Thursday, October 16, 2008

Things that make me go "Ummm..."

Fantastically interesting article in the NYT about the apparent lack of conservative plays/playwrights. I haven't the time or energy to fully explore the topic here, but some quick takes:

a) The article bugs me for some reason... I think because it takes for granted that the highest standard for something is whether or not it's present; that is, it's easy to argue all/many/most plays are left-leaning. What's harder is to ascertain the reason and the content -- are they liberal because they celebrate multiculturalism? Mock convention? Are flamingly gay? What? Should plays that are on the bleeding edge of avante garde or transparent political leanings be placed in anything like the same genre as big Broadway hits that, like Hollywood, treasure profitability and production values over content? (Not that good content doesn't happen, it's just secondary to profit.) The author doesn't begin to engage these ideas until the second page, and then the article ends. I guess I feel like the argument is pointless in the abstract, without analyzing what specific themes are absent, within AND without a liberal "canon," rather than the simple binary she sets up.

b) There's the occasionally repeated point that arts tend to draw in people with radical ideas and/or marginalized agenda; would it be fair to say that free-marketeerism wasn't (at least until recently, and I'm not convinced even now) is not an endangered ideology? Considering the embrace of it in so many aspects of our life, do conservative ideas just not stage as well? I mean, no one makes plays about happy, untroubled people living in harmony with their neighbors for 3 acts. Why? Because conflict is the heart of a play, and theatre is a great place to be "in your face" in a way that things rooting for the status quo usually aren't. There are "in your face" conservative novels, but don't they tend to be ideologically shocking more than stage-shocking? What is the conservative stage equivalent of the first gay kiss, the first interracial kiss; the conservative stage equivalent of brilliant strung-out prophets and flamboyant, flashy colors and dancing and scantily clad ladies and gents? Is conservatism, which at its heart tends to be backward-looking (i.e. we would be better served by going back to "values of old", from the Bible to Patriotism to freer markets), just hard to portray?

c) In relation to b), I've often asserted that the reason, for example, that there are also fewer conservative running comic strips, a conservative "Doonesbury" or "Boondocks" for example (yes, fine, I see you Mallard Fillmore, but you're still not funny or very popular) is because irony doesn't play as big a part in conservative thought. Hypocrisy has to be accepted in more cases. (Sure, this is "skewed liberal," I'm sure conservatives, in fact I know conservatives charge liberals with hypocrisy, but it just seems less, I dunno, authentic to me. What's a situation with more inherent conflict making for ironic humor/hypocrisy: revering the founding fathers and strictly honoring their positive accomplishments, or questioning their authenticity and own moral consistency, from slave-holding to elitism? Is it just easier to go to the well repeatedly to find new inconsistencies and questions than it is to continuously make interesting reverent works? Has 1776 already plumbed most of the play-worthy reverence?) Ultimately, it just seems to me to be more of a conservative trait to believe some ideas aren't to be questioned, there's an avoidance of conflict, whereas within liberalism, despite caricatures, not everyone feels the same about feminism, affirmative action, war, abortion, what not? Can you make a conservative play that questions adherence to core conservative ideas? Or does it become liberal then? Does a play questioning liberal ideals become conservative, or does it tend to stay within a broad liberal orthodoxy, making it still liberal?

d) Last point: it also funnily strikes me as vaguely, you guessed it, ironic when these arguments about diversity of viewpoints are made about academia or theatre. It is *not* that diversity of viewpoints isn't a good thing, but rather that it's a supposedly liberal, relativistic argument (actually a corruption of post-modernism in my opinion) that all ideas are equally worthy. Conservative arguments about being in academia, for example, presuppose conservative viewpoints are just as valid as liberal ones and should be included. And hey, I'm not saying that they're NOT just as valid, but rather that the conservative argument that they must be included just to include them, and that it's actually discrimination that keeps them from their proper share of positions, is strictly speaking an affirmative action, relatistic argument. That is, "we aren't succeeding at X because of discrimination, and therefore structures must be changed, people must be included, and the way things are done must change to address this." They contend that the best people aren't being chosen but rather that selection is biased, but the empirical evidence I've seen is sparse and equivocal, it seems to me. And in any case, you don't see many arguments (at least I don't) with specifics, that is, THIS person, THIS idea is clearly qualified, and isn't accepted for the following reasons, but rather, THIS person, THIS group of people aren't represented, and therefore are discriminated against, QED. The quality of their work and the possibility that their points of view don't stand up academically is rarely broached -- again, I'm not saying the answer is already known, but rather that by failing to pose these questions, in theatre or academics, conservatives are asking for mushy multi-culti relativism that they supposedly oppose: include me in your "marketplace" of ideas because everyone deserves to be there. In the end, apparently, we need marketplace adjustment in academics and theatre because, apparently, the market is supplying a suboptimal amount of conservatism.

