Bored with the Well-Made Play
Jordan Tannahill’s Theatre of the Unimpressed
A few years ago, Jordan Tannahill and his friend Amy went to go see some Shakespeare-in-the-pub in their hometown of Toronto. “I generally see theatre out of obligation,” Amy confessed. Tannahill, a young playwright and director who has made everything from dysfunctional-family dramas to scrappy queer performance, had heard that line before. At intermission, they shared that look—you know the one: eyes poised to roll, mouth trapped between a grimace and a God-help-us faux-grin—and they bolted. “I expected to hate it,” said Amy. “It’s like we’re resigned to being unimpressed.”
On a hunch that he and Amy weren’t alone, Tannahill launched an investigation. He talked to audience members, artists, administrators, his barber, and the wallflower at a Craigslist orgy about why they did or didn’t go to theatre. He wanted to find out why, despite all these “nice plays” being “well-plotted, well-acted, well-designed, well-intentioned, [and] well-received,” he and many others were “bored by almost all of it.”
“Theatrical realism now feels like a fax machine”—Jordan Tannahill
From these conversations, along with his own research and experience, Tannahill wrote Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama, published by Coach House Press in 2015. It is a hundred and fifty pages of thoughtful, provocative (and, yes, manifesto-ish) theatrical criticism for the era of smartphones and Netflix. It’s written for a modern theatregoing audience, one which has “a supremely intimate and agency-fueled relationship with narrative” and little patience or interest in paying “four or five times more to watch not-quite-a-film rather than a real film.” (All quotes are from the text.) Chapters alternate between interviews with artists, administrators, and critics; and examples of companies and productions from around the English-language world who are making vital, live performance—and almost none of it is realism.
“Theatrical realism now feels like a fax machine,” says Tannahill, “a device that persists despite the existence of superior technologies that largely fulfill the same function.” Film has once and for all surpassed theatre as the best medium for representing reality. However, theatremakers (and the institutions that support them) are clinging to the sunken ship of realism, rather than seizing the moment to experiment with form.
The possibilities of a theatre freed from the burden of verisimilitude are vast. Tannahill notes that exploring those possibilities means dumping the Well-Made Play: a classic dramatic construction “in which most of the story takes place before the onstage action, the action itself is a series of plot twists adhering to an Aristotelian narrative arc and the play’s climax comes at the eleventh hour, leaving us just enough time for a satisfying catharsis.” Popularized by that oh-so-well-known nineteenth-century French playwright Eugène Scribe, the Well-Made Play was (and still is) an easy way to bundle up middle class problems in a dramatically convenient, audience-pleasing, and lucrative package.
“The well-made play,” writes Tannahill, “has become so ubiquitous that the programming of North America regional theatres, for instance, seems to suggest that this is simply what theatre is, how plays are meant to be.” In other words, the English-language theatre world is trapped in a playwriting hegemony dictated by regional theatres and a French dude who died 150 years ago.
What’s the solution to breaking the “tentative and trepidatious” cycle of writing and programming that privileges the Well-Made Play? Tannahill explains that boring theatre, especially the WMP, is missing:
1) a dedication to risk;
2) an embrace of failure, and
3) liveness above all else.
Tannahill holds up theatre’s absolutely unique status as the only art form that is incomplete until the very moment of its being witnessed.
Tannahill has seen an impressive amount of theatre, from Ottawa to Berlin, and he fills Theatre of the Unimpressed with examples of dozens of plays which point to a thrilling and vital twenty-first century theatrical culture. Few shows get as risky as Cliff Cardinal’s solo play Huff, wherein the lights rise on Cardinal “with a plastic bag duct-taped over his head and his hands bound behind his back, prevailing upon the shocked audience to intercede.” The moments of intentional failure in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon and Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy—when the playwrights realize mid-show that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew—are the most gripping and unnerving moments in these plays. And on the Thousandth Night…, Forced Entertainment’s six-hour roundelay of interrupted extemporized stories, “needs to be live”—it’s “an event,” a “slightly impossible, insane thing [in a room] with a group of strangers.”
Shows like these, Tannahill writes, constitute a “Theatre of Failure”—work in which “artistic risk and its attendant failures dismantle the status quo of artistic and political thought.” It is “Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd for the Western internet generation, raised on the fragmented narratives of YouTube and Vine loops.” It is “not only a refusal of the ideal of the well-made, but nothing less than a renunciation of perfection as a tyranny imposed not only upon theatre, but upon society at large by capitalist hegemony.” Ideas like these are what make us feel that Tannahill’s book needs a wide audience. Right now.
In a culture that values growth, “the win,” and economic prosperity over all else, Tannahill embraces the inherent humanity of failure. Tannahill holds up theatre’s absolutely unique status as the only art form that is incomplete until the very moment of its being witnessed. And when the liveness, risk, and immediacy of watching, say, an actor attempt to balance a fig on the head of a pin (see page 31) is more gripping than a rote touring production of Wicked, he (and we) believe it’s a sign our art form is in crisis. (If you think the rote touring production of Wicked is the best we can do, Theatre of the Unimpressed may not be for you since you are already impressed; and that’s OK, it really is. But for those of you reading this who are like, “God, you are right, theatre can do so much more, we can really use it better”...please read the book.)
We believe that Theatre of the Unimpressed joins the small shelf of Essential Books on Making Art in the Twenty-First Century, joining the likes of David Shields’ Reality Hunger, Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, and Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write (the latter a key intertext of Tannahill’s book, along with work by Sarah Garton Stanley, and Sara Jane Bailes). In the thousand words of this blog post, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what Tannahill has to say.
