Well-Made Dramas

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Well-Made Dramas

 Published in The Hopkins Review New Series 5.4 (Fall 2012)

          Enumerating Shakespeare’s supposed defects, Dr. Johnson wrote:

His first … is that … [h]e sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance.

          Johnson’s diagnosis is both spot-on and, to modern ears, preposterous. He has called Shakespeare out for relying on a key part of the formula for the well-made contemporary drama. To the audiences thronging recent New York productions of The Common Pursuit and Clybourne Park, any effort by the playwrights to make a “just distribution of good [and] evil” would surely have seemed both unpalatable and dishonest. And the revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man [sic] shows the dangers of labeling choices and characters too confidently.

Karmic Diversity

          In most modern drama, everyone gets some good karma and some bad. Every character, “be he ne’er so vile,” exhibits some virtue and some insight, and every character’s moral armor has a chink or two, accompanied by blind spots of one sort or another in his or her vision of the world. The action thus becomes a collective one, a picture of a community as a whole moving, through the clash of personalities and outlooks, from one point to another.

          The community in The Common Pursuit is a brace of Cambridge graduates, whom we first meet in the 1960s, embarking on publication of a journal fittingly to be called The Common Pursuit. Playwright Simon Gray assumes that his audiences will recognize the allusion, which is to the title of a 1952 collection of essays on British writers, mostly poets, by F.R. Leavis. Leavis in turn borrowed the phrase from T.S. Eliot, feeling that it encapsulated the business of the critic: “the common pursuit of true judgment.” That the phrase – and Leavis its proponent – could have plausibly electrified a group of 1960s undergraduates is an index to how much things have changed – and indeed how much they change in the play.

Neither Common Nor a Pursuit

          The students’ own pursuit, to maintain a journal of new poetry plus criticism along Leavisite lines, which is to say along the lines of the critical review Scrutiny, which Leavis published from 1932 to 1953, becomes neither common nor even a pursuit as the play progresses.

          Instead, it emerges, as we follow the group deep into middle age, in one instance to the grave, and in another to its vicinity, that the actual object of their common pursuit is lives as literati of varying stripes. Humphry (Tim McGeever) continues in the academy as historian and dean, Stuart (Josh Cooke) the would-be editor, ends up as a literary commentator, his friend Martin (Jacob Fishel) becomes a publisher, Peter (Kieran Campion) an author of high-end potboiler non-fiction and wangler of foundation grants, and Nick (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) a TV theater critic. Marigold (Kristen Bush), first the wife of one of them, then of another, leaves the purlieus of criticism to pursue a solid career as a teacher and administrator at girls’ schools. If there is a theme to their lives, it is not the rigorous scrutiny of received texts, but rather the quotidian drama of getting on with careers, marriages, betrayals, infidelities, and loss. In other words, we are not in F.R. Leavis territory, but rather that of Frederic Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

          What these characters come to exemplify has little to do with the Leavisian moral seriousness they stared with. In fact, in some instances the characters are revealed to lack any sense of seriousness; most notably a couple of them displaying the callous boys-will-be-boys attitude toward adultery (and husbandly solidarity in covering for each other’s escapades) that comes straight out of Kingsley Amis. In this world adultery, much more than literature, is the Brownian motion that keeps the molecules of the characters’ lives moving around and recombining. And of course that motion is the very stuff of drama.

Tonic Diversity

          To return to Dr. Johnson for a moment, he also noted Shakespeare’s uneven tone:

Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another…

This mingling is exactly the effect modern audiences crave, and exactly what Gray was aiming at.

          Gray wrote in An Unnatural Pursuit, his journal of the original 1984 Hammersmith production of his play (directed by Harold Pinter), that “I’d intended [the scene in which Humphry’s death is announced] to be, if not light, then at least matter of fact.” It would be an “obvious trap” to “play the play for laughs in the funny bits and seriously in the serious bits. We’ll have to make sure that the funny and the serious are simply played naturally, leaving the audience to find out for themselves which is which.” His conclusion: the play is “about the way things go on.”And the way they go on is mixed throughout.