I'm just saying, it's a funny idea.


PS Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention: is it possible that there's so much celebration of conservatism in other venues, that those who espouse it don't need to go the relatively difficult route of a playwright? Just saying.


Daktari said...

There's the occasionally repeated point that arts tend to draw in people with radical ideas and/or marginalized agenda...

Which is total bullshit, btw. I have been around enough actors/writers/wannabes/artsy-fartsy types to know that their idea of "radical ideas and a marginalized agenda" is growing up misunderstood in a hick town just like the rest of us. While a willingness to offend/shock/shuck convention can foster some creativity, it rarely does so in a culturally meaningful way. Rarer still is the liberal play that pushes the envelope well.

What is the conservative stage equivalent of the first gay kiss, the first interracial kiss; the conservative stage equivalent of brilliant strung-out prophets and flamboyant, flashy colors and dancing and scantily clad ladies and gents?

Answer: Opera. Wagner in particular.

I can think of plenty of plays with conservative viewpoints. Everything from Oklahoma to The Music Man, where Marion, our gentle librarian, plays straight man to the wildly flamboyant Harold Hill. And what could POSSIBLY be more conservative than Our Town. But like most plays with a conservative viewpoint, most of those made me want to gouge my eyes out. Pulitzer Prize my ass.

J said...

Hmm... Well taken, but I think you're overestimating two things: the % of actors/writers/wannabes/artsy-fartsy types whose "idea of "radical ideas and a marginalized agenda" is growing up misunderstood in a hick town just like the rest of us" out of the whole, and the extent to which conservatives don't consider depicting the status quo/the "idealized" status quo as normal rather than "conservative." That is, Oklahoma and Music Man might be hopelessly conventional in the way they see society, but I think conservatives wouldn't view that as a "conservative" play at all. Which was part of my point -- the analysis of the leanings of plays and playwrights is trickier than the author even came close to implying. After all, it is easy to argue the caveman politics of many plays/art with a damsel in distress saved by a charming handsome leading man, and/or with a female lead whose three-dimensional characteristics consist of the dimensions of "hot", "young", and "coquettishly attracted to the male lead", but I find it hard to imagine most people counting them as "conservative" in a political way. Which, I guess, was part of the point I was trying to make: making plays that are about, celebrate, or depict that status quo or a by-gone age is "conservative" in the same way that, let's say, "Rent" is liberal -- Rent isn't quite a liberal message play, but rather one that emphasizes the humanity of and treats as normal a bunch of outcasts and supposed non-conformists; what liberal message does that present other than "We're queer, we're here, and we're having lots of sex"? But by accepting "deviant" lifestyles, it's defined as "liberal", whereas accepting "normal" lifestyles -- patriarchy, female frailty, traditional marriage -- isn't considered "conservative" by even many liberals (as long as the traditionalness and female frailty aren't oppressive; cf. almost all mainstream romantic comedies). Which, actually, brings me back to my other point I forgot about -- I'd say that there're plenty of liberal plays that DO push the envelope well; they're just ones we're not thinking of, because when you push the envelope well, the political message isn't plainly and simply spelled out. It's a rare play that is OBVIOUSLY a message play and is good, I think (not a play, but case in point: the movie "In the Heat of the Night.)

And you did quite call me out on Wagner, you're right, and not having seen "Our Town," I'll give you that one, but I pose two challenges to you.

