Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What We Don't Know Might Kill Us

I watched the first two episodes of Mad Men last night (ahh, iTunes). And something happened to me that has never happened to me before. I watched people making bad choices based on the cultural assumptions of their time --and I felt a sudden stab of fear about my own blindspots.

I suppose this is always the theory of period pieces: that they somehow make us re-examine our feelings about the present. But frankly, I've never felt it. What I have felt is safe superiority to the characters in a period story. Until now, I've felt that period pieces are at best museum pieces, and at worst are designed to make us feel really good about what we believe now.

The "look how smart we are now" variety is typified by race plays that operate beyond the 30 year barrier, as defined by Shepsu Aakhu. But I've felt the same thing in productions of The Laramie Project, and Angels in America. Granted, these aren't period pieces in the same sense as Court Martial at Fort Devon, but to me they now operate in a way that allows audience members to congratulate themselves for their forward thinking.

I think the difference I saw in Mad Men is that we watch people make bad choices. My recollection of contemporary pieces sent in earlier periods is that too often we are shown good guys and bad guys. We have vilified slave owners and noble slaves. We have backwards men and righteous suffragette. The plays themselves encourage us to judge morality of their actions in the past as determined by our current cultural moment.

I'm also willing to admit that my new experience with a period work may be as much about my own personal development as much as any narrative technique. The older I get, the less I feel superior about anything, let alone period plays.

So I'm curious: what period plays have you seen that made you fear for the present? And what do you think the author was doing that made that connection?

No comments: