There have been times in the last year or so during which I’ve begun to wonder whether culture has left me behind. I haven’t been interested in modern music in a dog’s age. More and more, when I watch certain films others find popular, I wonder whether I’ve somehow fallen asleep in the dark and missed the essential five minutes that would have helped me care about the characters m I’m watching: during Inception, for example, and during Avatar. None of this troubles me overmuch, as there is more undiscovered and perfectly pleasing music made before the present day than I could possibly discover in what’s left of my lifetime; the guys and gals in Hollywood (and outside Hollywood), furthermore, do still seem to make a handful of films I can actually care about every year… but when the same thing began to happen in theater, I started to get worried.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to a production of Black Watch by a dear friend with whom I see a great many productions. He and I had both heard, independently, from several friends and colleagues: we must see this show, we were told. We entered the Shakespeare Theatre with high expectations, as a result — it’s better to bring a meatball sandwich, a hot air balloon, and a gong into a theater than expectations, if you ask me, so I’m at least partially at fault — and by the time the show was over, we were both quite disappointed.
I call it a show, rather than a play, because if you ask me, that’s what it was: a series of beautifully choreographed, brilliantly acted, special effects-laden moments strung together, devoid of the one thing I personally consider the sine qua non of a play: a story. Sure, I can see how one was expected to piece together a narrative out of the fragments, or possibly several narratives, but none of them came forward and announced themselves enough to get me to care about them. Yes, there was conflict, and yes, there was rising action, and yes, the show was paced as if there was some sort of plot… but the whole thing felt like a body without bones: a human shape, but overly fleshy and malleable. Something inside it was just not right.
I want to be clear about something: I’m trying very hard, even though I seem to be failing, not to judge the play too harshly. I realize that for many of the patrons with whom I shared the audience, the spectacle they witnessed was probably thrilling, and there’s nothing wrong with being thrilled by a spectacle from time to time. Furthermore, I was able to admire it as an object of beauty: the choreographed fight ballets were lovely, and the moment in which the soldiers all read letters from home was modestly attractive. I liked it the way I like looking at an elegant bouquet of flowers or an arrangement of sushi on a plate. Pretty, in a lifeless sort of way.
For all their charm, however, these moments felt as if they had been severed from wherever they belonged organically… flowers plucked from a now-void earth, flesh carved out of a dead fish’s belly. The story they belonged to was… absent. It certainly wasn’t there on the stage, at least not for me. And what is theater without story? They also felt insufferably imitative: the soldier who’s about to snap; two soldiers fighting; a platoon caught behind enemy lines. I have seen it all before so often that it no longer surprises or inspires me to care.
Lots of people do care, though, I know. Black Watch has been a smash hit wherever it’s gone. Like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — another instance of what seems to be spectacle without narrative — it attracts a great many patrons. That many people can’t be wrong, can they? (Of course not — the heart wants what it wants. Mine just happens to want something else.) So the only conclusion I can draw is this: theatrical tastes are changing, and I’m not interested in going along for the ride.
The question I’ve been asking myself now is whether the changes are temporary — a fad we’ll all look back on with mild embarrassment, like moon rocks or mullet haircuts — or representative of a more significant shift in the nature of our art form. With all of my heart, I hope it’s the former.
Update: Another dear friend — who has now seen Black Watch an almost unimaginable (to me) four times — sent me a photocopy of the introduction to the printed play, written by a former lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, Matt Whitney. The introduction is rather clear in describing how its author and several other soldiers were deeply moved by what they saw. He seemed to be saying that the play felt like a mirror held up to their lives: one that simply reflected their experience in war, without judgment, which is a kind of generosity I hope we all get to experience.
The fact that the play was so powerful for such atypical theatergoers has given me pause. I have devoted significant space here on this blog and in chats both digital and live asserting that we need to make more theater for people like Lt. Colonel Whitney — that we make too much theater to please each other, as theater practitioners, which isolates and alienates potential audiences. In other words, the fact that I didn’t care for Black Watch at all is perhaps a great testimony to its importance. It wasn’t made for me, as it shouldn’t have been.
Perhaps I should try to see it again.