[Author’s Note: This is a portion of a speech I gave to the Southeast Theatre Conference in 2000.]

In Robert Aulett’s play, Alberta Radiance, Alberta speaks the opening like, “I have this human life to live, and I don’t know what to do with it.”  The operative word is human, as in “the human condition,” “the human predicament” or “the human comedy.”  When we utter such expressions, we assume the listener knows what we mean, but in my 78 years of living, I have never heard anyone explain what that “human” condition, predicament, comedy or life is.

Thornton Wilder speaks of the human element as related to the theatre when he writes, “Theatre is the most immediate way in which one human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human.  The playwright is the voice of the nation, steward of our country’s humanity.”

Martin Esslin echoes Wilder’s conviction:

Once the spectator’s attention and interest have been caught, once he or she has been induced to follow the action with the utmost concentration and involvement, his powers of perception are heightened, his emotions freely flowing; and he will, in fact, reach a state of consciousness:  more receptive, more observant, better able to discern the underlying united and pattern of human existence.  Among all artistic experiences of this kind, drama is one of the most powerful.

I ask you:  Are such descriptions those of your experiences in watching plays written by contemporary playwrights?  Have the playwrights considered what it means to live the human condition?  The human predicament?  For Esslin:

The experience of sharing another human being’s fate with deep compassion, of having gained a profound, lasting insight into human nature and man’s predicament in this world is an emotion akin to a religious feeling.

Has that been your experience?  What kind of experience have you had from Wit, How I Learned to Drive, Cats, Angels in America, ‘night Mother, Epic Proportions?

When President Filippo invited me last summer to give a keynote address at the SETC convention, I immediately announced to him my title: “What the Playwrights Seem to Have Forgotten, and What Teachers and Students of the Theatre Must Always Remember.”

Much to my surprise, the muscle memory in my theatre-going body jolted me into recollecting all the monologues I had seen, all the intermissionless theatre events I had witnessed, all the disappointments over the past few decades, all the entertaining and interesting theatre pieces I had rushed to the theatre to see, but which had left me feeling that I had come to see a drama and not been fulfilled.

And much to an even greater surprise and pleasure, I discovered Michael Feingold, chief theatre critic for the Village Voice, writing just this past November an article confirming my observations and disappointments.   His article is titled, “People want plays, but the theatre’s going to pieces.”  He quotes the great Italian actress, Eleanora Duse, grousing about actors 90 years ago: “It isn’t drama they play, but pieces for the theatre.”  Feingold picks up Duse’s lament:

At their core, most recent plays aren’t dramatic.  Such conflict as they contain tends to be either factious or overfamiliar, with no sense of anything in it being freshly examined.  Measured against the great plays (or even the standard plays) of past eras, they tend to look like so much piffle.  Yet the play — the thing that embodies drama — won’t go away.  We’ve tried every kind of substitute: the parade of images, the recitation of lumps of data, the non-adapted transfer of texts from history or fiction, the self-revelation.  We want drama, and we want its conflict to deal with something that matters to us.

I have spent evenings, as has Feingold, with theatre pieces that have engaged me but not aroused me; I have been entertained but not inspired.

Craig Lucas, a contemporary playwright, knows O’Neill’s mission as a playwright.  Just a few months ago in a letter to the New York Times, he wrote:

Recently I met a powerful movie producer who had just seen O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  His first question to me was, “What exactly is O’Neill getting at?  I didn’t quite get it.” I said, “He’s getting at terror and he’s getting at pity — you know, like Sophocles.”

But from reading or seeing Lucas’ plays, what do you think his experience is?

Drama, like all art, is experiential.  What experience has the audience had?  I would ask every playwright and every director to ask the same question, “What experience do you want your audience to have at the conclusion of the evening?”

Drama is about what happens on the stage and in the audience.  The people on the stage have gone through a test, and the audience has been a compassionate witness to that test, we hope.  The question I pose does not exclude what you want them to think about, but it should emphasize what you want them to feel.  It asks your audience to wonder, “What happened to me?”  And try to never forget, when you experiment in the theatre, you are experimenting with the audience.

9 Comments

  1. Howard —

    Thank you for this hard reminder that the modern Playwright has a lot of work to do in the stake of history. As time expands, and the genesis of the “originating ideal” of Aristotle’s Poetics becomes stretched and rationed and reasoned to death in the ongoing expanse of non-dramatic plays over time — it is up to the rest of us to continue to fight to answer the question you posed to us on the first day of our graduate work at Columbia University: “What kind of theatre do you want?”

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