Tuesday, May 8, 2012

After Dark, May 8, 2012

Night Of The Living Dead
An interesting articles has me thinking of the "classics"
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

In the summer of 1976 - I had just turned 19 - I had a hideous job as night clerk at a motel in Quebec City. It was hideous beyond the midnight to eight shift, seven days a week. I lived in a little village far outside of the city and had to commute and/or hitchhike into and back from work. Long, lonely hours were spent with my thumb out...

...but always with a book in my hand.

This was the summer of my great theatre education. Over it I read nearly 400 plays. I owned a mountain of anthologies: great plays of the Restoration; the complete works of Shakespeare (all of which I read that summer); great plays of modern Europe; Shaw; Chekhov; Ibsen; Pinter; Beckett; Osborne; Calderon; Strindberg; great American plays of the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s.

During the three hour (on average) daily commute and at least seven of those eight hours at work, I was reading, taking notes and - even! - wrote the one play that actually made me some decent cha-ching.

I loved Henry VI, hated Comedy of Errors.

Now I look back at that summer and try to remember the plays. Of all the Restoration plays I can remember only one: The Country Wife. Ugo Betti's plays are absolutely forgotten. Even 35 years ago Osborne was feeling old-fashioned. Almost all of Pinter haunted me. All of Chekhov did. Ibsen did too - but not the plays you'd think; I remember Rosmerholm and Little Eyolf. Beckett seemed splendid to my young mind, Ionesco irritating (most of the works of his kinsman, Albee, too). Miller's All My Sons neared the greatness of Death of a Salesman, After the Fall seemed like relentless twaddle, Crucible a whole heap of post-McCarthyist blah-blah-blah. Calderon was dreamy and dull, Strindberg overwrought and dry at the same time. I loved Henry VI, hated Comedy of Errors.

In those days I was an active theatre person. I was training as an actor, was starting to direct and, as I said, writing seriously. So each play was imagined as a production.

Since then I have revisited most of these works and have had many youthful opinions confirmed (first impressions are everything).

This week there was a very good article in the Huffington Post (there are some) that spoke of "classic" plays being lost in the shuffle. Its central question, I feel, is this: "...why do we assume classics are impenetrable and obsolete?"

wouldn't I rather see a great production of Ghosts, than a poor Eyolf? 

Well, because, on the page, many of them are. However, the greatness of theatre comes from the imaginations of each artist and the fact that none of the greats approaches a stage without a theatrical library that has been culled by that artist's experience. Wajdi Mouawad, in the article, says he was inspired by Sophocles when he wrote Scorched. I love Scorched. However this affection in no way impels me toward any production of Sophocles or, indeed, any of the Greeks. That few are mounting productions of the Greeks is not tragic to me. (Nor is the fact that I have never seen a funny production of Comedy of Errors.) That the classics exist to be read by curious young artists who can then synthesize them for me and many other modern theatre enthusiasts is really all that matters. (In passing, royalty-free electronically transcribed literature is actually going to make this easier; I think of that hitch-hiking kid of 25 years ago, hauling three or four tombs in his knapsack every night instead of having 200 plays on his Kindle).

A play's production is a living thing - a whole being, if you will. The classics are its DNA. Does everyone who walks into a theatre need to understand deoxyribonucleic acid to admire the whole being? No. Artists who insist an audience understands the DNA of their production to "get" it are practicing a kind of obscurantism that not only irritates me to death but that may actually hinder the art.

I don't grieve for the "classics". They are there to be produced or to inspire. Either way, it really doesn't matter. Sure, I may never get to see a production of Little Eyolf. Buy wouldn't I rather see a great production of Ghosts, than a poor Eyolf? You bet.

Meanwhile I can read Eyolf and imagine a truly great production of it. Because, after all, theatre is also literature.

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