1) All the plays you name aren't contemporary; especially Wagner and Our Town are from rather a bit back, such that one can argue that many pieces of work written over 70 years ago are going to appear/be "conservative," because they express viewpoints that have long since been out of vogue/refuted. "Taming of the Shrew" seems rather cretinous to me, and while it's false to suggest that sexism was accepted without question by all hundreds of years ago, it's not false to say that sexism was quite acceptable and accepted as reality by most. So riddle me this, D: name a contemporary conservative play. (I'm sure you can, I'm just curious what you'll come up with.)

2) Name a conservative message play. Which seems to be the hidden presumption of the NYT author, anyway -- that liberal plays look to advance the liberal agenda, ergo any "liberal" play is a liberal message play.

By the by, I think you're right that liberal message plays rarely push the envelope well, but I would argue that many plays that aren't WRITTEN to be message plays, liberal or conservative, DO push the boundary well. Rather like "The Half-Hour News Hour" or "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the creators (conservative and liberal, respectively -- I just noticed that) missed the point in that comedy, especially, usually fails when its first master is a message. Its first master must be being funny -- THEN you can do the message. As with message plays, if you start with the goal of having a message, you'll have one, but it might be a shitty play. If you start with the goal of an excellent play/show, and then within that you wish to plant a message, you might get it right.

So my last long-assed-introductioned question: are there any deeply influential plays that *didn't* push the envelope? Or is it true necessarily that superlative excellence requires pushing envelopes (whereas pushing envelopes doesn't necessarily mean it's any good).

Daktari said...

I still maintain that much of this concept of a marginalized agenda/radical ideology is the result of a failure of many vocal artistic types to outgrow their teenage angst. Getting stuck in an early human development stage is nothing to be proud of, despite their insistence that their insufferable self-indulgence and abhorrence of responsibility "comes with the territory" like waiter tables and living on Ramen noodles. This is not to imply that I don't think they can be a wicked bunch of fun on a Friday night.

That said, I think there is a difference between the radical ideas of plays and the radical ideas of playwrights. And I know you aren't going to understand it when I tell you that I think La Cage aux Folles is a conservative play. But hear me out. Yes, it's radical. Yes it pushes an envelope and fantastically so. It is funny AND a message movie. But what is the message? Is it "we're queer and we're here"? Or is it "we're queer, but we're human, too." Poiret's presents Renato and Albin as having the more loving and more stable relationship than the uber conservative heterosexual couple, and this, my dear J, is exceedingly conservative in its message. It is easy to present a parody of homosexuals as over-the-top, self-absorbed Nancy boys who trade sex partners like baseball cards, but it is quite another to show said caricature as having valid human emotions, as showing the homosexual relationship as one having as much if not more depth than hetero ones. So of all the unlikely plays, I find LCaF to be one contemporary play that advances a fantastically conservative agenda, and I do think it was the intent of the playwright.

The question is now: are you buying it?

J said...

"I still maintain that much of this concept of a marginalized agenda/radical ideology is the result of a failure of many vocal artistic types to outgrow their teenage angst." I think we hang with different artist groups. =] Though i will admit, perhaps *I* am biased towards my own artist friends, who I think are liberal-to-radical on average, and tend to be wicked smart and relatively mature and well-adjusted. Actually, now that I write that, well-adjusted is pretty much anathema to my image of artists, so I'll admit I'm the one generalizing from anecdote to the median. How about, most of my favorite artist-friends and mainstream artists are liberal-to-radical, and most of my liberal-to-radical friends are drawn to the arts? (Though since grad school, I have missed hanging with the non-scientist liberal-to-radical crowd. And I'm officially done using those three words strung together like that now.)

I guess the question goes back to a different one: why did the author of the article have trouble finding conservative playwrights? Was she a bad reporter? Or using too restrictive an image of conservative?

To the latter point, I completely see your idea vis-a-vis La Cage aux Folles. But now you're just playing with my mind -- because while LCaF is of course conservative by your definition, and a perfectly sensible one it is, it's not a definition most political conservatives, at least in the US, would accept. Advocating the normalcy of homosexuals, as humans like the rest of us and equally if not more capable of monogamous pair bonding, is, what should we call it? Behaviorally conservative? But in the US, it's called "advancing the gay agenda," and we must never imply homosexuals are just like the rest of us, capable of strong family units and all! (After all, it's clearly gay people behind all of our problems like... um... 9/11 and the Iraq war... and the market crash... it's all the breakdown of the American family by the exceedingly small percentage of gay people we hear about/see on TV/are friends of friends of!)

