Writing In An Age In Which The World Seems To Be Ripping Itself Apart
No thinking person has to be persuaded of the power of words to sway hearts, minds, and even history. “We declare these truths to be self-evident…” “Four score and seven years ago…” “I have a dream…” “Leggo my Eggo.” These phrases still give me goosebumps.
No, I come not bury words, but to ask the age old question of what, if any, responsibility, do writers have to address the political and social ills of a given period? Who knows, Neil Simon may have had a brilliant social satire in him if he’d been so inclined, but by all indications, he seems not to have been. Yet that doesn’t lessen his “worthiness” in my estimation. For others, like Brecht, Ibsen, Miller, Kushner, Lori-Parks, Hare, and so many more, their work is inextricable from their politics. Ditto the late Larry Kramer, whose work did a very rare thing: helped to shift the culture in a new direction, and inspire legions of others to build on his foundations.
Write What You Know (You Care About)
I’m a person of rather strong political views, as anyone on my Twitter feed (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?) will quickly learn. And I’ve written a couple of plays that could be considered political in nature. My play Fellow Travelers, for example, ran in 2018 at the Bay Street Theater, and concerned the complicated relationship between (among?) Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, and Marilyn Monroe. It dealt in great detail about the perils of McCarthyism, and how the different paths Kazan and Miller chose in dealing with those pressures forever altered their close friendship and their work.
Most people seemed to enjoy the play, which was very gratifying, and would often corner me afterwards in a bar (an experience with a wide degree of pleasantness) and remark to me with a knowing look and lowered voice how “timely” a play it was.
I suppose that’s true (my guess is in American life, reminding people about political paranoia rarely isn’t timely). And although I think it’s clear ultimately where my sympathies lie, the story was not written with a political agenda in mind or moral to teach. In fact, I went to lengths to try to give both Miller and Kazan equally compelling arguments for their choices. I wasn’t interested writing a play that was instructive or prescriptive in any way. I just wanted to write about smart, complex people under the greatest stress of their lives.
Because, And This May Be Just Me, But It’s Just Me
While I have confidence in a great many things (Beatles trivia, Yankees stats…the list thins out considerably from there), I also think of myself as having been absent the day at school the day they taught “How To Live Successfully As An Adult.” It’s taken me years to realize that, there was no class (at least not at my public school). Despite the desperate appearances many people project, in the words of the great William Goldman, “No one knows anything.”
We’re all winging it, to a certain extent, every day. It’s a realization that, depending on my mood, brings me great comfort and/or great despair. I do not always (read: often) have the answers as to how I should act and behave in the world, let alone feel I can tell others how to. I have a distinct sense that trying to be nice and give people the benefit of the doubt plays a big part, but beyond that, I can’t say too much with any sense of authority. But that’s my job as a person: to try to continually work at figuring that stuff out better. And sure, my writing, I believe, can help me with that.
But I believe my job as a writer is to tell a story in as truthful and entertaining way as I can muster.
Now, entertaining, to me, is a very elastic word. The Iceman Cometh I find highly entertaining. Ditto A View From The Bridge and King Lear. But also Noises Off, Barefoot in the Park and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I tend to write dramas that deal with very hard and sad things, but are hopefully a lot of laughs along the way. That’s just how it’s worked out so far. But, I confess, I don’t think there are many writers who can pull off being angry about something, or being desperate to instruct us about something, at the expense of making us emotionally invest in the characters, in a way I find satisfying.
Another Thing I Feel Passionately Unsure About
There’s a more pragmatic reason that plays redolent with a MESSAGE tend to make me itchy inside. This doesn’t apply as much to television writing (where it’s less rare to begin with) as the theater. I mean, aren’t the vast bulk of theater artists (artists in general) at least vaguely singing from the same hymnal? I’m sure there’s some exceptions to this, but in Fellow Travelers, for example, at no point did I feel the need to show that The Red Scare was a bad thing. I don’t think anyone interested in coming to see this play was likely to be on the fence about that.
Saints and devils bore the hell out of me, and, I think most audiences, too. I was very lucky to meet and briefly talk on Opening Night to Jules Feiffer, who lived through that era and both knew and loathed Kazan for his actions. Mr. Feiffer sought me out afterwards, and was very kind to me when he saw the play, which I was obviously quite nervous about, especially because I go to pains to show Kazan’s existential struggle was every bit as real as Miller’s. But, being a great writer, he understood what I was at least attempting to do – to create three dimensional, often contradictory characters struggling with their uncertainty and self-interest. He could appreciate the portrayal without abandoning his core convictions that Kazan was in the wrong.
