The “Not Lost” series: five prominent Bay Area theatre makers reply to American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff’s recent essay on classical work versus new plays and playwrights. Where should American theatres invest their artistic focus and resources - and why? Today's respondent: Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman.
On Cultural Relevance and "Sellability"
by Melissa Hillman
In Carey Perloff’s recent piece for the Huffington Post, “The Loss of the Old,” she makes two separate, shocking assertions: that current American MFA graduates are unfamiliar with “Sophocles or Brecht or Lorca” and that American theatre has abandoned classical works. Her examples of neglected “classical” playwrights include Shakespeare (“with the exception of Shakespeare festivals”), Pinter, and Beckett. She holds that theatres should ideally produce new work next to classical work, and that this ideal is currently not being achieved by “nearly every theatre in America.”
While I think it’s clear that classic plays are performed in theatres all around the country next to new work—including my own—I’m most curious about her assertion that the new generation of American playwrights are writing works that lack “range and longevity” because of their lack of exposure to the classics.
I asked 20 playwrights, most very much on the rise nationwide, the following questions: Did you complete an MFA program? Have you read Sophocles, Brecht, or Lorca? Have you seen Sophocles, Brecht, or Lorca staged? The playwrights who had MFAs had all read all three and seen all three staged, with the exception of one who’d never seen Lorca staged. The playwrights without MFAs were all over the map, and only one had read all three and seen all three produced. Although this is hardly a scientific study, it appears that playwrights with MFAs are MORE likely to have had exposure to classical writing, an entirely unsurprising conclusion for anyone who’s been to a graduate-level program in theatre. And it’s important to point out that none of these playwrights, grad school trained or not, were wholly unfamiliar with these classic writers. It’s concerning that the head of the Bay Area’s flagship LORT house believes that the rising stars and new voices of American playwriting have had no exposure to the classics, and that their work is poorer for it. What does she think is missing from the writing of the rising stars of the American stage? Does she really believe that Rajiv Joseph, Sarah Ruhl, and Katori Hall lack “range and longevity”?
She accuses current MFA programs of grooming playwrights for television writing and for churning out plays with current cultural “relevance” that are “sellable.” But let’s look at the classical works she presents as examples of the universality and greatness she states modern playwrights are incapable of achieving.
Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is steeped in the complex, backbiting sideshow of the Florentine politics of its day. Without an understanding of the political landscape of the early Florentine Renaissance, as well as the history of the papacy and pre-Vatican II Catholic doctrine, much of the “DC” just won’t make sense to you. Dante wrote, and very deliberately I might add, for an early 14th century Italian audience. The characters he places in the various realms of the afterlife are all political and church figures of his time. It’s impossible to overstate its timebound cultural relevance.
The fact that Shakespeare was a commercial playwright is something that bears repeating. His plays are riddled with contemporary references and inside jokes. His writing tells all the secrets of the human heart, and its range and longevity are undeniable, but Shakespeare wrote, clearly, for a Renaissance London audience, in pursuit of selling as many tickets as possible in a highly competitive environment. Specific relevance to his time period was paramount as well. Tudor cheerleading, assisted by a little judicious rewriting of the historical record, doesn’t happen by accident.
Brecht made no bones about the fact that he was writing for a specific audience in a specific historical moment, in both style and content, with very clear goals in mind. While the genius of his narratives transcends his Marxist agenda, his stated goal was immediate cultural relevance.
While it’s unfair to accuse the new generation of writers of being ignorant of classical writing, it’s equally unfair to assume that classical writing contains range and longevity because writers of the past weren’t writing for “relevance” within their individual cultural contexts. Of course they were, and they always have been. Some writers in any time period, including Perloff’s listed Sophocles, Lorca, Shakespeare, Beckett, and Pinter (and I would also add to that list Hrostvit, Aphra Behn, Adrienne Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry, and Caryl Churchill) are genius-level whose work transcends time and place, and some are not, but all were speaking specifically to their time, and most hope for “sellability” as well.
If Perloff thinks writers like Young Jean Lee or Marcus Gardley lack range and longevity because of their focus on cultural “relevance” and making plays “sellable,” she’s entitled to that assessment of the work, but to blame it on a lack of exposure to the classics is unjust and inaccurate.
Melissa Hillman is the artistic director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. She also offers audition coaching; visit www.melissahillman.com
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.