Clearly, if one wishes to analyze conservatism within a context, you gotta pin it down (and make it squeal! oh, wait, strike that). If you mean "fits into modern US mainstream political conservatism", then a play showing homosexuals pair bonding monogamously while saving the country by shooting terrorists with their guns the NRA protected their right to is going to be "liberal" (ESPECIALLY if there's two dudes kissing). A play that shows a home gun owner using his right to bear arms to shoot and kill an invader, and then having incredible remorse about it, is also going to be liberal. Like usual, I feel like playing with conservatives is a rigged game, but at this point, since neither of us are welcome at conservative think tanks, perhaps we can agree that it depends on who defines conservative and how, and that, for whatever reason, conservative message plays BY US political conservatives does appear to possibly be a small niche, as the NYT author implied but then overinterpretted to apply to conservatism writ large?

Daktari said...

My artist-radical-friends were largely NOT intellectuals. They were working artists of the barely-got-through-high-school ilk. It was much more Second City than Northwestern U School of performing arts.

Defining conservatism and liberalism is like nailing jello to the wall. Ha! She manages to find an appropriate use of a McCainism.
I have no doubt that anyone could shoot down any play that I proposed as conservative. And given my shallow understanding of contemporary theatre, this would be a very short discussion. The last professional stage play I went to see was Chicago in 1999.

J said...

I guess I would call several of my artsy friends intellectuals. I would more largely characterize them as "middle-class college graduates who've had a decent amount of privilege and entitlement". Not annoying entitlement -- just that sadly unfulfilled entitlement of many to a good education. But anyway. We know different artists. (The non-college educated ones I've met tended to be food security conferences and the like, so they were things like radical Native American artists, of a different ilk than the others you AND I are talking about.)

I disagree about defining conservativism or liberalism. You CAN'T define all of it; I just mean to say you have to define which flavor you're talking about before you can argue about it. There are plenty of flavors -- which is why I kept saying "mainstream US political conservatism", which is somewhat fractured, but largely follows the schema laid out by this guy, I think. (His recent posts on Slate have been awesome.)

J said...

By the by, I think most of the Second City performers I've seen in the last decade plus have been college educated =] But I think I get your point.

I didn't know that many people who barely-made-it-through-high school; partly because my high school had 4400 people, so getting to know anyone very well was tough, and the peeps in marching band and theatre that I knew mostly made it through high school and college.

J said...

And of course, it was a pretty well-off school/community, all things considered.

Daktari said...

Oh, I met all my actors, artists, musicians, etc in Chicago. And it's funny. The people I met changed my perception of what an artist is. I mean, hell, they were all working class folks scraping by and trying to do something, make something. I had to respect that they were pursuing the dream. And maybe it's my elitist stereotypes coming out, but the pursuit of "their art" was forever cloaked in this entitlement to act irresponsibly. I would just get soooo frustrated with them and their willingness to sit around ALL. DAY. LONG. I mean WTF? Why can't you fill that time with, oh, I don't know, A JOB. That is not to say that they weren't incredibly giving. If they'd get you to laughing, they wouldn't give up until you couldn't breathe, and even beter if you'd wet your pants.

Anyway, my ex was a bud of some Second City grads who moved onto SNL and movies. Interesting bunch, but by and large, they sort of scared me and despite their successes, they, I don't know, made me feel sorry for them. They were just so ...childlike. Ah hell. I just don't understand that bunch. I'm one of these people who can love being entertained, but I don't ever want to take the drummer home.

J said...

I was nominally taking tonight off, but I'm still in front of the freaking computer screen. Need to go.

But last comment (for 2nite at least). I wonder if I don't know more "working class" artists. But I do have quite a few friends in the Chicago scene, I'll have to ask them about their colleagues -- but one of them graduated from DePaul, and 4 of them from Illinois Wesleyan, and they all have kept busy and employed when art wasn't panning out. Nevertheless, I do know of the stereotype and have occasionally seen the sort of bohemian artist you describe... but not commonly. Like I say, I'll have to ask my friends in the Chicago area their impressions, to see at least how things are in your old town, for comparison's sake.