Lost Worlds

Not many people in America read drama any longer.  That’s not really a surprise—theater has been marginalized for so long in the States that drama, the thought of theater, cannot but be doomed.  I’ll admit, I don’t subscribe to a market philosophy for anything of real value, especially not the arts, so I don’t buy the glib argument that if drama wants readers, it should dramatize stories more appealing to contemporary audiences.  For the most part, I find that those audiences only want to read and see what either confirms or distracts them from having to confront the limitations of their beliefs.  Drama doesn’t need to do that.  So much else in our culture already does.[1]

Let’s face it, though, challenging, difficult art of any kind usually has a snowball’s chance in hell in the U.S.  Just look at the movies playing at theaters in your area.  How many are subtitled?  And that doesn’t even mean the film is challenging, it just requires reading!  Or, for that matter, how many of those movies are made for adults over the age of twenty-five?  I had friends tell me, years ago, that after working all day, the last thing they wanted to do was more work when watching a movie or reading a novel.  While I can sympathize to a degree, I think that assertion conflates art with entertainment.  I know this is a contentious distinction to make, not least because it makes me appear to be anti-entertainment.  Quite the contrary.  I love both art and entertainment and embrace the art in excellent entertainment.  But art enlarges our lives by widening our perspectives, whereas entertainment, if it’s good—if it’s really, really good—distracts us momentarily from that ache that is the background noise of life, in the end leaving us pretty much as it found us.

Anton Chekhov

I don’t know how I got sidetracked onto such thorny, unstable ground.  I’m really only talking about reading drama, art or not.  Still, when I recently shared with somebody my remorse at knowing that no one really reads drama any more, he replied, “True, but nowadays they’re watching South Park and The Simpsons, instead.”  I like both of those shows.  At their best, I even think they’re brilliant.  But is watching South Park really the equivalent of reading Chekhov?

What’s at stake here was revealed to me this summer as I read a slew of plays by Bertolt Brecht, ranging from Drums in the Night, one of his earliest plays, to The Good Person of Szechwan, among his last.  What impressed me was the capaciousness of his imagination and intellect.  The early plays have a decadent luster to them.  Their language is thick, self-consciously poetic in a mode reminiscent of Rimbaud or Baudelaire—some dialogue from In the Jungle of Cities even incorporates lines from Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat, which opened Brecht to charges of plagiarism when the play was first produced.

The milieu of the early plays is no less decadent than the language, scenes unfolding in bars and slums, peopled by pimps, gangsters, prostitutes, cheats, and all-around cutthroats and ne’er-do-wells.  The themes that the plays tackle—that the cessation of combat in war isn’t really the end of it; the erotics of power; and the quality of (non)man required by military heroism—are challenged, put to the limit, by their purposefully ugly unfolding.  Their dramaturgy, it seems to me, is what a character from In the Jungle of Cities describes as “the luminosity of decay.”  Conversely, the later plays, while still featuring denizens from the margins of society, don’t seem as dissolute.  Their language has shifted from the surreal to the aphoristic, and their moods are cooler, drawing more upon laughter and humor than intensity, but they are no less pleasurable to read.

What was most engaging about Brecht’s plays—tying all of them together—was the sureness of his understanding of theater.  Throughout his corpus, wonderfully theatrical scenes and images abound: the slow dance of foreshadowing and occurrence that is the dramatic movement of Drums in the Night; the lynch mob closing in on Shlink at the end of In the Jungle of Cities, their swords piercing the tent in which he’s hiding just as he dies; the desperate moment in The Caucasian Chalk Circle when Grusha risks her life—as well as the life of the baby she’s carrying—crossing a decrepit rope bridge to avoid capture and certain death by the Ironshirts, the ruthless soldiers who pursue her to capture the child . . . I could go on.  Brecht’s theatrical invention is practically endless.

I read most of the plays in old paperback editions from the ‘60s and ‘70s, their pages brittle and orange with age, reminding me as I read them that Brecht was once de rigueur for those with an interest in serious literature.  His plays and essays about theater inflected radical thinking in the ‘60s, and his alienation effect had considerable impact on representational art of that era.  But who reads Brecht today, aside from a few intrepid souls working in the theater?  Most students I’ve taught over the years don’t really know much about theater or drama save what an English teacher might have required they read—usually Shakespeare and Arthur Miller (mostly The Crucible).  They’re definitely not reading Brecht, nor will they likely read Chekhov, Ibsen, or Suzan-Lori Parks, either.  It seems a shame to me that few today will encounter these amazing, imaginative minds.  The world is impoverished because of it.


[1] On the other hand, I don’t want to let theater completely off the hook here.  The too common approach of theater companies, to offer the most obvious interpretation of yet another production of a hoary chestnut, must bear some responsibility for theater’s marginalization.

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