A Case for the Return of Some Vanishing Stage Customs

Let's cheat this year

The Anarchist fell victim to this triple whammy. Emotionally cut off from the performers by the author's flat direction, the easily distracted audience made the snap judgment that this densely written, even convoluted script was flat and simplistic; some probably mistook it for one of Mamet's annoying political blogorations. But Mamet's a playwright, not a political thinker. His play had the ill luck to arrive while the world was living on that information-laden cloud where facile statements regularly trump more complex meanings, not just temporarily, but for as long as their Web links last.

The Internet has brought incredible benefits, making data universally accessible and shaping giant communities. But it's also diminished our lives, by disconnecting us from the direct experience of other human beings. Along with the free expression of opinion that opens doors and stimulates serious discussion, it has nurtured the kind of psycho-individualism that lives only to post its own anger, oblivious to what anyone else might feel or say. That anger, utterly locked in itself yet out on the cloud for all to see, is the force that massacres. Theater, which by its very existence shows us that we all share a common humanity, is a key part of the great civilizing counterforce.

A lot of theater people lately have been struggling to invent ways for live performance to assert itself more strongly against the electronic onslaught: "interactive" works that you meander through, like art installations, only confrontational; one-on-one experiments in intimacy; cabaret-like events that resemble drinking parties with impromptu entertainment. There's no harm in these, old ideas all. Ultimately, they may alter the theater's conventions. But I doubt that they'll change its essence. The theater, that tiny piece of spiritual turf so dwarfed by global media transmission, is already communal, already intimate, already (if both sides play their parts) interactive. I don't doubt that it will continue—if humanity, with all its current craziness, doesn't wipe itself out. Meantime, I sit here, clocking the new year in, waiting for signs of sanity. And worrying.

If they only sold seats in the flies: Patti LuPone in The Anarchist
Joan Marcus
If they only sold seats in the flies: Patti LuPone in The Anarchist


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This present mess is at base the gift of Lee Strasberg who had no use for audiences.  They were more or less a necessary evil that allowed him to keep playing his stupid game.

In the area of world worry, you say  " We've made the world an awful mess, and our whole civilization has started to seem like a worn-out machine that's about to break down."  I would replace the word "civilization" with the word "species."  Overpopulation will soon destroy us if we don't make the grand leap forward to taking direct responsibility as humans and not just pro-creation crazy animals.


"The challenge is to use it subtly and inventively..." Exactly. I believe a good director studies hard to master the art form, but a great director studies human nature and masters the art of audience empathy. That said, rules are made to be broken - especially in the arts. And, as an audience member, I was grateful to the director who kept Anthony Perkins' back to us during "Romantic Comedy" many moons ago.


And yet, as Mr. Feingold surely knows (and perhaps even consulted on), Mamet has written extensively on cheating out and countering, even with little pen diagrams in his book "Theatre". I didn't see Anarchist and have no doubt the critique is accurate; for this to happen, then, suggests something else might be going on (the comment about the bad timing for Anarchist seems dead on). Hard to know what, but maybe the Spenglerian gloom might be a little too seductive at that late hour? I've had directors tell me, when blocking me with my back to the audience, "I like a good back" (and no, it wasn't a pick-up line). The condition he decries is certainly frightening and the points essential, but perhaps the problem is more mysterious or, at least, less linear. While texting, etc. truly does present a clear and present danger to theatre, people also text, etc. throughout the pointless multimedia blitz itself. They really do seem to live these ulterior lives; it seems that marrow-deep. In the end, I'd say things are both worse and not as bad as he paints it. It's hard to imagine that theater could live within the vacuum of its own audience, but if that's the case, why not just keep going on without knowing the worth of our actions save for what is self-evident (and in the meantime, try not to time even valuable failures with the media circus of a national election...)

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