade. If you don't like a play and you think a technique utilized in the play contributed to that, that's cool! Freaking say that! Do not go generalizing all over the place. Also stop talking to me. See what I did there?

Mariah MacCarthy said...

I would like to say something very intelligent and insightful about this, but all I can think of to say is: hollaaaaaaa