Sunday, November 09, 2008

Terry Teachout: Water Carrier for the Dramaturgical Right

There's a provocative and, if you read it carefully, profoundly whiny piece in today's Wall Street Journal by that publication's theatre critic, Terry Teachout. I'm always amused by Teachout, who I've never formally been introduced to, when I go to the theatre. For someone who openly revels in the glories of Republicanism (hurt the people, kill the people, lie to the people, starve the people, etc.), he doesn't look like someone espousing conservative values -- he's never in a jacket and tie, for example, or even dress shirt and slacks. Call me Mr. Blackwell, but it seems to me that a measurement of conservatism must be superficial and sartorial -- there is a semiotic connection between maintaining the theatregoing fashions of yesteryear as a reflection of beliefs held far more deeply, and often quietly, inside. Maybe Rupert Murdoch doesn't pay Teachout enough to actually dress like William F. Buckley or Bill Bennett or David Brooks, but somehow I just think that's not true.

But let me get to Teachout's article, which is called "Enter, Stage Right?" and has an intriguing dek: "Why we don't get conservative plays." This subject was dealt with years ago in successive issues of American Theatre magazine, if memory serves, but this is as good a time as any to revisit the subject. Before I talk about what I think are the fatal flaws in Teachout's piece, let me suggest that I think the American theatre would benefit immensely from drama with right-wing points of view; if there can be Christian rock, surely there can be Christian drama.

In his piece, Teachout presents anecdotal evidence as to why the American theatre, or theatre as a whole in the Western world, doesn't get conservative plays, but let's step back for just a moment and, for the sake of argument, talk about what some of the stumbling blocks to creating such works might be. Fundamentally, it seems to me, the conservative movement is about self-reliance and the unstinting, unswerving, unquestionable power of markets, neither of which strike me as particularly fertile avenues for mining drama. You can say Ayn Rand and all of that, but if the theatre's deepest function, to tell stories, is equally about teaching us something about tourselves, to work out disagreements and discordant elements of humanity through conflict and resolution, then how do you reconcile that primal effort with a philosophy that shows aversions to conflict, that expects all to conform, that expects lockstep marching, that expects all to sign on to basic tenets and precepts with a minimum of dissent. How can there be drama when there is no drama within the conservative way of thinking? Indeed, the drama is between conservatism and liberalism -- the conflict between the urgent desire to turn back the clock, to halt and roll back progress, and the equally urgent desire to achieve greater progress for all.

It's telling that Teachout begins his piece by talking about the recent meeting about the problem of not enough women playwrights being produced on Broadway. He glibly glosses over the details of the meeting by noting how the "usual statistics were adduced to prove the point, and the usual male suspects made mollifying noises in a story published in the New York Times, though none promised to do anything in particular about it." Teachout then provides a quote from Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater -- "The issue is best dealt with by consistent consciousness-raising rather than a specific program," which suggests, because Teachout doesn't bother to double source this element of the story, that the Public is the key instrument by which gender equality in producing can be achieved. But the Public, of course, is not Broadway, and just in case everyone has lost their minds, this discussion came to the forefront when Theresa Rebeck wrote in the Guardian about the problem of not enough women being produced on Broadway. So Eustis was essentially the wrong person to talk to. But then, perhaps there's a slimier agenda not bubbling to the surface -- that true conservatism, as strict constructionists would have it, would almost certainly aim to roll back not just civil rights but universal suffrage.

Then again, by quoting Eustis and skewing the topic as Teachout has, he gets to write his slap to the left: "Liberalism, it seems, has its limits, even at the Public." Cue Linda Evans and Joan Collins tumbling into the pool.

Teachout has only just begun, though. He cites that New York Times story on the women-playwright problem to segue to a recent and different Times story about the paucity of plays written from anything other than a liberal point of view. He quotes Alison Carey of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for example, but curiously, he fails to provide her title. (She's a co-founder will Bill Rauch, the head of Oregon Shakes, of Rauch's acclaimed Cornerstone Theatre Company and she's part of Oregon Shakes' look at American plays; you can read all about her here.)

Then Teachout raises the specter of David Mamet, who announced earlier this year that he was renouncing liberalism, and he somehow connects Mamet's born-again conservatism to, of all people, Tom Stoppard, lamely suggesting that The Coast of Utopia is a "meditation on" -- i.e., a rejection of -- "the destructive consequences of 19th-century utopian absolutism," which is, I think, the most wrongheaded, misinformed and philosophically hijacked reading of those plays I could have possibly imagined.