          Gray favors a mixture which is 90% humor, 10% gall. For instance, as Act I winds down, Stuart is working his way toward the conclusion that he must give up the magazine, because it is ineffectually elitist, and, worse, destroying his efforts to build a life with Marigold. Yet the substantiating information is built up entirely by humorous indirection: hints that Stuart has been ducking out on his creditors and moved out of his home with Marigold so they can take in a lodger with an indescribable foreign accent, farce involving a piece that Nick has submitted to the magazine and now wants back so he can sell it to Vogue and which Stuart wishes to give back because it is not up to editorial standards but which, despite both their wishes, cannot be returned because Peter is using it to obtain an emergency grant from the Arts Council only likely to be granted if Nick’s piece stays with The Common Pursuit. Finally, a note of crisis: Marigold is pregnant – at the same time as Martin’s dog, a coincidence which allows for confusing and witty byplay comparing their situations.

          Then the denouement in a series of three announcements in a devastating order: a) Stuart’s that he will end the magazine in favor of marriage and parenthood with Marigold; b) Marigold’s that, to save the magazine, she has just had an abortion; and c) Peter’s that he has obtained the grant which could have allowed Marigold and Stuart to proceed with both magazine and parenthood. The sacrifice of the pregnancy was for naught: an O. Henry irony that will fuel lifelong regret. And yet when Peter sees Marigold’s expression, we are slammed back into the world of comedy:

PETER. …But God, you look ravishing … but distraught. Are you distraught?

MARIGOLD. No, perfectly traught, thanks.

Take That, F.R.!

          Perhaps it was this inconsequential-seeming mixture of tones that led Gray to observe that “there really isn’t a plot.” But then he gives himself away, with the remark that follows on the heels of this self-deprecation. In place of a plot, Gray writes, there are: “Simply happenings. Love affairs, abortions, adulteries, treacheries, compromises, lingering deaths, sudden deaths. The routine stuff of English social comedy, in fact.” Not only are these exactly the sort of thing most of us mean when we speak of plot, but, as the example just reviewed illustrates, Gray is actually an outstanding architect of tragicomic plotting.

          Still, in denigrating his own work this way, Gray sounds suspiciously Leavisite. Leavis would doubtless have demanded something higher and finer, not so attainted with popular culture. That Gray might have been tempted in that direction is in keeping with the early part of his biography; by his own account, he was a regular at Leavis’ lectures and hung around with if not precisely in the circle around the great man.

          But in my estimation, the play ultimately repudiates the Leavisite perspective. One must acknowledge the very coda to the play, which re-immerses the audience in the lives of the characters at the very moment in which we had first met them. There they warn each other to be careful to set down and adhere to strict standards. Having seen where they subsequently go, we know they will do no such thing. But the effect, at least in this production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, is not so much horrifying as ironic and comical. As the play graphically and persuasively illustrates, the standards were never realistic. That being the case, it is hard to lament their not being lived up to.

          And it can hardly be that if the characters’ standards are unlivable, their creator would have failed to see the moral. Surely Gray must have come to understand that, for all its self-proclaimed seriousness, Leavisianism was principally about gratuitous snotty putdowns. For example, in Leavis’ Common Pursuit, Leavis observes that D.H. Lawrence and the Bloomsbury crowd didn’t care for each other; Leavis likes Lawrence; and therefore, on the basis of little more than unsupported pronunciamentos, denigrates Bloomsbury. This leaves Leavis, disastrously, only half-right. And certainly that sense of superiority extended to all manifestations of popular culture including popular drama, the cinema and the small screen. In other words, to the very arts by which Gray both expressed and fed himself.

          So the play may be something of a regretful and nostalgic backward glance, but it must be viewed as an endorsement of all that messiness in the characters’ lives, a messiness to which moral relativism and tonal inconsistency are not merely appropriate, but vital.

