Monday, August 23, 2010

Theater: Your turn to load and fire that canon

By Barry Johnson

Here are five American plays of fairly recent vintage that I hope theater companies are still staging 50 years from now. In no particular order except as they popped into my head.

1. "Angels in America" Tony Kushner reminded me how big and beautiful and emotionally complex theater can be.
2. "The Piano Lesson" August Wilson has always moved me, especially this one, and the cycle as a whole is an astonishing achievement.
3. "All in the Timing" This David Ives comedy gets to my own particular funny bone more directly than anything else, except Marx Brothers movies.
4. "'night, Mother" Yes, things were bad back then, too, as Marsha Norman pointed out so effectively.
5. "True West" Have to throw one of those old Sam Shepard's on the list, and I think they'll understand this one best.

Before I walked into "Long Day's Journey Into Night," I realized that I'd seen very few of Eugene O'Neill's plays, live and in person.  And not because I'd been avoiding them, either. They just rarely appear on our stages here in the Northwest. So, I've never seen "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Iceman Cometh," "Strange Interlude" or "Annie Christie," for example, at least not on stage.

So when people write (as people so often do) that "Long Day's Journey" is O'Neill's great masterpiece, I have to take their word for it -- or not. Big claims are made about O'Neill -- he's a Nobelist, after all -- as the greatest American playwright, and I have to take a pass on the implicit question because I simply haven't seen enough.  

I'm skeptical about all of this, though. I have a hard time thinking that  O'Neill is somehow "better" than August Wilson or Tennessee Williams, or that "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is better than "'night Mother" or  "Angels in America."

This is a roundabout way of getting to the question of the "canon." I like the idea of a canon because the sort of social cohesion or shared language it implies seems so important to our fractured communities. The problem of developing a common sense, common ground, a sense of cultural identity that is more inclusive than exclusive, affects our politics, business environment, education, efforts at building a better city -- just about everything.

On the other hand, I resist the actual canonizers, even though I may think their hearts are in the right place -- I'm thinking of E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his cultural literacy program.  In the arts at least, it seems so arbitrary, at best, and coercive at worst. Even though I love "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," I have no idea if it's what you need right now or whether it will ever address your central concerns. And why that August Wilson instead of "Seven Guitars" or "The Piano Lesson"?  With a little prompting I can change my opinion on any particular "member" of my own canon in theater, for example.

But I think good things happen when we share the plays that move or delight us, the ones we think are really important to us specifically, not necessarily IMPORTANT DRAMATIC ACHIEVEMENTS.

1. "The Philadelphia Story"
2. "Waiting for Lefty"
3. "A Raisin in the Sun"
4. "Three Tall Women"
5. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

So much depends on particular productions, doesn't it? Particular actors and directors and set designers. And where we are (personally) and who we are with (personally)? I'd also add what I ate before I saw the show and subsequent film versions.

1. "Glengarry Glen Ross"
2. "Hurlyburly"
3. "The Fever"
4. "The Heidi Chronicles"
5. "Topdog/Underdog"

At this point I'm fishing. I'd love to know your nominations into an imaginary American theater canon. Top 3 or 5, Top 10 or 15. Doesn't matter. Explain or not. Let 'er rip.

1. "Long Day's Journey Into Night"
2. "You Can't Take it With You"
3. "The Crucible"
4. "Picnic"
5. "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"


natalieg said...

Ooohh. This is fun.
1. Angels in America
2. Noises Off
3. Death of a Salesman
4. Joe Turner's Come and Gone
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

It's so hard to name The top five, but I know these would up in the top ten.

Anonymous said...

Off the top of my head, here are my top whatever ...

1. A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
2. A Zoo Story
3. The Designated Mourner
4. Machinal
5. Death of a Salesman
6. Fences
7. A Lie of the Mind
8. The Skin of Our Teeth
9. How I Learned to Drive
10. Long Day's Journey into Night

Barry Johnson said...

Now,we're starting to get somewhere. Nice lists! The intersection: Death of a Salesman.

George Taylor said...

This has been a long day's journey into night for me and I don't have the energy to be complete, but for sure Virginia Woolf should be at or near the top of any list of this sort. It is nothing less than a seminal work of the American theatre for the last half of the 20th Century, a line of demarcation, in fact. I'd venture to say that all the plays and playwrights that came after it were influenced by it, just as those that came before it were influenced by Chekhov and Ibsen, and later by O'Neill. If you had sat in the audience of one of its first productions, before it became "common," you would have felt, as I did, a palpable change surging through the theatre world.

Mead said...

Oh, Barry. You KNOW I have to weigh in on this one. Here's my highly personal and idiosyncratic list, which I post admitting that tomorrow I might compile a totally different one:

1. Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights
2. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
3. Angels in America (no getting around it, still one of the most powerful American plays EVER)
4. Our Town (ditto, actually)
5. Phedre (the Wooster Group's version)
6. Joe Turner's Come and Gone
7. Gem of the Ocean
8. The Tooth of Crime
9. How I Learned To Drive
10. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
11. The Drama Dept.'s Uncle Tom's Cabin
12. Lydia
13. The Evildoers

and I'm assuming you're excluding musicals from considerations, otherwise I'd definitely include Showboat.

