Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Respecting the Classics?

I've been thinking about classic American drama lately: I'm writing a play set in 1934 and researching the theater of that time, plus Vassar is about to produce The Glass Menagerie, an atypical choice for our drama department. It's always struck me as a little odd how, in my time here, Vassar has produced just about every kind of play except for the American classics (which I'll define as dating from roughly 1920 to 1970). The only other one I recall is Joseph Heller's We Bombed in New Haven, which comes from the tail end of that era (1968--it's an anti-Vietnam play) and isn't exactly a masterpiece. Other than We Bombed... and Glass Menagerie, in my 4 years at Vassar, the drama department has produced/will produce:
  • 2 Chekhov plays (Seagull and Uncle Vanya)
  • 3 Shakespeare plays, plus another Elizabethan play called Gallathea
  • 2 Sondheim musicals (Merrily We Roll Along and Into the Woods)
  • 2 Greek tragedies (Oedipus at Colonus and Suppliant Women)
  • Several post-1970 American and British plays (such as Quills by Doug Wright, Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage, OTMA by Kate Moira Ryan, Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill, Not I by Beckett)
  • Some "reworked classics" (Kushner's adaptation of The Illusion; a professor's adaptation of Pygmalion to modern NYC with an African-American Eliza; Suppliant Women and Not I were actually combined, so perhaps they fit here as well)
  • Various kinds of original work: a two-act play by a senior playwriting major, a collaborative writing/acting/directing project by five seniors, a multimedia-theatre-dance piece about the government's treatment of Native Americans; and this coming spring, a New Plays workshop festival
Doesn't this list seem lacking in plays from between 1920 and 1970, especially American ones? Americans also get short shrift when it comes to 300-level Drama seminar classes: the subjects of these courses are always things like Shakespeare, Beckett, Artaud, Caryl Churchill, "Performativity of Female Authorship"... Granted, that last one covers some American women playwrights, but other than that, our country's theatrical heritage garners surprisingly little attention at Vassar.

The Drama Department's ignoring the classic midcentury American plays is especially strange because the acting style it teaches us (psychological realism, grounded in Stanislavski/"The Method") was invented to deal with just those sorts of plays. Instead, we have to learn one acting style in class, and a whole different style (for Shakespeare, Greek plays, etc.) at rehearsal!

I certainly don't believe that every "classic" play is as good as its reputation suggests (my Eugene O'Neill dissent, anyone?) but part of me also believes that an educational institution, like Vassar, is responsible for familiarizing its students with their cultural heritage, including the classic American playwrights. On the other hand, maybe the responsibility shouldn't be to uphold the "canon" of established playwrights, but to look beyond it instead. Or maybe, because many of us want to be theatre professionals when we leave Vassar, the school's responsibility should be to prepare us for the kind of theatre we will create post-college. And as authors like Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams get produced less frequently by the nation's theatre companies, it's less likely that Vassar graduates will get cast in their plays, and so it makes sense to pay them less attention during college. Perhaps Vassar really ought to focus on the kinds of plays that American theatres produce most regularly now. The Santaland Diaries and Tuesdays with Morrie, anybody?

In all seriousness, there's some great stuff on that list of the top 10 most-produced plays, and as for the stuff that's not so great... well, ultimately, I hope that the responsibility of an educational institution is to send its graduates out into the world armed and ready to make more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. And that means familiarizing us with all different kinds of plays and acting styles, treating none of it too reverentially, allowing us to come to our own informed conclusions about what kind of theatre our society most needs. And sometimes, we need to be reminded where we came from; so in that sense, there will always be a place for the classics.


Tethered Iguana said...

how awesome to come across your blog. I agree with you about American acting students studying American plays, especially those iconic works and playwrights that grew from the Group theatre, etc. Odets for example. Not produced often, but so important to understanding the Method and Group Theatre experience.

I'm partial to Williams in general, because he was so prolific and his most formidable plays link character and setting so closely and vividly he creates his own sub-genre. Having had the great fortune to have acted in four of his greats (Cat, Glass, Summer&Smoke, and Iguana), I can say there is nothing like them for actors--we could have spent months just doing table work..

but you hit on a huge challenge for undergraduate theatre programs.. how to encapsulate the essentials into classwork yet offer the students good stage roles in plays that the audience hasn't seen yet or in a while (after all can't keep doing the same plays every year!) and will subscribe to for another year.

One thing I did learn later in life was to always, always be reading everything from every era and every country. Not just what is covered in class. (how about a whole summer spent on German and east european expressionism?? argh! not fun.. but i wouldn't have had any exposure to it otherwise..)

In the chicago theatre scene we get many many American classics of 1920-1970 (assume you put Sam Shepherd in that category) especially by Williams (and Miller too) produced every year from our 100s of companies (comparable to off broadway and off off broadway calibre companies). Granted these aren't the LORT theatres (which tend to all get on the same bandwagon) but it's where most of the young actors who come to town get their first work. For example, we had one company who did nothing but Eastern European plays in translation.. so my study actually helped me get roles there..

Anyway, good job on the blog.

Marissa said...

Thanks for visiting! Odets is next on my list to read (part of getting a feel for the 1930s era). As a young playwright (or any kind of theater professional), it does take some work to become acquainted with all the kinds of theater that have come before.

I was actually counting Sam Shepard as a post-1970 "new generation" playwright...maybe post-1965 would have been a better dividing line. I was trying to demarcate people like Williams, Miller, Inge (who seemed to get produced on Broadway fairly quickly/early in their careers) from people like Shepard or Lanford Wilson, who came up through the new, post-'65 or '70 Off-Broadway theater world. Still, good to hear many of them have a presence in Chicago.

As a matter of fact, I will be visiting Chicago for the first time next month, and seeing "Passion Play" by Sarah Ruhl...which I will surely write about here!