Clybourne Park: Thoroughly Blended

          It would be hard to find the tragic and the comic more thoroughly blended and shaken up than in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, which as of this writing was due to hold over at the Walter Kerr Theatre until mid-August, having arrived there after a long gestation period that included (among stops at places like Steppenwolf and Woolly Mammoth) an off-Broadway run with the same cast in 2010. This work plays off Raisin in the Sun in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the ways Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead played off Hamlet and Wide Sargasso Sea played off Jane Eyre. In Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece, the black Younger family ready themselves to move from inner city Chicago to the fictional white neighborhood of Clybourne Park; in the first half of this play, set at the same moment, Clybourne Park readies itself to receive the Youngers, and in the second half, the neighborhood deals, half a century later, with the consequences of their arrival. We are thus in what might be called fictional adjoining rooms.

          To be sure, Clybourne Park is not Raisin’s equal. Few plays are. Raisin was nothing less than a summation of 1959’s African American issues in the urban North (residential integration, women’s hair, reaffirmation of African ties, gender roles), woven together with cunning humor and masterful plotting. Yet Clybourne Park takes Raisin in a very interesting direction, and moves on to other concerns in a respectful if determined way.

          Hansberry placed her characters firmly in their time. Their time had made the Youngers what lawyers and economists would call willing buyers. But there are counterparties in every transaction, and the times also select willing sellers. Clybourne Park intelligently asks two questions: what would make for willing sellers, and what would be the consequences of that sale?

Willing Sellers

          The questions have to be answered together. Lest we forget, Northern cities of that era did not so much integrate as change boundaries. Antero Pietila’s invaluable Not in My Neighborhood (2010) explores the process at a granular level in Baltimore, but it was essentially the same process in most places, and certainly occurred in Chicago. After World War II, restrictive covenants and mortgage redlining had kept blacks pent up in areas too small for their numbers and had made them desperate to move away. If a single black family like the Youngers slipped free and moved into a white neighborhood, then real estate brokers would show the remaining houses on the block to black families only, and at prices lower than what the market would have bourne earlier; panic selling by white homeowners, eager to salvage something of their home equity, would ensue; brokers would pocket commissions as a mass of black home buyers, acting on the basis of (literally) pent-up demand, surged into newly opened areas and whites fled. But before the process could start, though, some white homeowner would have to break ranks. That homeowner would have to know and not care that he was condemning everyone else in his neighborhood to pull up stakes too.

          The first half and the coda of Clybourne Park are about the white family that breaks ranks and sells. As the action starts, they are under contract, and apparently do not know the race of their buyers, though obviously their offstage broker, Ted Driscoll, does. But when Karl Lindner (Jeremy Shamos), the representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, the same character who in Raisin attempted to buy off the Youngers, appears in Clybourne Park making a last-ditch effort to get Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk), the white homeowners, to think about the impact on the neighbors, he is met with escalating hostility and implacable refusal. It gradually becomes plain that Russ and Bev, though they may not have been deliberately selling to blacks, have little interest in protecting their neighbors. There is some history there.

          We learn that Russ and Bev are trying to survive the suicide of their son, a Korean War veteran, a victim of what today would be called PTSD, who had apparently snapped and killed some innocent civilians in Korea. And this history has led to ostracism:

RUSS: … ya mean the community where every time I go for a haircut, where they all sit and stare like the goddamn grim reaper walked in the barber shop door? That community?

So the sellers are unconstrained by loyalty to their neighbors. Moreover, the son had actually hanged himself in the very house, and, as we learn, is in some wise haunting it. So the sellers are very willing.

