Back to basics

The sketch that I mention below, after its original (unstaged) reading, remains unproduced, as does Snow’s Day, which I mentioned yesterday. A year down the line — the post below was originally published here in January 2022 — I think the accompanying observations still hold true, even as the world returns to something that at least from a long perspective resembles a pre-coronavirus world.

The next question is what kinds of plays we’re writing now, what kinds of plays we’re producing and seeing and discussing in the aftermath of the epidemic and the Trump Era, in which, unlike the epidemic, we still seem embedded. My own sketch — and Snow’s Day, written in 2017 — touched on none of this (maybe too soon, too soon). Nor do I think it’s true that theatre and drama itself were permanently affected, although a kind of aesthetic long COVID may be in the offing. What has become of the idea of the audience — in the theatre, on screen, in the study — over these years? I’m not sure at all. But my personal experience over the past few years finds an echo in Martin Esslin’s definition of absurd drama, written nearly sixty years ago, in 1965, in that it reflects the kind of stage that may be appropriate for this kind of world:

The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

Yesterday in one fell swoop I wrote a little sketch — a bit over seven pages — for my 11-year-old daughter Billie, who is taking acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. It’s the first dramatic writing I’ve finished in the past six or seven years. As I wrote earlier, Billie’s stage debut, even in the context of an acting class open rehearsal, engendered some melancholy in the Old Man, but apparently produced a few sparks out of the ashes of my previous ambition. Last night we sat around the living room and read it out loud — a coffee-table read, I suppose — and it met with approval from the cast, all Hunkas.

In part it must have been the challenge of writing for my own 11-year-old daughter that fanned that spark into a tiny flame. The challenges were profoundly unlike writing for adult performers, who have a much broader range of experience and training to draw from. Concision is key, of course: attention must be held, and the attention span of an 11-year-old is already paltry to begin with. It’s good if there are a few jokes in there too; the characters and situation must be immediately identifiable and relevant to their experience.

But primarily I found that, in writing for her, I couldn’t go too far above her head, at the same time acknowledging that 11-year-olds are surprisingly aware and mature, so I couldn’t write down to her either. This is especially the case after the past few years, when pre-teens have had to navigate a particularly treacherous landscape, ridden with frightening pandemics and what appears to be the collapse of American democracy, which undermines everything they might learn in the classroom (and pedagogy is always a few years behind the curve). Socialization, for this reason, has been an ongoing struggle for them, and the struggle doesn’t end there. Two days ago David Leonhardt assembled a depressing list in the New York Times of the pressures facing children these days, and I’m sure most parents and educators would concur and agree, even if this kind of reporting rarely makes it into the newspapers.

Theater and drama may prove to be a saving grace in this case, because theater — in-person, simple, text-based theater — may provide at least one avenue to understanding this world and permit a means of living in it. My play had nothing to do with coronavirus or politics; it was really just a little anecdote, based on my observation of Billie and her friends. (And writing a play like this tested my powers of observation and empathy too.) But if we can still negotiate our relationships on the stage, person-to-person even if we still can’t see the lower halves of our faces through our masks, perhaps we can make up for some of that lost socialization. Somehow writing plays for people this age gets you back to basics. Which is where we all seem to be nowadays.