Why can't I write an epic?
This is my first post. It happens to be the 54th post to NTFD, which is not a number that has significance to me, and I'm glad of that, because it really allays the pressure I would undoubtedly feel if this were the 16th post, or the 29th or something.
I am currently acting in/directing an episode of a trilogy of full-length plays called "The Madelyn Trilogy" which are being mounted by Curious Theatre Branch as part of the Rhino Fest. Beau O'Reilly wrote them, and each play comes in at 2.5-3 hours running time, totaling 8 solid hours of drama. The plays happen to be quite good, but the quality of the plays is not the issue. The hot button of this project, of course, is its length. 8 hours of theatre. Fringe theatre. No bangs and whistles, just solid writing, terrific acting, and an engaging, original story.
Recently, I was approached after a performance by a castmate's cousin, who was a complete jerk and "not someone who goes to theatre except to see his cousin perform" (so why am I talking to him about his opinions regarding theatre in the first place?) and he asked me, with a question that could not be more leaning or loaded: "Don't you think a writer asking an audience to watch an 8 hour play is self-indulgent?"
Ok ok, now of course, this guy is a jerk and made several comments during this encounter that made me want to shake my fists and growl. But this is the one that sticks with me, because it touched on something I've been obsessing about lately (perhaps because I've been doing an 8 hour trilogy since january): length. And specifically why it is so dwelt-upon in theatre by audiences and critics alike?
His question was best answered with another question: "Why is it more self-indulgent than a novelist asking you to spend 40 hours reading a single story they wrote? Or a writer creating the bible for a TV show that will take 6 seasons to complete?" The response, of course, is that "That's different."
Indeed, Beau's experiment is rooted in this. Shakespeare could get away with writing plays of length. So could Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill...Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner are still getting away with it. I say "getting away with it" ironically, because writing a long play (even 8 hours long) is not an artistic crime, and shouldn't be considered one. John Barton's "Tantalus" which premiered in Denver several years ago was a 12-play cycle about the Trojan War that took 2 full days to perform once.
I've read Tantalus. It's...ok. But again, quality is not the concern of this, the 54th post on NTFD, but this question of length.
Why is theatre held to such strict standards of length? It seems that most people have this idea of what a play is and what theatre is supposed to be and supposed to do, what the rules are, what the context is, and how they're going to receive it, and how long they need to invest. We're willing to watch the entire Godfather Trilogy in one Saturday, but the idea of partaking in 8 hours of a play in three sittings over the course of a weekend (or even a 9-week run) makes people bristle.
Does it have nothing to do with the work itself and have everything to do with the form and venue? If you go to a play, yes, you are expected to be a willing captive, the actors can see you and hear you, the rest of audience is aware of you, you must sit quietly, politely, and watch. Is this what creates the standard of expected length? If this is true, then what makes theatre immediate, crucial, and unique is also what provides the excuse for it to be so harshly regarded (and often neglected) by the average consumer. When you see a play, you are (ideally) part of a cycle of energy that radiates from the performers out into the audience, through the audience, and back to the performers. When you see a play, the experience cannot be replicated, because next time around, the performance will not be the same, the specific combination of people in the seats will not be the same, and so forth. This is not true of films, in which the experience stays purely within the audience, and rarely extends beyond the individual. Even if you could give to the screen, it couldn’t give back. The channel is one-way and static. Theatre is about community in a world that for all its connectivity is becoming more and more singular, and one of the few artforms that creates a direct and live two-way channel, because it has to.
As an experiment in length and depth, the Madelyn Trilogy is admittedly extreme. 8 hours is a long time to receive, share, give back, and receive again. But is that the only reason why we won't tolerate long plays? It can't be, because theatre didn't always follow this tendency of 10-minute plays and hour-long one-acts. Not only did writers used to write long plays, but producers produced them and people came to see them. It was an event. The play has shrunk over time. Shakespeare's 5 acts became Chekhov's 4 became Miller's 3 became the modern moment's 2. But wait! Even 2 act plays are frowned at more and more.
The dangerous thing to me about this trend is the way it affects the way we write. Writers are writing short plays because that's what can be produced. There are countless one-act festivals and short-play marathons across the country where writers can get their work done, as long as it's under 10 pages long. Even if that 4 act Faust comedy you're sitting on is the best play anyone's written in 20 years, good luck getting it put on. It's certainly affected me: 12 of my plays have been produced, but only 4 of them 'full-length,' and only 2 of those require an intermission.
How does this length issue affect you? Why does it exist, and why now more than 40 years ago? I don't want to blame TV and the internet because that would be easy, but is that the most logical answer? Is it that people don't want to take part in the creation of the event, they merely want it to happen to them? But then why go to a Cubs game instead of watching it at home?
Chris Piatt wrote in his review of Tracy Letts' epic "August Osage County" something to the effect of most American playwrights are writing plays that are nothing more than tumbleweeds rolling across a desolate landscape, and that to make a mark in this day and age and add to the canon, you gotta show up wearing some serious shit-kickers, I believe was the term. But that seems to imply any of several things, none of which are true:
1) Most playwrights don't have the guts to write something epic.
2) All good plays, or even great plays, get produced.
3) All playwrights have the option to get something like Osage County produced at a venue like Steppenwolf, but choose rather to dabble in unimportant trifles, or don’t have the ability to write it in the first place.
The only difference between Tracy Letts’ epic and the epic that all playwrights have sitting on their floor collecting dust is that his got done, for whatever combination of reasons, many being obvious, and one certainly being that the play was good. But his isn’t the only one. It’s not fair to take a struggling playwright to Osage County, then smack them on the chest, point at the stage and say “Why can’t you do that?” It seems pretty transparent to me, actually, why most of us can’t do that, and it has nothing to do with writing.
The climate has created the condition, not the other way around. It isn’t fair that writers are expected to adhere to certain constraints or—god forbid—rules, but then we’re criticized when the scene doesn’t produce anything that sticks or demands attention. Everyone cries for the next Great American Drama, and then moan about having to spend more than an hour in the theatre, once in a while deciding “this one gets a pass” because of where and who and because they had enough money to build a staircase onstage. I would argue that The Madelyn Trilogy is a much more important work due to its context and the gesture it makes, going further despite the norm and not allowing budgetary or technical limitations to dictate the writer’s process.
We’d all love to write something huge, or we at least should have the option to. But we don’t. Tony Kushner does. Tom Stoppard does. Saying Tracy Letts is more important or has more to say than another playwright because of Osage County's epicness is like saying an NFL receiver is elite simply because he catches a lot of passes. But he doesn’t control if it’s thrown to him, does he? All he can do is get open.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Why can't I write an epic?
Posted by Scott Barsotti at 11:49 PM