Hope for Contemporary Theater?


Hope for Contemporary Theater?by Jim Dalglish

When I think of great American theater, I can’t help but become a little nostalgic.  I think of the plays of Tennessee WilliamsEugene O’NeillWilliam IngeThornton WilderEdward Albee and even that nasty old broad Lillian Hellman.  For me, the plays they wrote defined the unique character of the American dramatic art form.

Perhaps “nostalgic” is the wrong word.  Most of these playwrights had written their best worksbefore I was born.  I’m sure that doesn’t stop me from sounding like a cranky old fart -- the guy sitting by himself at a party who complains to any new victim who happens to get within his gravitational pull about how beautiful everything used to be.

What am I reacting against?  I guess I’m tired of going to the theater and being assaulted by the latest David Mamet or Sam Shepard rip-off.  We’ve all been there.  The play that’s nothing more than the nasty, aggressive dialog.  Or the one that’s set in yet another trailer park.  Don’t get me wrong.  These two men are wonderful playwrights.  Unfortunately, contemporary theater seems to be dominated by plays that refurbish only the most obvious stylistic aspects of these two great writers.

Even more disturbing is the preponderance of “black” comedies and/or plays that feature characters that more resemble two-dimensional cartoons than real people.  Plots that use gratuitous violence or that satisfy only the most prurient needs of the audience seem to be in vogue.   Too often they are regarded as sophisticated entertainments when actually they are nothing more than ironic to the point of emptiness.  When the lights go up, the audience leaves feeling smugly superior and detached from the morass they’ve just witnessed on stage.   By the next day they’ve forgotten what they’ve seen, because, quite frankly, it didn’t really mean anything to them. 

We can do better.

One might assume, judging by the playwrights I’ve chosen as my idols, that my taste in theater veers a little too far into the direction of naturalism or lyrical realism.  You might also suggest that contemporary theater does not have to be straight-jacketed by the tyranny of the well-made play.  

While I do prefer a more naturalistic and lyrical approach to drama, I could name dozens of great plays written by these playwrights that break many of the rules of realism or the well-made play.  

What these playwrights all have in common is that they wrote plays that were stimulating, entertaining and deeply relevant.  They engaged their audiences.  They presented people and situations that audiences found both meaningful and entertaining.  What happens to Blanche and Stanley and George and Martha and Lola and Regina and the Tyrones means something to audiences every time these characters step on stage. 

My goals as a playwright are simple.  I strive to create a piece of art that is about something I feel very deeply, something that reflects an important aspect of the way we live.  I use my art to stimulate the audiences emotions and intellect, and to have these feelings and ideas haunt them well after the lights come up and they’ve headed for the comfort and safety of their homes.

I would love to have other playwrights take up this cause.