an illustration
Original illustration by Skye Murie.

A few years back I was invited to take part in the launching of a new play development program and was paired with a fresh, young director. I was quite surprised as we talked about my play to find him urging me to pepper the text with highly theatrical stage directions which he assured me were more likely to attract prospective directors and theater companies to the play. This form of seduction was new to me. I had assumed the less one “staged” as a playwright, the better, allowing space for the designers and director to do their job. It turned out that my assumptions were mistaken.

I’ve been reminded of that experience lately as I mull over certain recent discussions about the state of our American theater that have been troubling me. In a recent piece for the Brooklyn Rail I described the Gesamtkunstwerk as practiced in the German theater in relation to our own practice. The Gesamtkunstwerk might be defined as a total work of art that combines equally all the arts of the stage and the sensual and intellectual participation of the audience. In response to my piece, a few American theater folk have lamented in emails that our own theater tradition is too playwright-focused, and our current discussions about our crisis are too limited to the playwright/artistic leadership relationship while ignoring the collaborative potential of the art form as practiced in traditions like the German.

I strongly agree that a collaboration deficit is central to the crisis of the American theater, and, by extension, to a crisis of the contemporary American play. And, to that end, I think it imperative to make a distinction as to the nature of “theatricality” in the American context vs. that of the German Gesamtkunstwerk—to avoid confusion and make something clear. Because there’s a lot of “theatricality” happening on American stages these days but it has nothing to do with the theatricality found in Germany, which has been going strong for a couple of centuries. And the theatricality so prevalent on our stages now has done nothing to alleviate our crisis.

Theatricality in America today, I would argue, is an MFA-inspired phenomenon produced almost solely by playwrights and duly supported by directors. The resulting highly theatrical plays teeter on the edge of magical realism or plummet over the top with plot elements and stage directions that seem derived from a handbook on wizardry. It’s worth noting that this new theatricality is woven into the plot, making it impossible to ignore in the way the old stage directions (She stands, he sits) were and are ignored.

Wagner's Lohengrin in Bayreuth. Photograph: EPA

The fact is, that a generation of playwrights has been encouraged by increasingly mandatory stints at MFA programs or through the inevitable process of imitation to step outside the bounds of “realism” and let their imaginations take flight. One begins to think that it’s the new aesthetic imperative. At best, this can be charming, but at worst, and far too often, the result is whimsicality at the expense of motivation and an apolitical disconnect from the real world. It’s particularly troubling that this kind of work has won the undying approval of the New York critical establishment at the expense of equally stimulating reality-based work, which often contains political themes. Critics, seemingly desperate for any kind of stage magic, are finding it where they can. And thus, “theatrical” plays dominate the theater landscape country-wide in a process of proliferation and risk-aversion described so well in Todd London’s book, Outrageous Fortune.

More crucial perhaps to what I am talking about here, this new scripted theatricality beats directors and designers into submission, leaving them little room to let their own imaginations soar. Directors seem oddly cowed and are also in crisis. And it brings a more general problem regarding the playwright’s role in the theatrical experience into the spotlight.

I think back to that young director at the workshop, and also to the certainly necessary discussion we are having about play ownership today, and I can’t help but think that our insistence on the centrality of who owns what may have inadvertently played into the hands of a theater culture in which stage designers and directors perform a secondary role. And I fear that the irrelevance of the director and her/his fellow stage artists has gone a long way towards killing the art form in this country. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a playwright, fiercely protective of my words, who believes that perhaps the most valuable contribution institutions like the Dramatist Guild have made has been the insistence on the sanctity of the playwright’s text, which is now a given in America. It’s a situation that I have no doubt most German playwrights would view with envy and awe. But our insistence on the playwright’s ownership of the text has spilled over into the problem of who owns the theater experience. And here, I think we have a lot to learn from the Germans.

In Germany, it’s the directors and designers who produce the theatricality. Often to the detriment of playwrights, the play itself, is material to be taken apart at will. But half-staged or whole, the plays, for the most part, attempt to say something about the world and language and ideas, and contain refreshingly little whimsy. That’s why audiences feel challenged both aesthetically and intellectually in Germany.

Hasn’t it always been the role of playwrights to tell stories, reveal character, to examine problems—personal and social—related to our humanity? Were our theaters to allow for a healthy collaboration between all the arts of the stage, playwrights could abandon the “theatrical” imperative and think about what they really want to say. Directors could take on the role of co-creators of the stage experience. As things stand now, playwrights have been forced into the position of doing it all.

Total theater is a form of magic. We know the magic is missing, and we’ve somehow decided that it’s the playwright’s job to fix the problem. More and more, this has affected the way playwrights write and it has affected the kinds of plays theaters choose to produce. For most of the last century we were famous for a kind of psychological realism, which at its best soared with poetic metaphor. What do we have now? We have hundreds of professionalized MFA playwrights from a pleasing variety of backgrounds, but something’s wrong. It’s not working. The sum of plays and productions are not affecting audiences and the culture. If we could suddenly wave a magic wand and see that every play is a source of magic, perhaps we’d arrive at the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, which in turn might stimulate and provoke audiences, and revitalize the role of theater in our culture.

It’s hard to describe the buzz of expectation that meets a new production in Germany and the excited discussions that take place at intermission or in the local Kneiper (fueled admittedly by beer) afterwards. I think it’s what we’re all hoping for here. But I don’t think we’ll get there unless we realize theater’s full potential as a Gesamtkunstwerk. This will require all the practitioners to take advantage of this unique moment of discussion to question our assumptions about what a production is and to redefine what the experience of going to the theater might be.