Disconnecting the Party Line

Anyone considering playwriting as a hobby or profession should tread with extra care these days. In addition to knowing how to build a story through constant dramatic action, witty dialogue, and realistic but creative characterizations, the potential author must put his or her finger to the wind and discover which direction the prevailing political winds are blowing. Producers are now actively looking for a relatively new breed of drama: the politically correct play, which I abbreviate as PCP, because in certain ways I believe it to be as dangerous to theater as the drug with the same initials is to the mind.

While writers Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen -- and notably critic Eric Bentley -- fervently believed in using the theater as a voice for social change, playwright Eugene O'Neill has been quoted as saying that the artist who tries to save the world may lose himself. I agree with O'Neill. Bentley's argument works only in the best sense: Back in the Sixties many positive theatrical experiments tried to alter social, sexual, and cultural points of view. There's nothing wrong with that, and certainly theater as a whole is designed -- as is all art -- to move the populace forward in its journey toward intellectual and emotional evolution.

But the persistent cancer eating away at fiction today clearly embodies O'Neill's worst fears. The writer who pushes a certain party line, who actively courts special-interest groups, becomes less a visionary and more a calculated politician. And as Sting sings, "Don't believe much in politicians, they all seem like game-show hosts to me." No one should censor Karen Finley for her controversial performance art, just as no one should remove homosexual-themed paintings from museums. But if people tolerate freedom of speech and expression in these cases, they also must recognize that such freedoms are not limited to "correct" points of view. What about the playwright who writes of a contempt for homosexuality? Or the author who takes to task a particular race or religion? Aren't their views equally valid?

From Angels in America to Jeffrey to the work of Anna Devere Smith, it's apparent that nowadays the highest praise is being showered on plays that celebrate people living outside mainstream society. I've heard of critics in other regions who have been warned against harshly condemning ethnic- and lifestyle-based plays; works with openly gay themes such as The Normal Heart and Jeffrey are so flawed they likely would be more critically assessed if they concerned heterosexual relationships.

Curiously, women's rights don't seem to be included in the list of PCP subject matter. Women who complain and condemn are still considered shrill bitches. Therefore, wimpy shadows of the feminist cause -- playwrights Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman -- flourish. They make the ladies' case gently and with kind, nurturing humor, always making sure that the promise of romance with a good man beckons in the end.

In researching this column, I called producers in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, and Milwaukee, and asked them what topics they were looking for in plays. They sounded as though they were applying for a grant from a human-rights foundation. Some sample responses:

"A gay musical is an exciting idea. It's just a matter of time before someone develops the right vehicle. We're thinking of turning Torch Song Trilogy or Jeffrey into a full-blown musical comedy. What do you think?"

"A great play about lesbians just came to our attention. It needs some rewrites, because it's a little too harsh. We want something charming and mainstream like the movie Go Fish."

"Do you know any writers of Armenian descent? I think it's time that holocaust was explored, don't you?"

"We have something hot right now. It concerns children's rights and the abortion issue. But I can't say any more."

My grassroots survey indicated that minority issues, privacy rights, the terrors of genetic manipulation, AIDS, gay rights and lifestyles, battered women, and twisted celebrities were on the fast track for play ideas. What's out? Religion, for one. Plays such as Agnes of God and Mass Appeal will be rejected. "The church thing is murky, with all these priests assaulting young boys," said one producer. However, another added that works about crooked evangelists and religious child molesters could be interesting "if handled delicately."

John Patrick Shanley's charming Bronx characters are not high on the current PCP list, either. Supposedly, most producers are looking for the "real Bronx." For example, I've heard that a rap musical about gangbanging is being developed. I can just see Ice-T making his Broadway debut.

Theater, which used to be more refined than other forms of mass entertainment, is now taking its cues from television. Producers are watching too many episodes of Geraldo, Turning Point, 48 Hours, and 60 Minutes. Basic human values of love and lust, revenge and redemption are not enough to interest contemporary artistic directors and financiers. PCPs -- done with taste and humor, of course -- represent the wave of the immediate future. In truth, many authors and producers responsible for mounting such works pay little more than lip service to the causes they espouse. When producer Cameron Mackintosh's money turned Madama Butterfly into Miss Saigon, his original London version condemned the United States's participation in the Vietnam War. The watered-down American script, stripped of all impact and bite, was deemed more suitable for a stateside hit.

Clearly, it is not enough for today's writer to have the craft of Shakespeare or Twain or Hemingway or Williams or even Neil Simon. Now authors must carefully avoid any hint of inflammatory opinions or remarks. Fat jokes are out. Submissive female characters are deemed offensive. African Americans never should be cast as villains. People are picketing the film True Lies, an intentional farce of spy films, because it might be interpreted as being offensive to Arabs.

I see students in playwriting classes consciously trying to write PCPs, searching for subjects that fit into that mold. So what happened to the honesty of drama, of writing to tell a simple story that touches something basic in all humankind? The sad truth of this current trend is that today's theater -- much like today's record and film industries -- is trying to make an easy buck off the new big thing. Since Spielberg's Schindler's List and Miller's Broken Glass did well at the box office and on Broadway respectively, greedy imitators are lining up for genocide-oriented plays. AIDS has been used repeatedly as a hot ticket. Many people would say that the money generated for AIDS research by fundraisers pegged to such productions is a good thing. There's no denying that.

Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern may be amusing on radio and TV, but I shudder to think of either one writing a play. To me, the stage is neither pulpit nor podium. It is intended to elevate and entertain all people, regardless of their specific lifestyles. Keep politics out of art -- it's even more contrived and embarrassing than watching Bill Clinton play the saxophone.


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