Monday, August 23, 2010
Theater: Your turn to load and fire that canon
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"
3. "The Fever"
4. "The Heidi Chronicles"
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"
5. "Lips Together, Teeth Apart"