The one thing about going to a pretentious liberal arts college (i love you, Swat, but we both know it’s true) is that you’re either gonna nosedive into pretentiousville forever, or else, almost miraculously, you develop a pretty good bullshit detector. I flatter myself to think I fall into the latter category. At least, as I’ve mentioned once or twice before on this blog, I’m pretty damn conscious of the presentation of pretentiousness and/or bullshit in theater. If The Epic Adventure that is a Swarthmore College Seminar Room taught me anything, it’s that nobody likes the asshole in the corner “drawing everyone’s attention” to “levels of hegemony, didacticism, or insert-other-smart-sounding-word-here.”
A particularly formative moment in my theater education occurred during one such seminar: Performance Theory, wherein we were exposed to a whole lot of global theatrical traditions. One week, my professor screened a documentary about the collaboration between composer Phillip Glass and “Avant Garde” director Robert Wilson on their 1975 opera Einstein On the Beach. I do not remember the name of the documentary, nor do I remember much about it at all. (It may have been this one? No clue) I do, however, remember getting solidly fed up with what seemed like an elephant’s dose of horseshit. For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Wilson, dude is super avant garde. For those of you unfamiliar with Einstein on the Beach, opera is super avant garde. (And here I, like everyone else on the planet who uses the phrase “avant garde”, am not entirely sure of its precise definition, but am spreading it liberally – er, like butter, or cream cheese, or vegemite, for all my aussie readers – over a blanket amount of theatrical behaviors that I’m not quite sure how else to qualify.)
The Opera is crazy long, upwards of 5 hours, and I remember watching shots of the 1975 performance involving crazily dressed dancers/singers slowly lowering their hands, singing high, random tones over and over, or staring at things while walking sideways, and uhm… that’s about it. The audience was invited to come and go from the theater at will, I guess because the show was super long, and didn’t contain anything even remotely resembling a narrative to hook people or (I conjecture, here), keep them from becoming comatose with boredom.
Wilson was interviewed plenty of times throughout the documentary, and I remember him sounding KINDA like a tool and absolutely brimming with elitist confidence. Now, if I were fair or a legitimate writer, before paraphrasing the following quote, I would actually re-watch the doc, find the declaration in question, and assure you all, dear readers, that what I am about to say was indeed fairly attibuted to the speaker I am about to attribute it to. However, I am neither fair nor a legitimate writer, simply a self-satisfied one, so instead I am going to blunder on and callously recount what I recall of Wilson’s most toolish answer. As I remember it, he said something along the line of “It’s not my job or responsibility to endow meaning in my own work” — that he just MAKES IT, and it’s up to an audience to endow it with meaning.
It was at that moment, in that seminar, that I was “out”, if you will. If there’s one thing that 4 years of college seminars will teach you, it’s that pretentiousness for its own sake is the absolute fucking WORST. Sitting in that seminar room, watching that documentary, I became apoplexic with rage that some random dude had the fucking GALL to waste thousands of peoples’ time on an inaccessibly weird 5 hour opera and then freely admit that he didn’t have any particular intent in mind when creating it. Like, Bro: I will seriously go to see just about anything, and give you just about as much time as you want me to, but you better have a fucking INTENT on what your creating for me. Otherwise it is quite literally a waste of everyone’s time.
Now of course, that rage, and to a certain extent, that opinion, was borne out of collegiate resentment for the most esoteric form of academia. And also, there’s the (extremely probable) fact that I might not even be remembering Mr. Wilson’s quote all that well. Plus, a ton of people really love that nonsense. And are perfectly happy imbuing any performance with meaning even if it’s creator had none in mind during it’s creation. It’s just my weird thing, being a theater-maker myself, and understanding all too well what it is to create something that MEANS something to you…somehow I just don’t go for directors or writers or creators who don’t also consider the audience/artist exchange a sacred one, wherein the artist has intent to communicate something meaningful, at least to him/herself, and in exchange the audience member opens her/himself up to that possibility.
Also, to continue to qualify (let’s call this level-headed maturity, and not cowardly fear of taking a bolder stand), this past fall, I would venture to say I made a certain amount of peace with Mr. Wilson when I attended his creation of Three Penny Opera, as performed by The Berliner Ensemble, at BAM. The show was so unbelievably visually stunning that I refuse to even consider that he didn’t have some sort of underlying emotional resonance/intellectual thrust for his directorial decisions. Check it out, and try not to at least develop a baseline respect for the guy as an incredible visual artist.
Anyway, to the matter at hand: My relationship with playwright Edward Albee is short, but it exists: a few months ago, he appeared as a surprise guest in one of my grad school classes. It was crazy – and one of those moments when you really understand how it can be physically possible to shit your pants from excitement. (I didn’t, I’m just saying I could finally understand how it could be possible). Mr. Albee was brilliant, insightful, and, like so many great talents, healthily pretentious. He lectured at us for a while about writing, about his process, and about Art In General. It was inspiring and intimidating. And I’d be lying if I didn’t get a bit of that Robert Wilson “Figure It Out” vibe from Albee, as well. There’s not a quote I could stamp down that confirmed it, but it felt like, the same way Robert Wilson seemed to sit back, cross him arms, and demand his audience “discover” the meaning he was too (lazy? busy? thoughtful?) to imbue into his own opera, Albee expects his audience to do a fair amount of the legwork, too.
oh Albee, you brilliant bastard.