When I Was Younger, So Much Younger Than Today (Actually, I Hadn’t Been Born Yet)
Way back when, Broadway was an essentially democratic institution, or at least had the patina of it. Middle class people could go to see plays on Broadway with a fair amount of regularity. It had some cultural currency. Playwrights used to make the cover of Time. I mean. Things have changed, no?
And while these audiences expected to be diverted, they also expected to be challenged on occasion. There’s the possibly apocryphal story of the owner of Macy’s, on opening night of Death of a Salesman, turning to his wife after the curtain call and vowing to write a memo to his managers forbidding the firing of salesmen because of age.
It’s certainly pretty to think so. But today, Broadway, and increasingly, Off-Broadway, have often become destinations out of reach to all but the obviously privileged. And I get the cynical suspicion that many audiences today go to so called “serious” plays, in part, at least sometimes, as a salve to their consciences, or perhaps worse, just to have something to chat about with their peers. “Yes, that is a terrible thing that’s happening to those [fill in the blank],” they say as they impatiently wait for their Uber. “I’ll definitely have to mention it at brunch next weekend.”
And maybe that helps. I’m sure it can and does, in fact. And maybe it’s always been thus. Probably. I guess I’m just saying, if being a social justice warrior is your bag, I’m with you! However, if I saw something going on that I felt a burning need to address, there are few less direct or effective ways of doing so than writing a play about it. I mean, 1) if I get it produced, it’s possible it will be like five years after I wanted to address the issue and 2) I’m likely preaching to people who agree with me already.
Before I Start To Sound Too Cynical, Let Me Add A Little More
I attended a theater conference last year, which I was excited about: meet seem people, make some connections and friends, perhaps unleash my killer karaoke version of “Caribbean Queen” to a grateful throng. I was expecting workshops and panels on the nuts and bolts of getting your plays done and how to improve your work as an artist. Instead, I found it all a bit alienating. Like a Woke Olympics – with literally more safe spaces than play readings.
Now, I’m White, straight, and a man, so I get that I even though I think I get oppression and systemic marginalization, I know I don’t really. I try to be vigilant about this: I sometimes succeed, and surely many times fail. I believe it’s long past time to hear more voices in theater from oppressed and marginalized communities (how brave of me). I think, in fact, it’s vital for whatever culture relevance theater has left.
I’m just ultimately of the opinion that most – if not every great work of literature, even if overtly political – is successful based on how well we empathize with the characters on a human, non-political level. For all the brilliant political insight of Orwell‘s 1984, it’s the moment when Winston, the rats inches from his face, screams, “Do it to Julia!” that still hits me in the gut most.
That unquestionable masterpiece, Angels in America, written by Brecht acolyte Tony Kushner, employs many of Brecht’s techniques in the two plays. Yet, I would argue, it’s when Kushner breaks free, and even contradicts some of Brecht’s edicts, that make the plays scorch the minds and souls of its audiences. Kushner’s ability to make us feel for his indelible characters gives this two play cycle its rightful place in the Pantheon. If we don’t feel Prior’s fear and bravery, soften to the initially implacable Hannah, respect and fall in love with Belize – hell, if we aren’t moved, in spite of all logic, by Ethel Rosenberg and Louis saying Kaddish for the hateful Roy Cohn, the plays don’t work. But work they do.
Wait: Scratch That, Reverse It
But then there’s the late, great Larry Kramer, whose work as a writer and activist, as I said earlier, truly shook our culture. If it didn’t remove the scales from mainstream America’s eyes about the AIDS crisis all by itself (and it did more than its share), it paved the way for others to carry the message into the mainstream. Anyone who cares about playwriting, or theater, or the power of activism, or simply human empathy should mourn his loss. Because, despite his palpable rage – maybe because of it – he never lost his power to move with words, and to make clear the issues he was passionate about were deeply human.
I guess, in the end, that’s all I’m after as a writer. To try to make what I write about feel recognizably human. I think that’s our only non-negotiable job. Even with the characters we don’t like or agree with.
We live in an age where people are given permission, indeed often encouraged, by our “leaders” to view other groups of people as less than human. So, rather than aiming for a play in which everyone exits the theater chanting “Strike, strike, strike!” as they supposedly did after watching the premiere of Odets‘ Waiting For Lefty, I’d just like the audience to see a bit of themselves, or those they care about in the characters. And some humanity with those whom they they don’t agree with.
And yes, as I rather glibly stated before, in theaters we’re mostly preaching to the choir. But hearing the choir sing words you love and feel deep in your bones feels like a necessity these days.
Actually, in the America of 2020, reminding people of their common humanity is a political act. That’s what its seemingly come to.