Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sick of Realism?

Did I overstate the case, last week, when I agreed with the sentiment that I was "sick of plays"? I'm beginning to think that I did. After all, what I mean is that I am sick of mediocre and unimaginative plays, but, as my father likes to say, "90% of everything is crap." Anybody who plans to devote his or her life to any artform must accept this, correct?

If 90% of everything is crap, that means that 90% of talky, realistic, suburban family dramas are crap--but also that 90% of experimental, po-mo performance pieces are crap. But somehow, a lousy realistic play seems worse than a lousy experimental play. I suppose it's because, with experimental theater, one can always make the excuse "Maybe I just didn't get it." But with a realistic play--i.e., a play that tries to follow the general rules you learn in Playwriting 101--that excuse is impossible. Experimental plays also tend to wear their vision, ambition, or originality on their sleeve; but with realistic plays, it often takes more of an effort to figure out what makes them unique and original. So, in a sense, it is easier to love the experimental theater than it is to love the realist theater.

But there are exceptions, of course--the 10% that isn't crap--and I can love a good "conventional realistic play," or family drama... honestly and wholeheartedly. But in that case, I find myself making excuses for why that play isn't really conventional or talky or old-fashioned. Instead of accepting that it can be those things and also be great drama.

This reminds me of when I was a kid, and disparaged any book that was labeled "realistic fiction." In my mind, "realistic fiction" books were always about an average suburban kid dealing with some problem like moving to a new town or having his parents get divorced, and were written for the benefit of young readers who themselves were moving to a new town, or dealing with a family crisis, or whatever. Such books were serious, earnest, and "instructive." "Realistic fiction," I thought, was so rooted in the real world that "there was no scope for imagination in it," as Anne of Green Gables would say.

But the crazy thing is, a lot of my favorite books were realistic fiction, I just didn't think of them that way. For instance, Anne of Green Gables. (I had been taught that "historical fiction" or "classics" were a totally separate genre from "realistic fiction," not realizing that when the Anne books were published, they were contemporary and realistic.) Or, an even better example, Harriet the Spy. Even though I professed to hate any book that I felt had been written with a morally instructive purpose in mind, I loved Harriet the Spy, not realizing how strong its moral message is and how applicable it was to me, as a budding writer. Somehow, I avoided lumping it in with the "realistic fiction" books that I hated, because it took place in NYC, and it's full of interesting characters, and Harriet is a strange and flawed person with a unique voice, not a boring Everygirl.

When I said I hated "realistic fiction," I meant I hated the 90% of realistic fiction that, honestly, was probably pretty crappy. And I think the same qualification applies to my statement that I am "sick of plays."

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