One of the peculiar pleasures of dining in Amish country is the “family-style” restaurant: an establishment in which you sit at a long table with complete strangers sharing immense platters of food brought out in great waves by plain-clothed waitresses. (I use “pleasures” advisedly, knowing that for some people, imposed gregariousness would be a great pain… as would Amish food.) A few weeks ago, my wife and son and I had occasion to eat at the Good ‘N Plenty—a classic of the family-style genre in Lancaster, PA that I remembered visiting when I was eight years old—and found ourselves in pleasant conversation with the family of four (a father, a mother, and two adorable sons) seated next to us. We’d spent the day at a farm, introducing our two year-old to a variety of animals he’d only ever seen in books, then taken a dip in the hotel pool after his afternoon nap. They’d driven into town that morning, they explained to us, just in time for a matinee at a local theater.
Naturally, my ears pricked right up: theater? Surely they hadn’t driven five hours from Newport News to watch a movie, I thought… and, in fact, I was right. It was a play they’d come to see: specifically, a production of a play called JONAH at the Sight and Sound Millennium Theatre. (“Where the Bible comes to life!”) I was bewildered. I had no idea places like that existed. In fact, as it happens, the family we dined actually had a choice of between two religious plays currently running in Amish country. They could also have seen (I am not making this title up) THE CONFESSION: A MUSICAL. Who the hell knew? I certainly didn’t.
A quick Google search suggests that a person living in the Lancaster area does have a few other theater-going options in relatively close proximity: an all-comedy dinner theater and a venue that hosts touring productions of chestnuts. I’m sure there are high school productions as well, and there may be one or two options my search may not have uncovered, but in the main, that seems to be it.
Is this what most of America thinks theater is? Bible stories, faithfully recreated? A zany diversion while you chow down on fried chicken and mashed potatoes? Familiar, traditional, time-tested productions whizzing through town like the circus? If so, I find that deeply disheartening. There’s not enough in that diet of narratives to challenge anyone. Not enough to make people see the world in a new way, to broaden the intellectual lives of the people who live there, to keep the community on its toes, or to help people interrogate the human soul. It’s straightforward and/or bland fare, designed only to prop up the worldviews of the people who digest it, and it really makes me sad.
I am, of course, exaggerating here. I’m sure that in everything—even THE CONFESSION: A MUSICAL—there are moments here and there of surprise and inspiration and curiosity. (I’m reminded of the way Philip Larkin described the early days of jazz as “one man in an otherwise dull band.”) A lot can happen to change someone’s life in a mere moment. And of course it must be said that theater doesn’t ONLY have to challenge and provoke; it can entertain, comfort, delight, teach, and lots of other things besides. But if it never tests the limits of the people its made for, I believe, it ultimately fails them.
As soon as I write that last line, however, I feel as if I have to challenge my presumptions. Isn’t it possible that the people of Lancaster, PA actually *have* all the theater they care for? By insisting, as I do, that they’ve been under-served, aren’t I showing my cultural biases? It’s almost as if I want to *make them* go see… I don’t know… DETROIT or even THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?, just because I think it’d be good for them. Who am I to say such a thing?
Okay: I actually do think it’d be good for them to see those plays… if they saw them willingly. Enforced play-going as a kind of punishment? It just wouldn’t take. The mind doesn’t work that way.
So here’s the question: do you think the people of Lancaster, PA would willingly see those plays if we made them available? Or do you think they aren’t available because people wouldn’t be willing to see them? Do we have a supply problem or a demand problem? Which is it?
Or perhaps you don’t see any problem at all. Perhaps you believe that the good folk of Lancaster, PA are in fine theatrical hands: that experiencing only stories that reinforce their Christian mono-culture and their stereotypes about the rest of the world is in some way good for them. If so… well, I’ll just say that I disagree, and leave it at that.