Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Classic Problem

Tom Stoppard, whose new play The Hard Problem is onstage at the National Theatre in London, made some waves by claiming in a public forum that he had to dumb down a scene because preview audiences weren't getting a literary allusion.

He noted as well that a reference in one of his earlier plays to Goneril was recognized with the appropriate laugh in its first production in 1974, but when the play was revived in 1990, about half the audience was clueless.

The allusion, by the way, is in Travesties, a play so intellectually energetic and hilarious that it is almost never done (and certainly never on the North Coast.)  Henry Carr, a minor British official in Zurich, is being offered a part in The Importance of Being Earnest by its producer, James Joyce.  He asks why Joyce could possibly believe he is qualified.  Carr's younger sister Gwendolen says she recommended him. "You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton."  It seems that knowing Goneril is one of the sisters in King Lear is less essential to the joke than simply knowing it is a woman's part, and that Eton is (or was) all male.  Though like many jokes the humor is in the sound of the specific words.

Coincidentally, the play's director Nicholas Hytner said something perhaps pertinent to this point in an exit interview as he left his position running the National Theatre.  While giving him full marks for staging new plays of social and political import, the interviewer (veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington) noted a decline in productions from the classical repertoire.  Hytner accepted this observation, and said "I think there's been a general retreat from the classic repertory" but added "I also believe things will change and that the classic rep will be rediscovered by a new generation of directors."

This may be true, though especially in the UK--in the US I'd guess that such revivals as the new New York production of Albee's A Delicate Balance owe their existence to actors with clout (usually from the movies) who want challenging roles in a time-tested play once in awhile.

 But this overall point that the classic rep is not being done extends beyond Britain, though perhaps for different reasons.  My guess is that universities are also doing fewer classic plays, even modern American classics, unless they happen to be musicals.  It seems true of HSU for instance.

So what? Here's what.  Classic plays aren't classic just because they're old.  They may challenge successive generations of actors and directors as well as audiences, but they are worth that exploration.  And they are embedded in our common culture, for more than (but also including) punch lines of new jokes.

Some of this is an unfortunate byproduct of a healthy change--plays from cultures not much represented on common stages before.  There are only so many production slots, at the National or anywhere.

But it seems some and possibly quite a lot of it is not only because theatre audiences have dumbed down, but so has theatre education, leaving young theatre artists unequipped for the hard problems of the classics.

And it's a situation that feeds on itself, as the Hytner and Stoppard observations taken together suggest.  With fewer productions, fewer theatre artists as well as audience members get to experience classic plays.  They may all then comfortably believe that splashy musicals, identity dramas and warmed-over sitcoms are all there is.  Until very soon they are right.

Meanwhile, Stoppard's The Hard Problem (which is about consciousness, not--as the playwright points out--erectile dysfunction) is meeting with mixed reviews, often pointing out that it's not as good as his earlier plays.  If you read the reviews online and follow the algorthimically generated links, you may soon run into a review that says exactly the same thing about The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard's now "classic" trilogy.

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