Fuck You, Casual Good Cheer Style

          In keeping with the norms discussed above, however, this tragic history is delivered in comic, even hilarious fashion. The white Clybourne Park of the first act is a sort of Prairie Home Companion parody of a Protestant community where all interactions, including the most devastating confrontations, proceed with a veneer of casual good cheer. When the clergyman drops by, and tries ineffectually but persistently to provide unwelcome ministry to Russ’ grief, Russ finally draws the line in these confused terms:

… if you do keep going on about those things, Jim, well, I hate to have to put it this way, but what I think I might have to do is … uh, politely ask you to uh, (clears his throat) … well, to go fuck yourself.

          The full consequences of Russ and Bev’s apostasy are revealed in Act II. Predictably, their sale of the house triggers the transformation of Clybourne Park into an all-black neighborhood. And now, fifty years later, white gentry, in the persons of expectant yuppie Lindsey (Annie Parissee) and her husband Steve (Jeremy Shamos again), are beginning to take an interest in moving back. This time the local opposition is black, led by Lena (Crystal A. Dickinson), grand-niece of Mama Younger, and somewhat abetted by broker Tom Driscoll (Brendan Griffin), who seems to have taken over his father’s business. (To complete the list of echoes from both Raisin and Act I, Lindner’s lawyer daughter Kathy (Christina Kirk again) is trying to advocate for Lindsey, Steve, and their offstage architect.) Officially the issue facing the gathering is the nonconformity to neighborhood architectural standards of the house Steve and Lindsey want to build in place of the now-derelict Younger home; actually the issue is the nonconformity of their white skin. And again, just as when the Youngers sought to trespass on another race’s turf, there is no comfortable way for the opposition to be expressed or discussed.

What You Can’t Say

          The problem is that in our society saying directly and explicitly that you’re rejecting a person on account his or her race cannot be done, and for good reason: it contradicts the most fundamental American ideals (however consonant it may be with American realities). The discourse must therefore be couched as an invocation of a lesser ideal, neighborhood cohesion, coupled with a disingenuous disavowal of one’s real motivation. In playwright Norris’ hands (as in Hansberry’s), that kind of circumlocution is always bound to fail, exposing (in the most hilarious way) dishonesty, shoddy thinking, and racism.

          Thus Karl in 1959:

The children who attend St. Stanislaus. Once a year we take the middle schoolers up to Indianhead Mountain, and I can tell you, in all the time I’ve been there, I have not once seen a colored family on those slopes. Now, what accounts for that? Certainly not any deficit in ability, so what I have to conclude is that, for some reason, there is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community.

          And Lena in 2009:

That’s just a part of my history and my parents’ history – and honoring the connection to that history – and, no one, myself included, likes having to dictate what you can or can’t do with your own home, but there’s just a lot of pride, and a lot of memories in these houses, and for some of us that connection still has value, if that makes any sense.

          Karl’s diatribe ignores the obvious economic and social barriers that explain the absence of what he calls “the skiing Negroes.” Lena’s takes two ideas that have no inherent connection (architectural restrictions and pride in family history) and tries to act as if they were connected – for if they are not, then an exclusionary impulse is the only remaining explanation for her stance.

In the Racial Stew Together

          These are but two examples from dozens in the play chronicling the extreme discomfort people have discussing race, and particularly so (though by no means exclusively) when they are behaving badly because of it. Pillorying the motives behind the guarded language and the covert attempts to lower the neighborhood portcullis is Norris’ business, and he does it with far greater skill than there is space to praise here. At the same time, he is far too canny a playwright to write a play to Dr. Johnson’s prescription. There are no utterly bad people and no utterly good ones, including his racists. His Karl Lindner, for instance, is a kind and protective spouse to his deaf and pregnant wife. Lena has the good grace to be so embarrassed by her message that she cannot even render it in intelligible fashion. And everyone in the 2009 segment seems nicer in a way when they degenerate into telling racist (and sexist and homophobic jokes). We are all in this racial stew together, Norris seems to be suggesting, doing the best we can.

