Friday, May 06, 2005

Art (Theater): Stories That Tell vs. Storytelling

Great article on theater from today's NY Times. Excerpts:
"A great man once said, 'The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,' and I believe in that wholeheartedly. Or was it, 'The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.' " He could be speaking for the playwright. Mr. McDonagh's view of theater is all about the medium, not the message. Here's Katurian again: "I say, keep your left-wing this, keep your right-wing that and tell me a story!" (I've elided one of Mr. McDonagh's trademark expletives.) "No ax to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever."
This is a popular idea at a time when many serious artists seem to have ceded the landscape of ideological entertainment to the likes of Mel Gibson and Michael Moore. It is taken for granted that a movie's opening weekend box office, its stylistic allusions to other movies or the potential romantic alliance of its stars are more relevant topics for discussion than any artistic aspirations it might have. The same mindset infects Broadway, now a tag-along, unhip member of the culture clan, on a smaller scale.
But is this a healthy ideal? Entertainment can, after all, aspire to do more than merely serve up narratives diverting enough to keep us hooked for a couple of hours.

Mr. Shanley has an abiding belief that theater, despite its marginal status in popular culture (or, paradoxically, because of it), can illuminate ethical and spiritual questions that are of both immediate and eternal relevance.
This may strike a discordant note in today's self-conscious, irony-saturated cultural landscape, in which sincerity is automatically suspect. The idea that theater should say something, and not necessarily with a smirk, may seem quaintly old-fashioned. It harks back to the ethos of this country's great theatrical moralist, Arthur Miller, whose dramas grappled, sometimes bluntly, with moral questions of immediate currency.
But it derives from an essential truth about the artistic endeavor. Great writers are driven to write to give enduring form to their perceptions about human life and thought, not just because they have a particular knack for prose or dialogue, style or structure. (Although you wouldn't necessarily know this from reading lavishly praised, extravagantly self-conscious novels that get so much ink - and use so much - today.)

Just before it opened off Broadway last fall, Mr. Shanley decided to append a parenthetical phrase to the play's pleasingly trenchant title: it is officially called "Doubt, a Parable." Mr. Shanley wanted to prod audiences to look beyond the play's surfaces, to experience it not merely as a he-said-she-said drama with narrow topical currency, but also as a broader commentary on the state of the cultural and political discourse in America, and indeed on the dangerous human tendency to take refuge in certainty when the truth may be more complicated and elusive.
After the play won the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Shanley told The Times, "People who have great certainty can be a force of good, but can also be incredibly destructive." And in an essay he wrote for The Los Angeles Times, which now serves as the introduction to the play's published text, he describes the poisonous cultural environment he was reacting against. "We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict," he wrote.

And yet Mr. Shanley isn't just writing an op-ed piece in theatrical form. The play gets at a deeper, more universal truth. To be in doubt is not comfortable, as anyone can attest who has ever awaited lab results, fretted over a test score or stood vigil over a silent telephone, awaiting a call. It's a psychological itch, and you want to scratch your way to certainty. But it is often the first step on a path to greater spiritual or moral wisdom, a deeper compassion, a breaking free from constricting dogma.