Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

More on the Puniness of Plays

Jesse McKinley, who exposed the unprofitability of plays in last week's NY Times, had an article this past Sunday in the Times' Week in Review that returned to the subject.

"As the fall Broadway season comes to an end this week - with the opening of a 229-year-old comedy, "The Rivals," on Thursday - it is a good time to consider all the new, culturally significant American drama produced there this year.

Anyone? Don't hold back. Just shout out a title. Any title will do.

If nothing jumped to mind, you shouldn't think you're a philistine. The original American Broadway play has long been consigned to second-class status in an industry dominated by musicals, but this fall it reached a low-water mark. Other than one-person shows, only one new American play - comedy or drama - made it to the stage, August Wilson's 'Gem of the Ocean,' which opened Monday. And the producers and Mr. Wilson, the nation's premier African-American playwright, had to beg, plead and call in a favor ($1 million worth) from a wealthy producer in San Francisco."

He then laments the fact that plays simply can't generate the kind of buzz -- let alone the audience -- that movies and TV shows can.

He asks the essential question. Does theatre still matter, at least as more than an incubator of television writing talent? The analysis he provides, though, is pure cliche:

"'I suppose TV and a movie can get there, but when a play is working, that communion is different,' said Warren Leight, a Broadway playwright ('Side Man') and a 'Law and Order' producer. 'An audience moved by a play is moved in a different way. It lingers longer.'"

Theatre is not superior to film or television. It's just different. If we can't understand and articulate that difference, then we're doomed to pale imitation of media with far greater means and popular support.

I agree, though, with the fundamental proposition of the article: even if Broadway is not, and need not, be the artistic mountaintop for non-musical theatre in America, theatre still needs to find a way to tap the zeitgeist. The article assumes that's about subject matter alone, which I'm unsure of. We need some genuinely imaginitive playwriting, and we need it soon.