Barry Johnson said...

George/Mead, Thanks for pitching in. Virginia Woolf, yes, and How I Learned to Drive was so chilling. And yes,I listed "The Piano Lesson," which won a Pulitzer I think, but I'm such a fan of "Joe Turner." If we can get a few more players, we'll do a little analysis and re-load!

Roberta Dyer said...

I think Mead's idea of including musicals is a good one. Musicals are, after all, a truly American form. I'll start:
1. Showboat (thanks, Mead)
2. Sweeney Todd
3. Porgy and Bess
4. West Side Story
5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (can't help myself)
6. Guys and Dolls
7. South Pacific
8. Oklahoma!
9. Gypsy (not a fave of mine but still belongs on this list)
10. Bring in da Noise/Funk

Barry Johnson said...

Hey, bring those musicals on! Rent? Carousel?

Michael Griggs said...

Here's a mixed musicals/play list:

1. Death of a Salesman
2. Buried Child
3. The Crucible
4. Angels in America
5. The Time of Your life
6. South Pacific
7. Zoot Suit
8. On the Town
9. Three Men on a Horse
10. You Can't Take it With You

Santa Chiara said...

This is probably more a "Claire's Personal Top 10" list, since I hardly feel qualified to speak to the whole spectrum of the contemporary theatre canon. So really this is just a randomly-ordered list of my 10 favorite non-Shakespeare, non-Euripides, fairly-recent-ish plays that no one has named yet.

1) Proof
2) Arcadia
3) The Laramie Project
4) Pentecost
5) A Man For All Seasons
6) The Crucible
7) This crazy 2-person adaptation of Henry James "The Turn of the Screw" that I saw in Ashland when I was in high school
8) Rent
9) The Cripple of Inishmaan
10) Doubt

Santa Chiara said...

No! Wait! I take it back! My list is not complete without "Assassins," "Take Me Out" and Frank McGuiness' "Someone To Watch Over Me."

I feel like crafting my perfect top 10 list is going to take over my whole day. Goodbye, productivity . . .

natalieg said...

Oh we can add musicals now?!?

1. Oklahoma
2. Sweeney Todd
3. West Side Story
4. Hedwig and Angy Inch
5. Showboat

And I'm only counting American authors, right? this the American canon we're creating, isn't it?

And in my close runners-up category for plays, I have to add in How I Learned to Drive and Our Town.

George Taylor said...

Sunday in the Park with George, natch. Wonderful picture of the artistic temperament...and so much more.
I think what I'll do is just throw in a title here and there till Barry closes the comments and then tote up the results.
Please, Barry, say we're limited to American plays, otherwise we get the whole Beckett, Chekhov, Pinter, Stoppard thing going, and I'll never get any work done.

MightyToyCannon said...

I love lists, but I'm not a list maker. (I'll be the one on the desert isle without a stack of books to read of albums to listen to). Plus, I'm reluctant to reveal the limits of my experience and knowledge of American theater. I do want to add my endorsement of the following:

Glengarry Glen Ross
Buried Child
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

How about a list of what should not remain in the canon? I suggest "Little Foxes."

Mead said...

Heaven help us if we get into the NOT list -- that could be endless. But I'll just say that I could go for the rest of my long life without ever seeing All My Sons again. So sue me! I don't care! Hate that threadbare "classic."

After seeing Claire's list, I'm thunderstruck that I forgot to put The Laramie Project on mine -- a play that radically expanded my sense of what theater could accomplish.

Barry Johnson said...

Geez, I leave for an appt and miss out on a chance for an adjudication! Yes, we probably ought to keep it to American plays or The Abyss beckons.

NOT plays. I think Glass Menagerie for me.

Um, yes, Laramie Project.

OSF's Death of a Salesman (Penny Metropulos + Ming Cho Lee) did for for me what the current "Long Day's Journey" does -- restore it to "freshness" and greatness after I'd gotten bored with it.

I LOVE Sunday in the Park With George, too.

Roberta Dyer said...

I'm wondering if there are any American comedies that could flirt with being in the canon? ("Noises Off" is British.) If not, why not?

Barry Johnson said...

My theory is that American comedy writers end up in TV because it's so much more lucrative. Or doing stand-up. Or both. I could make an argument for The Odd Couple but you guys would laugh (just not at The Odd Couple), and I did include "All in the Timing" on my list. But in general I think you may be right, as I sit here and riffle through plays in my mind...

George Taylor said...

You mean Virginia Woolf isn't a comedy?

Well, maybe we should talk about the fact that there's a lot of humor, and sometimes downright comedy, in many serious dramatic American plays, especially those of the last few decades. Even for Arthur Miller, who apparently only discovered a sense of humor in late career with The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, about as close to comedy as he got. Except for marrying Marilyn, which was tragedy too. (See how that works?)