Now don’t get me wrong: I love doing legwork. I once had a four hour conversation with a friend after seeing the play Arcadia together – man did we try to pull that apart. But underneath that conversation was the implicit understanding, on my part, that Tom Stoppard created Arcadia with a clear blueprint for his insanely intricate text: that he knew what it meant. Or, at the very least, that he was aiming to express an empathy for his audience, to share with them a wonder and confusion over things mutually not understood.
There’s a big difference, for me, between that “I don’t get this either but man am I gonna try and help us all figure it out” impulse behind a play, and what I dislike the most about the play The Lady From Dubuque. The play, revived this season at Signature Theater Company, has been getting spectacular reviews and almost constant extensions for its production. And while I can certainly appreciate a lot of the things critics have been lauding – the performances are strong, the set intricate, and the direction clear – I can’t get over what I find a fundamentally frustrating aspect of the writing.
what does it mean?? people, what does it mean??
The story of The Lady From Dubuque starts at a dinner party, like so many of Albee’s plays. Sam and Jo are hosting their friends, and the conversation, biting at first, ultimately bitter, winds up revealing that Jo is suffering terribly from a terminal illness. After their friends leave, Jo and Sam try to confront the unsurmountable fact of her incredible pain and impending death. She goes to bed, screaming in agony, and Act 1 ends with the sudden unexpected arrival of the mysterious Lady From Dubuque and her equally mysterious friend Oscar.
In Act 2, Elizabeth (the Lady From Dubuque) and Oscar confront Sam, ultimately leading to a complete crisis of identity in him. Elizabeth is ostensibly there to comfort Jo in her dying moments, but questions abound: who ARE Elizabeth and Oscar? Is Elizabeth Jo’s estranged mother? Some sort of Angel of Death? Robbers, thieves, someone else entirely? The questions torture Sam, who basically combusts with the effort of answering them. When Sam asks Elizabeth “Who Are You?” she fires back her own “Who are you??” When it becomes clear that he cannot answer that question, she counters that he can’t possibly be concerned with who she is if he doesn’t even know who he is.
who IS she?! no, really: who the eff is she?
When the play first premiered, critics contended it was a play about death. Albee countered, and always has, that it’s a play about identity. I would submit (and here’s a real revolutionary thought) that it’s definitely about both. In fact, for me, the most compelling bit of this play is the way Sam appears to completely lose any sense of his own identity in the crisis of his wife’s illness. The experience of caring for someone with a terminal disease – of confronting death in such a tangible, certain way – is bound to have a fascinating and devastating effect on one’s identity, and is powerful fodder for a play. I think Albee’s take on it, and the way he shows Sam descend into complete crisis, is nothing short of brilliant.
However, The Lady From Dubuque pisses me off. The same way Wilson, sitting back in his dumb NYC apartment being interviewed for that dumb documentary pissed me off. To me, they’re two sides of the same coin — Albee has no fucking idea who Elizabeth, the lady from Dubuque, is, and invented her, as far as I’m concerned, purely as a contraption to provoke his audience’s curiosity. But here’s the rub: I don’t like for my curiosity to be provoked if there’s no possible way to have it satisfied. I don’t have a problem if a playwright doesn’t tell me something. I definitely don’t have a problem “answering” questions of a play myself. But I don’t much like being provoked merely for its own sake. I don’t much like having to do work that a playwright hasn’t bothered to do. For me, the subtle but essential distinction is whether or not Albee, the playwright, “decided” for himself who Elizabeth was. If he did, even if he never “told” me in his play, then I’m all in. But if, as I have always suspected was the case in this play, he simply added as many provocative but ultimately ambiguous clues to her identity to ensure that an audience member could NEVER know, then I just feel like I’m being fucked with.
And by god, I don’t like being fucked with at the theater. I don’t like when an artist basically sits back and says “haha, deal with it: you’re never gonna figure this out…but I hope you spend hours and hours worrying about it.” Like, dude: no. I’m not gonna waste a second of my time fixating on a question if I feel like your only purpose in posing it was to pose it. Not to express a mutual frustration with unanswerable questions. Because guess what: Albee could VERY EASILY answer the question of who the lady from Dubuque is. HE MADE HER UP. HE CAN MAKE UP AN ANSWER, without sacrificing any of the best stuff in this play.
There’s no empathy is being deliberately cagey; there’s simply, if you ask me, arrogance. It take a whole lot of balls to write this play, and not the good kind. The obnoxious kind. The egotistical kind. The patronizing kind. There is nothing worse than being talked DOWN to, and the attitude it takes to create deliberately (and POINTLESSLY!) unanswerable questions is distinctly “talk downable”.
Pshew. Got that out of my system. Deep breaths, Jessie.
Listen, for all my ranting, I know that I can probably just go suck an egg. (That’s an expression, right?) People are loving this play, Albee is arguably the most celebrated American playwright of our time, his plays get performed absolutely everywhere, and I write a blog that gets a healthy 10 readers a day. So like, shut up, me. I never said my opinions weren’t subjective. I also never said that Edward Albee wasn’t a genius, and I never said I wasn’t glad to have seen The Lady From Dubuque. I never said I don’t respect him, tremendously, as a writer.
However, I can’t help feeling like, at the end of the day, I like feeling that playwrights are with me, not against me. That they’re on my side. That they, like, me, are completely overwhelmed by This Crazy Thing Called Life, and Its Crazy Cousin Death, and their attempts to write plays are simply that, attempts to get a little bit closer to something that can help us all survive – and thrive – in the human experience. That, rather than make us maddened or confused, they’re on our side.
At the very least, that’s the kind of theater I want to make.