          At the end, the play circles back quietly to the tragedy of Russ and Bev’s son. In the face of that unimaginable sadness, all the racial tension fades like so much dimly-heard static. It is a sobering moment, like Chaucer’s Retraction at the end of the Canterbury Tales, one that both diminishes the importance of and forgives much of the folly that went before. Racist barriers are eventually breached, neighborhoods change, and individual acts of human perversity decay, Norris seems to be saying, but death is forever.

The Best Man: A Self-Satisfied Flourish

          No such retraction in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, in a limited-run revival with an all-star cast at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The play pounds without much subtlety to its conclusion, and then stops with a self-satisfied flourish. Not coincidentally, it is shocking to see how thoroughly this play has aged, in large measure because the world it depicts has so thoroughly vanished. Here major political party nominating conventions are where presidential nominees are chosen; being anti-Communist is still a selling-point for a candidate; parties are big tents that can include a committeewoman (Angela Lansbury) who is “the only known link between the N.A.A.C.P. and the Ku Klux Klan.” Rather than resist the period piece nature of the play, the current production has doubled down, decking the auditorium in campaign posters done in the simple color processes of the era, showing events on old-fashioned black-and-white CRT televisions.

          But it goes well beyond that. The characters themselves are no longer found in nature. Specifically, the play is a contest between the ghosts of Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon, revivified in the antagonists William Russell (John Laroquette) and Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack) respectively. We know Vidal means us to admire candidate Russell because he quotes Bertrand Russell and has a self-deprecating sense of humor, as did Stevenson. We know Vidal means us to dislike Cantwell because he has come to prominence, as Richard Nixon did, conducting legislative inquisitions into the Communist threat, because he is humorless and not perceptive about other people, and because he is willing to smear Russell by publicly revealing Russell’s history of minor depression. (In the screenplay of the 1964 movie, screenwriter Vidal gave him an additional sin: pandering to segregationists, but that is not in the play.) Their wives are similarly coded; Alice Russell (Candice Bergen) is a good egg because she is willing to overlook her husband’s Stevensonian past infidelities in view of his political rightness, and Mabel Cantwell (Kerry Butler) is not so good an egg because she engages in catfight tactics dealing with Alice, endorses her husband’s release of the smear, and speaks with a Southern accent (which carries a certain cultural and political freight with New York audiences). In this production, her husband also speaks Southern (although that is not called for in the script, nor was it that way in the movie).

          The central conflict is over the use of smears. To force Russell to capitulate, Cantwell is prepared to release information about Russell’s depressive episode; Russell in turn very reluctantly decides to release information that appears to out Cantwell as homosexual. When it emerges that Cantwell is heterosexual after all, Russell decides that Cantwell still needs to be stopped, and therefore throws his support to a third candidate, an unknown, but at least not Cantwell. He thus proves himself “the best man,” even if he does not achieve the nomination.

Quaint But Confused

          There is a quaint quality about all this. Word of depressive episodes could be truly poisonous to a campaign then (Thomas Eagleton had to renounce his vice presidential nomination in 1972 because it came out he’d had them.) And homosexuality was hard even to talk about (the ex-president fumbles to reach the vague word “degenerate”); it would have been unthinkable for most politicians (the threat of outing led to the suicide of a senator in 1959’s Advise and Consent, it should be recalled – and this was loosely based on an actual senatorial suicide in 1954). Either kind of revelation would still be burdensome to a campaign today, but neither would necessarily prove fatal. And in any event, modern versions of personal destruction by press release are infinitely more refined and far more damaging than they used to be, and a staple of most campaigns. In a post-Lee Atwater world, the threatened exposures of Best Man seem kind of lightweight.

          Lightweight is not so bad as confused, however. Russell’s initial resolution to release the smear is heavily influenced by a former president (James Earl Jones), who keeps barking out warnings that to be worthy of the presidency, a man needs to be willing to get his hands dirty; and we never learn what Vidal really thinks about this advice. Russell’s subsequent reconsideration may pass too quickly for the audience to think through its implications, but they bear contemplation.

