Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
September 30, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 39
By Michael Feingold
The triple bill at the Playbox Theatre, which I saw on a dank Sunday afternoon last week, reminds me that Eric Bentley used to say, when he was reviewing, that there was a kind of play which serve no purpose, filled no function, had no reason for being produced at all, yet always got produced, two or three times a season. He called it the Idiot Play, and complained facetiously that its existence was much harder to explain than the existence of the universe.
Well, the bill at the Playbox is made up, not for the first time in any experience, entirely of Idiot Plays: I will be polite and refrain from mentioning their titles or naming the people involved.
But the Idiot Play has in the past few years flourished in great numbers off-off Broadway; plenty of OOB theaters, like the Playbox, produce it pretty consistently. (No names here, either: you know who you are.) And this distresses me enough to make me want to offer an account of the form, if not a reason for its existence.
The theatre, every theatre, has conventions. You go to it expecting it to deal with certain matters, use certain images, do certain things certain ways. This in itself is not bad. In fact, the convention is one of the things that sustains the theatre, a guide to playwrights and a draw to audiences. But on both sides it is only part of the answer. The writer, or whoever creates the play, is expected to infuse the convention with his own feeling and imagination. The audience, for its part, comes as much to see the convention varied as to see it practiced. Occasionally an audience and a playwright band together to see a worn-out convention smashed, as Ibsen and his supporters did with the Scribean well-made play. the consciousness has changed, the thing is no longer needed; purify it out of existence.
The Idiot Play, very simply, is what results when you take away the life-current of author impulses and audience demands, and leave the convention standing naked by itself. Such plays are rarely the work of cynics — this is the secret of their producibility — they come from misguided people who worship the convention, and think that you write a good play by leaving yourself out of it entirely, that in fact you absorb the convention and the play writes itself. People who are cynical about the convention, by contrast, write trashy plays, like Colley Cibber’s or Neil Simon’s; these can occasionally be amusing: When George M. Cohan, who knew conventional melodrama as well as anybody, started playing hob with it one day, the (trashily) delightful result was “The Tavern.” But Idiot Plays are never amusing, especially not the comedies among them, because the degree of amusement in a comedy is proportional to the amount of life in it, not to the amount of convention.
The history of the Idiot genre is certainly as old as the history of theatre: Aristophanes complains of other playwrights in ways that sound suspiciously familiar. In schools, certain idiot plays are studied along with masterpieces out of the same convention. If you delve into the English drama, you get Greene’s “Orlando Furioso” alongside “Dr. Faustus,” and Steele’s “The Constant Lovers” in the same week as “The Beggar’s Opera.” And the awfulness of that Orlando, and those lovers, is not the awfulness of archaism, but of simple dummheit; they were idiot-dead when they began.
The last 100 years, when most of the conventions that still infest our theatrical minds were made, saw the production of Idiot Plays on an unrivalled scale. For one thing, people started teaching playrwriting, and naturally spent most of their time teaching the conventions of structure, dialogue, characterization, and so on — in effect teaching the unwary how to write in the Idiot manner only. Some of the monstrosities emerging from these schools even became popular. Anyone who has suffered while his high school drama club plodded through “The Valiant,” or “Red Carnations,” will know what I mean at once. Most Idiot Pieces today are cut form the same patterns as those three — Idiot Playwrights tend to be rather behind the times — but then, so are most television shows (tv, in fact, is the Idiot Box par excellence).
“The Valiant” was not on the bill at the Playbox, but the pompous verse drama, of the “Maker of Dreams” type, was a serious study (after the Iliad, no less) instead of a harlequinade, so this compensated somewhat. The third piece was a five-minute tv comedy sketch, an attenuated version of the standard (but scarcer than the other types) Idiot Farce. It did have one bit of business — two actors trying to get into the same coat simultaneously — too good for this sort of event; possibly the author is a latent talent, only masquerading as an Idiot for convenience’s sake. In his defense, it ought to be said that a whole cluster of OOB theaters appears to be committed to the production of Idiot Plays to the exclusion of most other kinds.
This is dangerous — more dangerous now, I think, than it’s ever been. Idiot plays are a down, which can be tolerated fairly well when the rest of the world is an up, but not under the miserable social and political conditions that press in on us, worse in New York than anywhere else in this country. Idiot Plays pound down the mind and cramp the spirit; their special kind of unreality, probably harmful in steady doses, is not something we can afford at the moment. And there is no end of alternatives in the form of non-Idiot plays, both revivable and new; all a theatre needs to find them, or even encourage them, is a sense of life.
A non-Idiot, if also non-theatrical, occasion last week was Video Exchange’s presentation, at the Merce Cunningham Studio, of the score from a new musical by John Braden; a mild down for those, like me, who had expected to see a full-scale musical instead of a backers’ audition, but Mr. Braden, though he writes from deep within the convention, is plainly not an Idiot. I’ll save further comment till the whole show materializes. Meanwhile, I draw your attention, not for the first time, to the delightful voice of Marjorie Lipari, and, for the first time in my experience, to the voice and personality of Teresa King. Kindly cast both ladies in a full-scale musical forthwith; they are too good for mere intimate evenings in the studio.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]