stage dive

The Problem With Xtreme Theater

Jennifer Carpenter and Pablo Schreiber in Gruesome Playground Injuries.

The question goes back to the Greeks: What kind of shit should you put onstage? If you’re Adam Rapp, the answer is: all kinds of shit. Including literal shit. His characteristically grungy-punky-funky Hallway Trilogy (which I’ll review at greater length later this week, in the roundup) features not just murder, suicide, and diseased sex, but also pants crapping (with extended, in-your-face cleanup), onstage urination, boil-lancing, testicle-twiddling, and liberal blood spray. Sounds like a Long Island Craigslist ad come to life, right? Shit is real, yo.

So that’s how I spent last weekend, knee-deep in less-than-sterile theatrical biomass. Yet this week brought this missive from producer Ken Davenport, lamenting theater’s lack of stomach, its perceived inability to match the outré qualities of our culture, spurt for spurt. Davenport cites everything from ancient Lewinsky history to GOP congressman Christopher Lee’s shirtless personal-ad photo. “My question is this … since dramatic events have become much more apart of our everyday lives, does the drama we create have to become even more dramatic?” he ponders. “Do the events we show on stage have to be even more shocking? Do the characters have to be even more extreme? Is that one of the reasons why God of Carnage was a hit, but the [Neil] Simon plays failed to take off?”

I’m not entirely sure how Ken is defining “dramatic events,” and I’m guessing he missed Gruesome Playground Injuries. And Blasted. (And Bash. And the whole bloodied corpus of Martin McDonagh. And, to dial back our theater TARDIS a few years, David Rabe and David Mamet. And before them, Harold Pinter and Jean Genet and Edward Albee. And, before them, Sophocles and Aeschylus.) But in pointedly neglecting to separate sensationalism and shock-schlock from “drama,” he may be intuiting a deeper truth about how theater is perceived: On Broadway, especially, we do seem to see a great many contemporary plays set in well-appointed upper-middle-class homes, featuring fairly well-to-do folks nursing some dark secret that, in the end, turns out to be not all that terribly dark. It’s irrelevant that many of these plays — Time Stands Still and Other Desert Cities come to mind — are quite well done. They’re not constituted around the idea of savagery; they begin from a baseline expectation of civilization. These are generally dramas where wine is drunk and voices are raised, where secrets are revealed and wounds are probed — but the evening generally ends on a note of ambiguity and unease, with possibilities for both redemption and destruction hanging suspended in midair. The iceman never quite comes.

This, I think, is what Mr. Davenport is sensing — though I’m not sure it would help if characters in plays acted more like Real Housewives or philandering congressmen. I think the bigger problem is that Real Housewives and congressmen now act a lot more like characters in (bad) plays. Actual people seem to have internalized the very dregs of “drama” while filtering out the psychological richness, the dark complexities, the insoluble and distressing antinomies of great storytelling. I think what audiences crave in live performance is palpable consequences, in moral and dramatic proportion to the unique and immediate thrill of being shut in a dark theater with live actors.

That’s where we live now: in an age suspended between the sins of the past and the impending consequences of the very near future. We all feel we “came in at the end of something,” as Tony laments in The Sopranos’ pilot episode, and we’re still waiting for the curtain to drop, and maybe rise again on something else, something better — or at least something clearer. A week or so ago, a friend sent me an old Clive James review of a 1976 TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “I can remember being young enough, long enough ago, to believe that in Tennessee Williams the giant themes of Greek tragedy had returned, all hung about with magnolias. Ignorance of Greek tragedy helped in this view. This was the 1950s, when a lot of intentions were being taken for deeds.” Decades after that postwar American high faded, and with it the primacy of American theater, our culture finds itself frustratingly short on deeds and intentions. Onstage, this often adds up to sips of Valpolicella, long banter-laced arguments on mid-century-throwback couches and the occasional smashed scotch-tumbler when talk turns to the social contract (and/or some marital metaphor for same).

But take heart, because our greatest mainstream shock artists are trying their best to change that. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of moral forces underpin The Book of Mormon, which, its irreverent-yet-reverent creators insist, is a heartfelt work with something lucid and unsarcastic to say on the subject of faith. Can’t wait to see what that “something” is … even if it’s a giant, talking clitoris. Hell, especially if it’s a giant, talking clitoris. We can still put serious shit onstage, even if we may have become a less serious people.

The Problem With Xtreme Theater