Theater archives

Caught in the Fact


What is a fact? In the theater, most often, a fictional invention: Iago has been passed over for promotion, John Proctor has had an affair with Abigail Williams. On a less fundamental level are the facts that reveal character: Willy Loman ridicules the bookish kid next door, Trigorin compulsively writes things down. For more detailed data, there are nonfiction facts, you might say, that obtrude into the dramatic fiction. To follow the love affair of Masha and Vershinin in Three Sisters, you only need to know that, when other people are around, they communicate it by humming a familiar tune; but you understand a good deal more about them, and even get a glimpse of their unhappy future, if you know that the tune is the duet from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

But all this speculation about fact presupposes a certain kind of play, during which we believe in the lives of the individual characters, and let the facts illuminate them. Henry James, pondering Hedda Gabler, said Ibsen was writing about “the individual caught in the fact.” For major historical events, the 20th century found another way onto the stage: to make the facts central, and let the characters illuminate them. This happened for two reasons. One was that realism, even epic realism à la Brecht, lacked the technical arsenal to process the amount of factual data involved within a reasonable time: So much life has to be sliced in, so many untelling details have to be dished up before we get to the telling ones. Unless you have Shakespeare’s dual gift for selectivity and poetic succinctness, it’s far safer to cut to the chase—that is, to the facts—and let them speak for themselves.

Not that they can, of course. Like the fictional facts inside a drama, historical facts onstage are only raw data. They take their meaning from their presentation, making documentary theater in some ways a tougher challenge than the imaginative kind. So many points of view have to be honored to give the work texture and a sense of fairness; so much has to be omitted and condensed without making the story feel half told. The fashion for collages of interviews that came in with Anna Deavere Smith has led more than one performer-compiler into the dangerous land where the interviewee’s body language replaces the substance of the event. But this, too, is a playwriting challenge: For the sharp-eyed documentary maker, style can reveal substance as fully as it can for Ibsen or Chekhov; with the merely glib, substance melts into style.

Documentary theater has its chief competition in the camera, which will always beat it for authenticity. Editing can be as manipulative as you like, but a film of a person saying something is still a film of the actual person saying that thing; a reenactment not announced as such is fraud pure and simple. A stage performance, though, is a reenactment by definition, which explains what the theater can offer documentary that the two-dimensional media can’t: a sense of ritual. Where film and video record whatever happens to catch the filmmaker’s interest, the theater has to tell the story that bears repetition, the set of voices or set of events that speaks in some way as a myth. There has to be a larger meaning, and it has to arise spontaneously out of the act of telling. Otherwise, the facts—the actual words and deeds, the people who actually did and spoke them—are violated. Playwriting teachers tell you that exposition has to be repeated three times; in a country that forgets its history so avidly (Gore Vidal’s “United States of Amnesia”), documentary theater is a way for art to embody history’s expository process, to say at least three times what we all had better remember.

That notion is a preposterous way to introduce Snatches, a documentary that has, by intention, the most degradingly trivial text I’ve ever encountered in docudrama. Don’t get me wrong—the degrading triviality is the point, and one scarily worth making. The characters are Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, and the harrowingly inane dialogue is taken from Tripp’s tapes of their conversations, now matters of public record. Laura Strausfeld’s piece, however, is not actively political, not an indictment of Clinton, of Kenneth Starr, of illegal wiretapping and Washington corruption, or of anything remotely issue-based. Essentially, it’s an attack on materialism, on the affluent arrogance of the vast number of Americans represented by these—I only judge them by their own words—unfathomably stupid women, who viewed the entire civic life of their country as a handy way to meet influential people, get high-paying jobs, and, in Monica’s case, have love affairs with high-powered older men. We know the results. What’s unnerving is to hear the whining, and the soothing, the sniping and the scheming, Monica’s moans and Linda’s lies, all played out as the primary elements of the experience. Everybody else in America thought this was about the presidency, the nation, the world; to hear Monica and Linda talk, it was about good hairstyles and six-figure salaries.

Strausfeld’s witty, pop-Baroque staging, imaginative but somewhat overly controlled, stresses the expensive emptiness of the two women’s experience. Posed at a variety of oblique angles to the audience, her Monica and Linda literally have no presence—we virtually never see their faces. The conversations, sorted by topic and intercut, not only interrupt each other but are interrupted by silent, solemnly choreographed rituals in which the women, seated facing upstage, engage in sublimated erotic relations with their hairstylists, who are the only other visible characters. Between blips of conversation, news headlines—chosen for maximal double entendre (“Top Aides Beg Clinton to Curb Emissions”)—run across the proscenium arch. Played for sympathy, the words Strausfeld has chosen would tell a story of female bonding: two helpless gals standing together to conquer sexist Washington. That’s not how this story ends, of course; the end is the last intense, confrontational scene over lunch, with Linda stonewalling, still pretending to be Monica’s friend, as the tape recorder turns. Trust, decency, dignity, and friendship aren’t part of this story. In stressing their absence from this small, sordid corner of public life, maybe Strausfeld has made a larger political statement after all.

It couldn’t be larger, in any respect, than the material contained in Adina Taubman’s solo piece Doing Justice, which rocketed briefly through the last week of the Fringe Festival. In a way, the two pieces are complementary. Taubman’s work, a study of the Columbine High School killings, is like the horrific, gory underside of the affluent emptiness that, in other parts of America, produced Tripp and Lewinsky. The same desire for results without effort, the same absence of civic sense and of human connection, applied to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, whose disturbed condition and armaments stockpile no one noticed, till it was too late. Taubman wrestles honorably with her material, intractable in both immensity and breadth. She replays the talk of pastors and psychologists, with survivors and parents of the dead, gun control proponents and NRA defenders. She even takes a leaf from The Laramie Project‘s book by putting herself into the piece, an intruder in Littleton, asking awkward questions of people who’ve had more media attention than they can bear.

Taubman’s limitations as an actress, which are substantial, have an oddly liberating effect on the piece, granting these tormented people the dignity of distance, where a performance with more complete identification would seem like trespass. What she leaves half-examined, though, is any sense of the life into which the horror of the killings erupted. We don’t learn much about what kind of town Littleton is, or what kind of people live there, except that they’re reasonably well off and love their kids, which doesn’t exactly distinguish them from the rest of exurban America. We don’t hear much, either, about them as individuals: what these people do, how they think, who they love other than the victims of the slaughter. Where the core of the event is so hard to comprehend, the Chekhovian details on the periphery might reveal more than one expects. But partly there’s a sense that the material has engulfed Taubman, that the project of comprehending an entire town’s trauma was simply too big for one person. Beth Manspeizer’s direction, which features full blackouts that tend to stop and restart the action awkwardly, is only an intermittent help. And—perhaps ominously, but unsurprisingly—there’s little social perspective on the material. The local pastor, a recurring figure, talks about God and the tragedy of children who haven’t been taught about God’s presence; others talk about parental love and parents’ responsibility; gun control is brought up. Nobody talks about teaching children to live together, about dealing with differences, about society as an organism in which everyone participates. Maybe our life these days is so solipsistic that nobody thinks of these things anymore. But if that were the case, we probably wouldn’t be so interested in plays that dealt with the facts in which we all, as individuals, are caught.