All Plays Are Classics
On Lineage, Trust, and The Necessary New
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.
What gives me chills every time I pause and think about it is this: we work in an art of resurrection. Every time we read or perform Antigone we resuscitate the same story that people saw thousands of years ago. Shakespeare’s exact words and ideas are reborn in the mouths of actors hundreds of years after he thought them. When I toss around an idea from Beckett or Ibsen or Williams or Hansberry, I am squeezing their heart into a new kind of beating. It’s alive in us. Our job is to bring it to life. Isn’t that just holy? ***
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.
These elements are everywhere in the history of story, because they pretty much always work. A well-placed moment (or throughline) of intrigue, poetry, or magic can land the themes of a play in an instant.
8. History is Awesome We love history. As a species we really can’t get enough of it. Especially onstage. The Greeks knew this, so did Shakespeare, so did Brecht. There is nothing more poignant than heading in to Antigone or Henry V or Equivocation and knowing what will happen to those historical figures. There is also something extra special about witnessing these historical celebrities in a more candid way than lectures or books could deliver. Theater makes these titans of time into people.
9. Go for the Gods Write about big stuff. That’s what I learn from Euripides, to the Medieval Passion Plays, to Shakespeare, to Ibsen, to Beckett, to now. Write about the biggest stuff you can, the fundamental edge of what humans can take, the struggle for justice or peace, the hot hearth of the heart, the absolutely hilariously insane, the huge mistakes, the grand plans, the existential core of time and life. It’s not an imperative as much as a fucking joy. We get to write about that stuff. We are able to tell those stories. Why waste the stage on anything less?
10. Give me Emotion or Give me…The Remote! I think you haven’t gone to the theater if you don't leave choked up, fired up, or still laughing. What sets off those instincts? Emotional reactions to characters or events. This is where I disagree with Brecht. I think taking the emotion out of theater takes the theater out of theater. (That and I get really bored by his female characters in Galileo. Ugh.) So find the edge of your characters' desires and push them there. Insist that the worst or best thing that could happen to them happens to them. Let loose their heart’s wish or deepest fear. For what would your characters poke out their eyes?
11. You can Disagree with the Classics! Yes. True. I don’t really like Brecht’s philosophy of theater. I said it. And lightning didn’t strike me and/or my MacBook. Just because it’s famous, or a play that survived a few thousand years doesn’t make it perfect. That is something called the classical fallacy—the false notion that just because it's classic that it is better than anything we could produce today. This is not so. We can and should challenge these ideas. Re-imagine them. Test them.
12. New Writers Wanted Sophocles can’t help us understand a world so interconnected and hyper-informed (Oedipus should’ve just googled who his parents were—duh). He can help us dig deeply into the human hubris and sorrow. Shakespeare doesn’t have a play about marriage equality or pandemics or global warming (maybe the Tempest is), but he does show us how universal rage, lust, greed, and mistaken identities (identity theft maybe?) make us all human. That’s why we need new writers and their newest plays. The Greeks knew that.
13. Trust All great writers needed the trust of their patrons and producers. That is still exactly what new art needs to flourish and speak loudly for our time. Trust is not saying “here’s what you must think about what you’ve read” or “can you do it a little more like Sophocles?” Trust is saying “Go.”
14. Lineage Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Beckett are playwrights. So are Sarah Ruhl, Tony Kushner and Lynn Nottage. So is that kid writing her first play in high school. That’s lineage. Only time separates them. Their work is the same. We all tell the true human stories of our time through dramatic writing for the stage. Sophocles is holding hands with Paula Vogel who holds hands with her newest discovery at Yale. Playwrights are all talking to each other over the time and space of theater. When I was in high school I picked up three books to start learning how the hell to write plays: Oedipus Rex, Waiting For Godot, and Hamlet. Beckett was the first one I read actually, which meant my first few attempts were super weird. But then I learned to balance the grand form with the philosophical conversation with the spark of my own curiosity. That’s why I wanted to write. Not to be exactly like the authors I so loved, but to join them with my own stories of the human experience. Lineage. It’s one fabulous dinner party (Top Girls anyone?) where every new, young, inspired playwright is welcome to bring a story, bottle of cheap wine, and the time and mind to listen.
15. The Time Is Always Now Though I am not a classicist, my sister is. She illuminated me on a few points about classic plays. They are full of “contemporary” references that many of us will not get today. They are timeless in many ways, but they are also about very specific politics. Some are even propaganda (commissioned by specific leaders). What this exposes is that we should not fear the specific moment. We can write from our now and not risk losing the hereafter.
16. The Times are Always Changing Like any other art form, classic plays and poetry were always changing. From the Greeks to the Romans, new styles were constantly being advanced. It wasn’t like theater emerged fully formed, as Athena from Zeus’s head. All of this proves that even the sacred texts were emergent in their times, were challenged in their times, were criticized in their times. Theater is truly at work when it is changing.
17. Theater is Alive in Us What gives me chills every time I pause and think about it is this: we work in an art of resurrection. Every time we read or perform Antigone we resuscitate the same story that people saw thousands of years ago. Shakespeare’s exact words and ideas are reborn in the mouths of actors hundreds of years after he thought them. When I toss around an idea from Beckett or Ibsen or Williams or Hansberry, I am squeezing their heart into a new kind of beating. It’s alive in us. Our job is to bring it to life. Isn’t that just holy? *** So. The main point of my heated reaction to that article is that all plays are new and all are classics…or could be. We must never lose the old classics (and I hardly think we are at risk of that, so put down the fire hose and stop soaking all the new plays please). We also cannot, must not, under any circumstances distrust our new plays. You may not like every one. They may rub you wrong. You may not get them at first. But don’t assume that this is because they are unaware, shallow, or meaningless. Because every single classic play was once new. To treat only the classics as infallible scripture is to miss the entire point of theater. That it’s human. That it grows with every generation. That it must speak to the immediate age, which does not mean that it can’t also speak to the eternal one.