After reading Cary Perloff’s recent article I will admit that I found myself slightly offended (okay maybe not so slightly). I was quite sure she was saying that we should abandon new plays and only do classics because new plays could never match the oldies. Or that somehow the universe had shifted during the night and new plays were being done so much that classic plays felt bad that they couldn’t get a production (not to mention a second production! Am I right?!). We all know that this is not true. Shakespeare is doing fine (most produced playwright in the multiverse). The Greeks are swell (I see marvelous new translations and terribly boring old translations all the time). Ibsen, Chekhov, even crazy ass Woyzek gets productions that far outweigh most new plays. The good news buried in the article was that ACT is going to open a new space for new plays for new students. A lot of new going on, which will be a great boon for my city. I think that’s what’s happening. I was so miffed that I couldn’t quite tell what’s going on. But yay. We hope. The point of the article that I was most stung by was the assumption that young writers don’t care about the classics. Or worse, that we don’t know them. Or that an MFA program somehow bleaches the grand tradition of theater out of us in favor of plays that sound like television. The idea that somehow, because some new plays sound modern, this means that the writers do not appreciate Sophocles, Marlowe, Molière, or all the other white guys of yore. Yeah. That pissed me off. Because that, my dear readers, is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard. So. Here is a list of things that my colleagues and I know about writing new plays because we have read old plays: 1. New Plays Wanted! The best thing about the Greeks is that they insisted on new plays. The highlight of the damn year was the annual festival of—what’s that again?—new plays! Plays were presented in a competitive manner. Tragedians vs. tragedians. All night, all day performances for the entire city. It was like the superbowl… of theater! So when we talk of the classics, we cannot help avoid that we are talking about new plays too. 2. Stakes! The first thing you notice when reading the Greeks is that everything is going to hell. Oedipus is dealing with a plague (and a bad case of hubris). Agamemnon can’t seem to shake this constant warring. Everyone has some issues with the gods. The stakes are so high all the time. Everything is life and death. Everything is massive and holy. This is all very exciting to watch. 3. Solid Storytelling I’m a fan of structure. Aristotle is my favorite (minus his annoying misogyny and racism). I think structure solves a lot of dramaturgical conundrums and adds some meatiness to a very emotional art form. But more to the point is that the clarity of a character’s intention and goals gets us from beginning to end. We know what Hamlet wants from the second scene (revenge for his father). In the end of the play, he gets it. Same in Lysistrata. Same in Strindberg’s anti-plot Miss Julie. Storytelling is, at its essence, following a character that wants something so bad that they will do anything to get it. This is all very exciting to watch. 4. Flaws A hero isn’t very fun if she/he has no flaws. Macbeth teaches us this (so does Lady M). Oedipus of course. If someone is perfect then nothing will go wrong, and it is only when things go wrong that plot—y’know—exists. We know Romeo rushes into things with the ladies, but there he goes again with this Juliet girl. We like knowing the characters better than they know themselves. This is all very exciting to watch. 5. Make Things Go Wrong This is basically playwriting. And it’s very exciting to watch. 6. Funny Isn’t Just Silly! I fear that modern American theater is often FOCed up. FOC is the dreaded Fear Of Comedy. I fear that much of American theater sees comedy as a scary or simply “entertaining” thing, not as the necessary, satirical, brilliant theatrical punch-in-the-face that it was in the time of the Greeks. Look at the scathing, sexy, and hilarious Lysistrata. Or The Frogs. Or The Clouds! Lampooning the elite and ridiculing the powerful is the same instinct that Voltaire employed, not to mention John Stewart. Funny is essential and meaningful. Plus audiences really like it. 7. Mystery, Poetry, and Magic are Welcome Humans are curious, beauty-beckoned, and thrillable creatures. A good mystery, a gorgeous song, or some impossible nature are always worth watching. Use them wisely and they will carry your story.
- Oedipus Rex starts with an unsolved mystery: Who killed the king Laius? Well now I have to watch the thing.
- Hamlet’s father and Banquo (magical ghosts that deliver very important stake-raising information).
- Marlowe’s description of Helen (beautiful lines for a beautiful subject) in Dr. Faustus: "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium." Timeless and mythic.