Playwright Theresa Rebeck likes to tell stories
Last year I attended a cocktail party for a theater that was doing one of my plays. The artistic director was making a little presentation, introducing me to his staff and his board, and he said -- in front of everybody -- “Theresa’s plays are always really well-structured, but don’t hold that against her.”
The next day I wrote him an e-mail. “Hey, is it somehow considered uncool to structure a play these days?” I asked.
“Actually,” he wrote back, “my literary department kind of does think that.”
Literary departments aren’t the only ones. I was hosting a session at the Lark, a New York developmental theater that helps playwrights build plays in a workshop setting, and one of the writers presented a beautifully written complete mess of a play. After many people, including myself, praised the grace of the writing, I admitted that I found the play incoherent. The writer nodded and laughed, delighted at my response. “I just wanted to stay away from anything that resembled a plot,” she explained.
“Oh, well, plot,” I said.
Here’s a plot: Two guys are waiting for somebody big and important to show up. That guy never shows up, but somebody else does. They go back to waiting, and then the tree grows.
Here’s another plot: A lonely guy lives on a farm for a long time. He gets bored with his life. He gets a crush on his sister-in-law, and she gets a crush on his friend. Eventually, everyone goes home, only now all of them are even lonelier than they were before.
Here’s another plot: A king divides his kingdom between two of his daughters. All hell breaks loose.
I think it goes without saying that young would-be playwrights in developmental workshops should be so lucky as to write plays as good as “Waiting for Godot,” “Uncle Vanya” or “King Lear,” none of which would have existed without a decent plot. Obviously a theatrical masterpiece needs more than a plot; many television shows are nothing but plot, and it is doubtful that they will stand the test of time. But I also don’t think that making fun of plot, or acting like we’re all somehow “above” structure is such a good idea.
Is this really a problem? Yes. I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. “All that structure, all that story,” he growled, pouring himself more wine. “What a nightmare.”
“I love structure,” I confessed. “I think it’s beautiful.”
“Yeah, the audience loved it too,” he sneered.
OK, I condensed that conversation; there was actually more yelling and drinking involved. But the essence of the exchange is accurate: He was a great artist who looked down on structure and managed to admit that he looked down on the audience too.
The two seem to go hand in hand. One time a critic made fun of the “crowd-pleasing ending” of one of my plays. The play was a comedy and the review ticked me off. “What kind of an ending was I supposed to write for a comedy?” I asked my husband. “Something that made the audience really sad? It’s a comedy.”
“You promised me you wouldn’t read those things anymore,” he answered.
I, of course, lay the blame for all of this on postmodernism. Fiction writers got over their fascination with postmodernism -- why can’t we? That stupid postmodern emphasis on image over content has slammed us right into a dramaturgy that willfully leaves the audience behind and then resents the fact that they don’t “get it.” Which leads us to the question behind the questions: Is theater a populist or an elitist art form? Is it an obscure poem that no one is meant to understand? Or is it television?
Like many theater artists, my answer is “neither. It’s neither.”
Structure is not our enemy, it is the form that makes content possible; it is the meaning that holds the image and imbues it with specificity; specificity is not our enemy; intellect without heart is not more, it is less and in the theater sometimes less is just less. Contemporary playwrights don’t need to toss away all that has come before us, nor could we if we even tried.
Sometimes people ask me where my plays come from. Where do you get your ideas? I honestly don’t know where they come from, but I do know that if you start with a few characters who need something simple from each other, pretty soon you will find that what they need is not so simple, and that the play itself needs something larger as well. The writing reveals its deeper subject. The characters reveal themselves as they act on each other in time. Time, innately, has a structure. And a lot of really smart writers who came before me understood how to make art imitate life and reveal those deeper truths in beautiful ways.
It is also completely understood that it is totally fair to steal from those guys. We are in dialogue with Chekhov and Shakespeare and Moliere and Beckett too, and a well-told story, something they all celebrated, is nothing to sneer at.
In addition to “Mauritius,” Theresa Rebeck’s other plays include “Bad Dates,” “The Scene” and “Spike Heels.” TV credits include “ NYPD Blue,” “Dream On,” “L.A. Law” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Her novel “Three Girls and Their Brother” is coming out in paperback this spring.
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