Like any art, theatre is malleable. It can be put to many uses. It can be turned to propaganda. It can runneth over with cultural and psychic complexities.
Time favors the complex, I think. But what is “complex” in the art of theatre? And particularly in playwriting?
Well, my go-to definition for propaganda may be helpful in the negative here. What I call propaganda has three qualities: black-and-whiteness, a tendency toward slogan, and emotional shorthand.
Part of “emotional shorthand” is, of course, making emotional appeals — and theatre is not theatre without pathos. A play lives or dies on emotionally laden appeals. But if your true aim is complexity, then shorthands must be used sparingly. In my play WILL IT GO ROUND, a cycle of stories about civil rights, I use shorthands in the transitions. In setting up the final story, I suggest in the stage directions a sound cue of the death of George Floyd. Only three and half years after his murder by a policeman, the sounds and images and, yes, words, associated with the event have become a shorthand for pain, angst, and anger over American injustice. In the scene itself, though, I have tried my level best to show the complexities buzzing in different people’s relationship to the event and the summer of protests. It’s a scene in which an older white woman and Black man, who secretly dated in high school, reunite after 50-odd years. She betrayed him 50 years ago and wants to make nice. He wants to make nice too, but is not entirely sure of her motivations or how deeply she’s changed. No summation is possible within the confines of the play: they have to live with their scars. I wrote in some hope, but hope is not simple. In knowing, tension is resolved. In hope, tension remains.
Avoiding slogans in your writing is, I think, mostly about refusing to center a play on a Yes or No question. I suppose plots, within certain -isms, depend on Yes or No questions. Will they get together in the end? Yes or no? Will the lawyer succeed in court against the Big Corporation whose negligence caused hundreds of people to fall sick? Yes or no? But a play is not just its plot. There’s also its thought, and that is where slogan ought to be resisted — unless your aim is agitprop. (Which is a valid form, just not what I’m talking about here.)
If there is nothing to say about a play on the drive home, because the play said everything, then it probably had a slogan. In my writing practice, getting away from slogans has — in some ways — meant getting vaguer about my themes. Meaning, I let myself be guided by the broadest possible words in my understanding of what I’m writing about: respect, acceptance, forgiveness. I go as deeply and specifically as I can into these human needs, allowing flaws in my protagonists along the way, and I try to show those needs operating in the antagonists too.
On the subject of black-and-white thinking… Well, in choosing a moral point of view, and making clear what you think immoral, you aren’t betraying Dionysus. But, for me, is the question is always: Am I holding the humanity of everyone?Even the characters I disagree with? Can I steelman their arguments instead of setting them up like straw men to knock over? Can I admit my doubts? Can I dramatize what I don’t understand?
On Sunday, I saw WORSHIP by Morag Shepherd at the Utah Arts Hub, presented by Immigrant’s Daughter. I would describe it as a naturalist play with stylized dialogue and a four-part vignette structure that ultimately doesn’t punish the wrongdoer but rather tries to understand him — and then leaves him suspended in his own lies. The plot doesn’t even tell you the answer to the question, Will he get away with his lies?, though we leave feeling that they cannot go on much longer. I find the piece impressive in its restraint because I know the politics of the writer.
It reminds me that common to the realist structure so popular in American dramaturgy is (very often) punishment. Realism doesn’t exactly oblige a Judgment Day in its climax, but maybe we should ask why, as theatre artists, we mete out theatrical justice when we do. Such endings may prevent us from going deeper into the humanity of our characters.
Shepherd’s four-part structure, however, is perhaps not aimed solely at deepness as much as the maze-like compartments of mind. We follow an antihero through his life as a pretty inconsistent father, a terribly unprofessional teacher, a frustrated sexual being, and as a manipulative husband. The styling of the dialogue, and its repetitions across vignettes, adds to the maze-ness.
In this production of WORSHIP, you pass through white curtains into a playing space dominated by a white bed. The actors wear mostly white. The unreality of the design, including its setting in the round, tells us that we are going into a psychological zone — without tidy frames. It’s unsettling, sometimes funny, and ends the way a typical day ends for a married couple.
But seeing the piece certainly made me ask how we hold the humanity of everyone. Not just in writing, but in politics, and in our search for meaning. To be sure, compassion is not an out-of-the-box, all-purpose lens to be applied to any situation. The unsanitary risk of empathy, of overwhelm, of being judged for whom you extend empathy to, doesn’t come with any guarantee of peace or resolution. And if we are opening our heart in order to change someone else’s heart, is our heart truly open?