          Russell decides not to release the smear because it turns out not to be true; in other words he will not stoop to a lie. So far so good; this distinguishes him from Cantwell, who knows that the smear on Russell, though factually accurate, is trivial and irrelevant to Russell’s qualifications. Cantwell is, then, willing to mislead with the truth, which is not to his credit. But apparently if the homosexual rumor about Cantwell had been true, Russell would have been willing to publicize it. It is hard to accept that Vidal, gay and at times a serious candidate for political office himself, could possibly have been implying that being gay makes you less worthy to hold office. Yet there seems to be no other explanation for Russell’s “principled” decision other than a belief on his part that if Cantwell were actually gay, it would legitimately throw Cantwell’s competence into question. In short, it seems that Russell buys into homophobia and is at least reluctantly willing to smear with it, so long as he is confident in the accuracy of the smear. In this light, it is hard to see him as all that much better than Cantwell.

Quaint But Sanctimonious

          Now we could of course take this as some kind of “no good guys, no bad guys” dramatic sophistication we saw in The Common Pursuit and Clybourne Park, but I don’t buy it. Consider Russell’s big speech to Cantwell at the end, after he has removed them both from contention, explaining why taking Cantwell down was the right thing:

Because you have no sense of responsibility toward anybody or anything and that is a tragedy in a man and it is a disaster in a president! You said you were religious. Well, I’m not.  But I believe profoundly in this life and what we do to one another and how this monstrous “I,” the self, must become “we” and draw the line at murder in the games we play with one another, and try to be good even when there is no one to force us to be good.

It is hard even to parse this speech or to see exactly how it fits into the story of the play (no one was murdering anyone), but its dramatic function is clear: to establish Russell as a morally superior person and the hero of the piece. Russell is supposed to be a good guy and Cantwell is supposed to be bad guy, and that is that.

          But to share that perspective despite the homophobia that necessarily informs it, a modern audience must make the same kinds of moral allowances demanded by Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitism. However, to state the obvious, this play has a long way to go to stake the kind of claims on our imagination that Merchant does. Perhaps there is even more method than is first apparent to the “madness” of decking this production of Best Man out so graphically in the trappings of a 1960s campaign, by allowing us to suspend our moral disbelief, and take pleasure, à la Mad Men, in attitudes we now usually find reprehensible, a dissociation we can pull off precisely because those attitudes hark back to a safely distant and clearly-labeled past.

Warhorses Doing Warhorses

          The cast, mostly extremely well-seasoned veterans, largely harks back as well, and jointly constitutes at least as big a draw as the play itself. It’s fascinating to see how differently Best Man has been cast over the years. William Russell has been portrayed by Melvyn Douglas (1960), Henry Fonda (the 1963 movie), Spalding Grey (2000) and now John Laroquette. That is a jaw-dropping breadth of character types. Previous Cantwells have included Clint Robertson and Chris Noth. And it would be difficult to find two more dissimilar Alice Russells than the movie’s Margaret Leighton (all slim and elegant superiority and arched eyebrows) and Candice Bergen, who brings a winning vulnerability to the role, making use along the way of her incipient stoutness to characterize the kind of spouse of a certain age a libidinous politician might leave by the wayside and then double back to retrieve for many good reasons.

          I can recall seeing the movie as a youngster, back when politics had far more glamor, and I recall particularly being buzzed by the insider air and the portentousness of some of the speeches. But politics is so different today, there is nothing legitimately insider-ish in the plot, the characterizations, or the conflict, to capitalize on now. Today, the value must be fundamentally in the acting, which probably explains the all-star lineup.

          Modern audiences may indeed enjoy seeing extremely familiar faces headlining warhorses, but those pleasures pale beside what is on offer in Common Pursuit or Clybourne Park.  And it is not merely a matter of different political times. The black hat/white hat dichotomy is just as dated. The fire and the fun of drama have largely migrated to the corner of the stage in which no one wears a sign that says hero or villain, and in which the elements of comedy and tragedy are more artfully mingled.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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