when did playwrights become documentarians?

The argument was that a play of historical fiction* – e.g., private meetings of the “What did Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I say to each other in the Tower?” ilk – bear responsibility to be historically accurate. What? We don’t know if that meeting ever happened!

It wasn’t a negligible conversation among my colleagues in the Cleveland Play House Playwrights’ Unit, it went on for quite a while, questioning whether any of the people on which the characters were based were still alive, or if descendants might protest certain depictions of their ancestors… I asked the title question of this column and everyone agreed that it was an interesting question. And that was the end of that.

This occurred a couple of years ago, and the paradigm has only worsened. Plays have become a reflection of life – sometimes a parody of that reflection – and nothing more. Is this a result of the MFA-ization of theater, in which people put their far-too-well fleshed-out ideas onstage in lieu of the magical high-wire act that comprises capital-T Theater?

Most of today’s plays are structured on what I call the male-sex paradigm – there’s a premise, it gets bigger, maybe takes a few exploratory forays, surprises have the gasp factor which usually means they’re unearned, the premise gets bigger still – explosion! – end of play. A work of theater must always contain a transformation, a poetic turn, an earned but surprising occurrence which irrevocably changes the protagonist’s relationship with their world. So that the play’s world can alter as well. When nothing shifts, that’s my definition of tragedy.

In the last century, much of the new work currently being touted as brilliant would have been dismissed as bad TV writing. Yet audiences appear to love it, every performance receives a standing O. Why?

Our lives, this century, are fear-based. And when you’re afraid, you want familiarity, you want your parent to tell you the same story night after night, you want to believe that only good can happen to you but that bad will happen to those who frighten you, and you’re drawn to what feels nice in the moment – refined white sugar, anyone? The current trend – docutainment, edutainment, long-form sketch – is designed to keep the hamster wheel spinning, to keep us endlessly repeating.

Followed to its natural conclusion, this means everything is wearing out. Including us. Everybody’s so busy reflecting modern life and current events, it’s like we’re each a mirror and there’s only one beam of light that keeps bouncing around among us.

That’s Not What Art Is.

And theater is not merely an art form, it’s also the only art which encompasses and utilizes all arts. So we’re not only wasting our resources, we’re wasting everyone’s.

Notwithstanding the 21st century trope that we’re all artists – and geniuses – capital-A Art exists to move society forward, to pave the way for how we might live, how we wish to live, how we can better ourselves and the world we live in, not to endlessly react and respond. Art is individual, Art is groundbreaking. Art must refract to a different world, a different reality from our own.

People seldom change without examples to follow, and theater is meant to show rather than tell or, if a play manages to ascend to the status of Art, reveal rather than show different, better ways of being and doing.

Docutainment isn’t art. Edutainment isn’t art. And nowadays, neither is theater.

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* recent brain science suggests that retrieval of any memory alters the memory, rendering all history as fiction

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