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November 16, 2004

And Broadway Wants to "Challenge" You

Matt Howell's annoyed by theater folk:

These damned actors and directors and self-aggradizing self-labeled visionaries see it as their damned duty to confront their audience β€” not entertain it. Certainly not entertain it.

They subscribe to the Brechtian notion of theater as being a force for social change. That the purpose, once you get butts in the seats, is to shake them up! Wake them from their bourgeousie slumber! Show them that there's a world out there that's slummy and ugly and more powerful than you could ever imagine! Make them feel guilty! Make them hate themselves! Make them β€” and this is seriously not a joke β€” leave the theater feeling like CRAP.

I think that the idea of "challenging" an audience has its usefulness. I think Matt is overstating things quite a bit when he says that they never want to entertain an audience, or when he suggests they should do only that.

But it does seem to me that if these thespian subversives aim to challenge their audience, they're doing a spectacularly poor job of it. The typical politically-tilted play is leftist, and it's played for an audience consisting of 99% liberals and outright leftists. That's not challenging an audience-- that's reinforcing the beliefs of the audience, no different than a medieval morality play reinforces the passions and faith of the believers. Yes, there are occasional works that actually provoke the biases and beliefs of the typical theater crowd, like Mamet's Oleander. But that's the exception.

It seems to me that such people are only interested in "challenging" an audience who isn't there at all. Theoretically, they could be challenging a conservative Christian audience, were they to show up en masse, which of course they rarely do.

Not only aren't they doing what they claim they intend to do, but there's a certain amount of gutlessness here that belies their self-asserted status as brave provocatuers. It takes very little guts to tell an audience precisely what they already believe; indeed, one could call that pandering. And the typical audience shouldn't kid itself that it is viewing provocative or challenging fare; they shouldn't pat themselves on their backs for being open-minded enough to watch a play that leaves them with the message (apologies to Camus), "I was right, I had been right, I always was right."

Is that a challenging message? Seems to me that's a pretty comforting one.

I can't help but think that much of the appeal of the sort of theater Matt mentions isn't its actual provocativeness, but the presumed provocativeness of the works as regards hypothetical patrons who aren't in attendance at all. I think there's a certain feeling of "Gee whiz, if those damn Republicans were here, whooo doggies!, they sure would be feeling pretty angered and insulted right about now."

It's not as if there are no interesting subjects that left-leaning writers can exploit to actually discomfit their left-leaning audiences. Lefties hate control and the lazy, arrogant power of an entrenched establishment; they hate restrictions on speech and thought. (As well they should.) Is there no benefit to exploring Marxist speech-codes and sex-codes and the like? Isn't that an inherently dramatic premise that actually could be used to challenge the unexamined biases of the acutal (rather than hypothezied) audience in attendance?

And yet no one seems particularly interested in that.

Instead, we get Christ-was-a-homo plays, Reagan-caused-AIDS plays, war-is-bad plays, men-suck plays, and Christian-conservatives-want-to-destroy-the-world-with-their-Millenialist-warmongering plays, over and over and over again.

Hint: a play isn't truly "outrageous" or "controversial" if just about every single patron leaves the theater saying "Goodness Gracious, I guess I've been pretty much right about everything before, and now I have a catchy song in my head proving just that."

Take some genuine risks, guys. Or else admit what you're doing is merely pandering to like-minded folks, and stop with the agent-of-social-change crap.

PS: I don't think I said anything in this post that's likely to alienate any readers, or cause them psychological discomfort. So this post is hardly "provocative."

I know that.

But I'm not representing it as "controversial," either. And I'm not forever patting myself on the back for having the intellectual courage to speak truth to power.

At most, I'm speaking truth to idiots. Which isn't necessarily dangerous, because, you know, what the hell can an idiot do about it? Drool on me?

"Truth to Idiots" Update: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Everyone's misinterpreting who the "idiots" are supposed to be in that line. I don't mean you. I mean the idiots who aren't reading this site, i.e., liberals.

Do you really think I'd call you idiots? Come on. I'm far too brave and provocative a blogger to say anything that could possibly alienate a single reader. I spend my time bravely challenging the people who don't read me at all.

Although, let's be honest, you are all retards. But you know that already.

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posted by Ace at 12:52 PM

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