The mash-up of comedy and tragedy is one of the many things Albee gave us permission to do, I think -- as well as infusing naturalistic-seeming plays with theatre of the absurd sensibilities. Maybe that's how contemporary playwrights get their comedy on? (Am I getting too serious here? Okay, then, try The Front Page. And there is, as Barry listed, Philadelphia Story, but those are from another era.)

I second the nomination to remove Glass Menagerie from the canon. And,quite frankly also, that single long play by Wendy Wasserstein. And anything with a couch in the middle of the set. Oh, wait a minute. Anything with a couch in the middle of the set that doesn't have characters named George and Martha.

Barry Johnson said...

George, Yes, bleak comedy, though few of those plays somehow make it to CANON class for some reason. Maybe they should. Shepard and Mamet can both be funny, ditto Lee Blessing and Eric Overmyer (just to name a couple with Oregon connections), and the aforementioned Ms. Wasserstein, but I don't think of them as writers of comedy, really.

George Taylor said...

Here's another way to approach the fun game we're playing, for those who have too much time on their hands: Start with the great canonical American playwrights (and we can have our first argument over who that includes, and excludes), and pick the one play from each that we'd put into our canon. No more than one, please. How many playwrights, and what are their names? Wilder, O'Neill, Inge, Miller, Williams, Albee, Shepherd, Mamet, Vogel, Kushner, Wilson, McNally? Most of these are represented in our lists, but who else?

MightyToyCannon said...

Edward Albee weighs in on his plays and American theater, with support for ensuring that Thornton Wilder is included in the pantheon. When an interviewer refers to Albee as as an "inheritor to O'Neill, to Williams, to Miller," he replies:

"Everybody forgets the most important of those: Thornton Wilder. If you're going to have those three others on that list, you have to include Wilder. O'Neill is a very powerful playwright, but he has a tin ear. Wilder had a beautiful ear. Especially with Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. That talent is extraordinary."

Village Voice interview here:

Barry Johnson said...

Wilder is a little like O'Neill -- we know him for two plays (Our Town, The Skin of our Teeth, and mostly the former) and he wrote many, many more. Especially one-acts, most of which I've never seen. Beth Harper used to run a one-act play festival in town -- I'd love to see it revived and populated partly with classic (and often comic!) one-acts.

That's partly my problem with answering George's question -- if asked to pick a play by Wilder I'd have to say Our Town, but that's just because I've seen memorable productions of that one (also, miserable productions, I should add).

And because I only know a play or two of some of the "titans," I'm inclined to include a playwright who is mostly known for a play or two -- Lorraine Hansberry is in the mix because "A Raisin in the Sun" belongs (for me).

Roberta Dyer said...

Perhaps brevity is the soul of comedy. Is it such an ephemeral (or magical) thing that it can only last the length of an SNL sketch? "All in the Timing" is, after all, a series of brilliant short one-acts. BTW Eric Overmyer's "On the Verge" is one of my all-time faves. And last time I saw "Skin of Our Teeth" (35 years ago) it was strangely and hysterically funny to me. I don't see a lot of canon-worthy comedy on TV but maybe there are movies? Another thing about comedy is that it is often topical, which dates it fast. I'm loving this discussion.

Barry Johnson said...

I think the great TV situation comedies work by accretion -- of subplots, character development, etc. -- over the years. So, we don't think of them as specific "works of art," which maybe some of them are, depending on definitions and all that. But they aren't really the same as plays -- they are both way longer and way shorter!

George Taylor said...

Been thinking about this a lot lately, thanks for that. There are a actually a lot of great stage comedies, but few of them seem to come from American dramatists these days. Stoppard is still writing very funny stuff, some of it actually intended to be comedy and nothing more -- Rough Crossing, On the Razzle; McDonaugh's works are comedies -- really, really black ones, but comedies still. Frayn of course did one of the great stage comedies of all time. All working overseas. And that's just recent works. Think back to Shaw, Sheridan, Moliere, Chekhov (I know, I know). Us? Seems like Neil Simon's about the only one with anywhere near the same recognition as the "serious" folks. Hmmm, I feel I'm leaving someone out.

We know that a lot of playwrights whore themselves for Hollywood dough (did I actually say that?) and some people write plays as a way to break into TV or the movies (why else all those living room couch plays?) We also know that Hollywood churns out hundreds of comedies featuring men behaving badly, and they must be easy to write, mustn't they? Aren't there templates for those scripts online somewhere?

Excuse me, I'm going to go write a modern stage comedy now.

Santa Chiara said...

Can we toss out Mr. Christopher Durang as one to consider in the comedy/non-musical category? It seems a shame to discuss stage comedy without him. My personal favorite is "Betty's Summer Vacation," but I can think of half a dozen more that might be viable candidates for the canon.

Also, I think Ken Ludwig's "Moon Over Buffalo," when done right, is truly fall-out-of-your-chair funny stuff.

Barry Johnson said...

Durang should be considered. I think I've seen more poor productions of his work than good ones, though, which leads me to believe that there is a "Durang Theater" that you'd have to embrace before the plays can work. And that makes "canonization" difficult -- in 50 years will he be translatable? I dunno...

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