Saturday, July 29, 2006

On a theatre list, a writer advised:
".. find something you want to say (an idea about life and living), and drive it home with your characters."
I reply:
This is perhaps good advice for many kinds of writing, but not, I think, for the multiple-perspective kind that is recognized as "dramatic" even when it appears in novels or poems. Every character, event, or idea that that is part of a dramatic work will have its own truth, and the working-out of these truths in conflict or reconciliation is the "action" -- disturbing (though bracing: we feel proud to have had the courage to engage such painful matters) in tragedy or satire, pleasurable and satisfying in comedy. No one, no matter how intelligent and good, can know the whole truth-- about anything. What we enjoy in the theatre-- and in some other literary forms-- is watching people struggling (agon) and learning. But even the most ambitious drama acknowledges that the truth it conveys is limited by the finite experience of the characters, and by implication, of the author. If we don't sense that the author has wrestled with the angel while writing and felt the pain portrayed, we tend to feel manipulated rather than enlightened. We will accept what the play tells us about life only if we feel that its knowledge has been earned, within the action of the play itself:
"The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long." (Lear)
The hero of Moliere's The Misanthrope has an attitude much like the one you suggest. The play he is in does not endorse it.

Same thread, reply to a writer who is depressed because he is working a low paying day job and can't afford to rent space for a reading or offer actors at least some refreshments if they do a reading for him, saying "I don't have X resources that I am somehow expected to have. It's all very well and good to have ideas, but they're not very practical..."
I say:
This is a very serious issue, at the intersection of art and politics. It is not just that the writer must create and circulate the work for nothing, on "spec" as it were. It is that writers are expected to support with cash and unpaid labor the artists and institutions with which they will collaborate if they are fortunate enough to be chosen to do so: through submission fees, classes, donations, membership fees, unpaid internships, and the hiring of experts for access to advice and connections. As John points out, this "system" acts as a censoring filter. But why complain to us? Should we go on strike? Withhold our labor, for which there is a limited demand and a vast oversupply? Some of us boycott contests with fees-- and the contests don't care, because part of their reason for having fees is to cut down the number of entries so that their offices aren't utterly swamped with manuscripts.
I sincerely believe that a major change in attitudes toward the arts in general and drama in particular would make this a better country and-- because this country is so big and powerful-- the world somewhat less cruel and stupid.
But your two college degrees indicate that, like most of us who post to Theatre email lists, you are among the group whose experience is already over-represented on our country's stages.


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