I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about August Wilson’s body of work, which has come to mean a great deal to me. In the last few years or so, I’ve noted a bit of mild antipathy toward his plays—the primary complaints being that they aren’t experimental enough and that they’re over-written—and for some reason that negativity has been bugging me of late.
What Wilson did with his Pittsburgh Cycle was huge, human, poetic, and above all important. That last adjective is a descriptor that gets used too readily for my comfort, I hasten to add. (August: Osage County, for example—I’d apply the first three adjectives I just used to that fine piece of work, but not the fourth… much as I enjoyed it.) Naturally, when an artist attempts something so ambitious, there are bound to be imperfections. The grand canvas of life, after all, is full of them; we are more imperfect, in fact, than polished, which is why I prefer my theater that way as well—I want the stories I see to feel like part and parcel of the universe we occupy.
So there are imperfections—so what? A monologue that might be a touch too long, a smidgen of unevenness from play to play. If we notice the bumps and bruises, it reminds us more strongly of the fragility and the vitality of the real people whose lives are depicted on stage. (By that measure, in fact, his work might be TOO finely-finished.) I genuinely love that about what he’s done.
I also fail to understand anyone’s concern with the fact that his work is realistic. (Is it realism, incidentally, or is it naturalism? I can see it both ways. Perhaps each play is realistic, but the cycle as a whole seems naturalistic. I need to think more on this…) It seems as if some time during the past decade or so, realism slid quietly from passé to outré without anybody raising a fuss—but I’d like to raise a fuss in retrospect, if I might.
Realism is a perfectly useful mode. It remains emotionally powerful, even in an age in which greater and greater orders of abstract thinking and are expected, demanded, and required of audiences. It also serves a documentary purpose of sorts; like a camera, it captures us as we are. And what else was August Wilson trying to do but show us the African American experience in the 20th century, as it was, and get us to be moved by it? Why the heck should he have chosen a different style, if that’s what he was trying to do? Because abstract expression is cool?
What really draws me to his work lately, however, is neither his style nor his execution—it’s his generosity. Yes, he was telling a somewhat autobiographical story—I don’t mean to ignore that obvious fact. But he put his life in service to a far grander narrative; he breathed his own life into others’ lives. He fixed his mind on the central questions of several successive generations—not just his own—and asked them, again and again, in different ways. He told not just his own story, but the story of a century, making a vast history accessible and tangible for everyone who encounters his work.
Yes, like history, it may get bogged down in details from time to time—but there’s precious treasure in those details, too, and his service has preserved that treasure.
I’d like to have the stamina he had in my own work. I’d like to be able to tell an interwoven, reflexive story that huge. I’ve toyed with it in small ways, but to discipline myself to such an endeavor… it’s more than I can imagine. Even so many years after first discovering his plays, I remain in awe.