We know what theatre can do when it’s really being theatre, which makes it all the more disappointing when it misses the mark. We’re tired of being unimpressed, and we’re ready to fail.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
The problem with the so-called 'theatre of failure' is that it is still just another fourth-walled pursuit, that merely uses our assumption that failure denotes the authentic or the live. We are still left sitting in the dark, uninvolved, absorbing it. I want something much, much more than that.
I really appreciate Sam and Rob’s response to the book; it’s a gift to any author to have readers engage critically and personally with their work.
I would humbly suggest to several commentators on this thread to actually read the book, as they may find many of their concerns addressed within it. The book examines how a variety of trends contribute to a risk averse climate in English-language theatre. The echoes felt by Scribe’s ‘Well-Made Play’ is just one aspect I discuss, and I take several pages to deconstruct his influence which Sam and Rob don’t have the luxury of space to do. The fact that Shakespeare does not write well-made plays is in fact an argument I make in the book. And of course the boring and inept can exist just as easily within the so-called avant-garde as the so-called commercial. It is not about an either-or. It is not about some styles or forms at the exclusion of others. The book seeks to understand what contributes to vital live experiences and how can we cultivate and participate in those, as artists and as audiences.
I agree with Mr. O'Connell that the definition of a "well-made play" in this article is confusing and inaccurate. Shakespeare's plays, for instance, are not well-made plays. This is an engaging and insightful read, but the lack of precision in definitions (well-made as catch all for realistic/boring) undermines the rest of the argument.
I was going to comment, but it looks like the half dozen before me have already covered everything I was going to say (and more). Well done, sextet!
Experimentation with form is a constant need for the theatre community. Dismissing commercial success as somehow undesirable, and the enjoyment of a show such as Wicked as the mark of someone who doesn't get it, leaves me unimpressed. The overwhelming majority of the kind of experimental work suggested here is done by playwrights who can't write a scene, can't create a plot and can't envision a credible character. If you lack those skills but want to write plays, it's natural to belittle the skills of playwrights who have them. Adding a few elements of rhetoric to get your point across may intimidate a few people who don't want to be perceived as behind the times, but it's not going to fool enough people to fill the house. If you don't like plot, do improv.
"Can't" is relative.
I came neither to bury Wicked nor to praise it.
I am bored with plot. Or rather: I got frustrated with killing my own ideas by my efforts to shove them into a plotted form. It's a lie that all good plays valorize plot over other elements—wonderful things like character, spectacle, narrative (not to be confused with plot). I think that one should not stone plays like Reza Abdoh's "Hip Hop Waltz of Eurydice" or "Bootycandy" because their approach to plot is unconventional. To me, these plays are more brilliant for not behaving the way we may expect plays to, plotwise. There's one way of talking about "Bootycandy" where you say that it's just a bunch of skits and Robert O'Hara couldn't even be bothered to make them cohere into a "real" play! And then there's a much more interesting way of talking about "Bootycandy," where you realize—"ah! Actually, he's realized that if he jammed these pieces into the frame one might expect, the play would shatter." So he glues them together in a new way. It may appear ramshackle—turn it to the light; really, it's brilliant.
New! New! New!
There will never be a shortage of plotted realism. Maybe I'm just too queer to function, but I'll take Tannahill and his friends.
I would also like to remind everybody in the room about the perhaps radical idea of Critical Generosity (coined by Jill Dolan and David Roman, and written about by P Carl on this very site), which permits the coexistence of Wicked and Huff and The Humans and Sleep No More. We can all be happy. Room for everything. But I want a touch more of the lively stuff, still.
And—the essay does not mock people for taking pleasure from Wicked. Instead, we say that those who are satisfied by the WMP, realism, and commercial musical theatre need look no further. They love theatre! We're happy for them. But we ARE looking for something more, and we know we're not the only ones.
Also, think us not uniformly dazzled by AG/experimental theatre from this period in cultural history or any other. Rumstick Road—plotless, associative, cerebral, and supposed to be legendary—is boring! I've seen footage.
Lost me at "Beckett's Theatre of the Absurd" Beckett is spinning in his grave. The only person to have a "Theatre of the Absurd" was critic and academic gadfly Martin Esslin. Not a single playwright tagged with that epithet has accepted it. And the idea of "Huff" angers me. Maybe a double bill with Chris Burden's "Shoot"? Passive/Aggressive theatre? Threats of actual violence? Do we really need that to open our minds? Makes me glad I am on my way out of this mess.
This argument is marred by a failure to properly understand or define the "well-made play." Not only is the well-made play not ubiquitous as Tannahill asserts, I would venture to say it's simply not done. Shaw and Ibsen killed it before the 20th century. This is not to say Scribe's influence is absent from today's theatre, but that could be said of nearly every historical theatre movement or genre. I think Tannahill confuses quality and form. Good, vibrant plays come in all forms, as do bad, boring ones.
I'm going to read this book. I share these feelings as well, but there is a place for the well made play, and all other forms of theatre. Theatre in any genre can be boring and irrelevant if its done poorly, and thrilling if done well. Even Peter Brook said, "I am more easily bored with Shakespeare and have suffered more ghastly evenings with Shakespeare than with any other dramatist I know." I can say that about Beckett as well as Shaw and Williams. Deconstruction for its own sake can be down right embarrassing. Let's face it, making theatre is a delicate balance and its hard to get right. But let's not dismiss our history. Let's build on it. Aristotle's pity and fear still thrills when crafted artfully.
The problem with a realistic narrative is that the soul craves myth. When you create a myth about a series of events you give meaning to life. Just telling a story isn't very satisfying. A play that presents a slice of life without making it seem epic, grand, larger than life, in a word, mythical, isn't going to resonate or seem very impressive.