Playwrights and Politics
June 28, 2019: In “George Orwell’s Unheeded Warning,” George Packer’s insightful review of a new biography of the English writer in the July Atlantic, Packer states, “Unfreedom today is voluntary” and the acceptance of “contradictions that are the essence of doublethink” can be seen on both the right and the left. His example of this phenomenon among progressives is especially interesting to theatergoers.
According to Packer, many on the left assume a good work of art should promote good politics, and good politics is all about identity. Thus a play is scrutinized “in light of the group affiliation of the artist.” George Packer is best known as a journalist covering foreign affairs, but if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was a theater critic.
In just the past few months, we have seen plays that take positions on gender, race and the disabled. Sometimes the statement has little to do with the original work (Oklahoma!). Sometimes the statement involves a completely unbelievable and impossible situation (White Noise).
In one interesting twist, all the white people in the audience were asked to give up their seats, although there was no one in the theater who actually needed the empty seats (Fairview). And even a director of a fairly traditional revival had to figure out a way to make his treatment of woman more palatable to current audiences (Kiss Me Kate).
The bottom line is that when we agree with the politics, we don’t always feel the need to examine the artistry too closely. All we ask is not to be bored. And if the play has something we can call “unique” or perhaps a bit “profound” we’re hooked.
The dead giveaways are in the reviews. Many of these plays “ask questions that make us uncomfortable” or provide a “much needed discussion.” Sometimes these questions and discussions have been covered by a dozen other shows that opened in the same season.
How many of these plays will have value ten, twenty, thirty years from now? We can’t be certain. Of course, most of them will be forgotten. But will the few survivors be considered the beginnings of a great spiritual awakening or examples of silly self-indulgence?