More to the point, Teachout says he "can't think of a single well-known American or British playwright whose political views are even slightly to the right of center. Nor do I think it likely that such a person would flourish were he or she suddenly to emerge from out of nowhere: Theater is a social art form, and the culture of American and British theater is 99% left-liberal, if not more so."

Who does Teachout think he is to make such a grand, sweeping statement about the political views of an entire creative class? And what, exactly, does 99% left-liberal mean? Is Teachout suggesting -- and I think, God help us, he is -- that 99% left-liberal means we all believe in life in prison without parole (I don't) or gay marriage (I'm not sure)? This is more reflexive Republican reductionism, the kind of babbling commentary that not only reveals what we already knew -- that Teachout carries water for the right-wing as part of a culture war Republicans will probably rev up with the ascension of the Obama administration -- but that his intellectual capacity to advance the arguments of the right-wing are woefully limited.

Now read these two graphs:

Is this lockstep ideological unanimity a problem? Some theater professionals claim to think so. Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of London's National Theatre, has said that he longs to commission a "good, mischievous, right-wing play." But he gave the game away when he added that what he had in mind was "a play that ended up in a position that, for instance, was highly skeptical about abortion rights. I would like to see a play about the white working-class communities that were completely displaced by waves of immigration. These are the offensive plays we're not doing."

Mr. Hytner, in other words, wants to produce issue-driven conservative plays that are just like today's liberal plays, only in reverse, whereas the problem with today's political theater is that its practitioners see their plays not as works of art but as means to an end. In such tedious exercises in left-wing agitprop as Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell," Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" and Tim Robbins's "Embedded," we are presented with a black-and-white universe of victims and villains, a place where every deck is stacked and never is heard a surprising word. Why would anybody with half a brain in his head -- even a fire-breathing McCainiac, if such a creature exists -- want to suffer through their right-wing equivalent?

First, for Teachout to talk about the "problem" of ideological unanimity is hilarious; that's the definition of the right-wing, not the 99% liberal-left. Second, for him to argue that liberal and conservative mean precisely the same things in the U.S. and the U.K. shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the two societies; even that dyspeptic duo, Reagan and Thatcher, did not agree on everything. Third, isn't it interesting how selective Teachout is in terms of the plays he cites to make his argument? He doesn't, for example, show any knowledge of, or interest in, documentary theatre -- yet its that form, in particular, in which the decks really do tend to be stacked; this was my primary criticism of A Question of Impeachment at the Culture Project, as some of you may remember. What we're really discovering in this piece, and it's a shame, is that Teachout's frames of reference are limited, just like his political philosophy.

But perhaps most ridiculous of all is Teachout's final graph:

I don't doubt that the American theater would be a more amusing place if it harbored a few uncloseted conservatives. But when the curtain goes up, I don't care whether the author of the show I'm about to see is a Republican, a Democrat, an anarchist or a drunkard, so long as he's taken the advice of Anton Chekhov: "Anyone who says the artist's field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing. . . . It is the duty of the court to formulate the questions correctly, but it is up to each member of the jury to answer them according to his own preference." That's what great playwrights do: They put a piece of the world on stage, then step out of the way and leave the rest to you.

Certainly I won't argue with Chekhov, but when Teachout confides that he doesn't care whether the author is "a Republican, a Democrat, an anarchist or a drunkard," isn't he negating the point of his story? I mean, if he doesn't care about it, why write about the "problem" of there being no plays from the conservative point of view? All that twisting and turning for that? Oh, good grief, Charlie Brown. At least have full possession of, and take pride and courage in, your convictions; don't boil it down to whether the American theatre is "amusing" or not. Oh, and if we're talking about the American theatre, why quote Nicholas Hytner? Let's get Teachout a painkiller for the contortions he put himself through to write this right-isn't-wrong rant.

ADDENDUM: In the interest of being everything Fox News isn't -- fair and balanced -- I urge everyone also to read this piece on the possible ascendency of intolerant liberalism on Thomas W. Loughlin's blog A Poor Player.

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Tom Loughlin said...


Thanks very much for the mention and the link. I wasn't aware of Terry's article when I wrote mine. I'll put a cross-link to your post on mine. I think it's a very fascinating topic for us all to consider. -Tom Loughlin

Anonymous said...

I actually read the article on Saturday and was baffled...according to his pretzel logic I suppose Teachout only supports Mamet plays and would find Shakespeare a flaming liberal -- my god -- Romeo and Juliet not abstaining before marriage!

Anonymous said...

Your citation of Ayn Rand better fits the libertarian movement (she's a libertarian icon). The free market movement is historically associated with economic liberalism (whereas traditional / conservative economic models assumed the need for state manipulation).

Really, the dichotomous left / right approach to the world is so over-generalizing that it is dogmatic and dangerous.