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Held together by a “Skeleton Crew”

15 Jun

When I had menial summer jobs during college, going to a good film the night before could upend the tedium for the entire shift the next day, and thoughts, impressions, and analysis of the film and its elements swirled in my mind. One of the strongest memories of this was working in a library, where I was doomed to change the labels on the front of card catalogue drawers all day – unscrew, remove old label and mylar covering, insert new label and mylar covering, provide paper backing for thickness, rescrew the assembly on to the front of the drawer – for minimum wage (then $3.35/hour), when I chanced to see Paul Schrader’s brilliantly written film, already in revival, Blue Collar with Richard Pryor in perhaps his greatest dramatic performance. That film, about auto workers in Detroit, brought me a lot to think about for all the hours the very next day and I still remember how in my mind’s replay it made the time pass but also let me bear down on the themes raised by the film and think about the unavoidable conflicts, class-based as well as racial, inherent in industrial capitalism.

Last night I had the chance to see another scripted Detroit-auto worker story, this time the new play, Skeleton Crew, by the young playwright Dominique Morisseau, with whom I had been unfamiliar until now. For one thing, I’ll be keeping an eye out for her other work from now on. This is a play that, in capturing the precarious existence even of skilled, union workers in the contemporary American economy, gives me hope that our theatre still can take on significant economic and social issues with sophistication and empathy, that theatre can do so much more than entertain by showing us the fragile humanity caught up in our crumbling economy. Our safety net has been ripped to tatters, even among the most strongly protected union jobs. Far from the labor optimism of Clifford Odets we now feel as if we are watching the sun set on union protection, as individual self-preservation is pitted every day against collective solidarity, because advancement comes at a moral cost.  In this sense, Morisseau’s play evokes Arthur Miller’s tragedies of psycho-economic conflict (Death of a Salesman most famously, but even more strongly both The Price and All My Sons). The dialogue is both natural and naturalistic, and yet at times with a tone as precise and ringing as that of The Crucible.

I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley in his rave review to provide more plot background to the play. But in brief, in this four-character play each of the thoroughly drawn characters occupies a tenuous position in the work hierarchy of a Detroit auto plant in danger of shutting down, including the union rep and two others who work with her on the assembly line  and the supervisor, now management, who has risen up from the union ranks to a position, though teetering, in the middle-class. We learn early on – though not all the characters know – that the plant will close, and it is up to the supervisor to make recommendations about who will be fired in advance or laid off, who will be transferred to other plants, who gets a good severance package, while the union has to scrape and scramble to protect its dwindling and vulnerable workers. One of the workers just bought a house, one is a year away from  full retirement benefits, one is saving up to start a small business, and one is about to go out on maternity as a single mom.

The play is not just an indictment of our economic system – our economic collapse as a country when it comes to providing a decent standard of living to increasing numbers of people (collapsing faster than Europe) – but also an inquiry into what happens to people morally when they get close to the line that separates management from workers, and those who think they can become secure from those who see themselves sliding into peril. We all have enough personal flaws and financial soft spots (e.g. cancer) to bring us down.  But the question remains whether the moral response in enough to offset the effects of an amoral economic system. Still, nothing in the play is contrived, there are no devices to move the plot forward, no sudden second-act revelation of secrets that forever changes the characters and the way we understand the play.  Life plays itself out without, as Brantley observes, melodrama. All of us who have worked in an office setting know the complicated ways that office mates get to know each another with a special kind of intimacy , as friends and sometimes not as friends even though we can spend as much awake time with them as we do with family.  The nature of the work relationship is different from worker and class solidarity – it is more complex, even in union shops (which I now know, working for the first time in my career in a unionized position). Friendship, comradeship, power plays, conflicts are all there, and we come to care about one another because of our frequent and purposeful contact.

This is highly engaged and perceptive theatre. What it offers over film is the intimacy of getting to know four complex and multidimensional characters by being physically close enough to touch them. And in so doing, and in seeing them in the flesh, as opposed to a two-dimensional screen, we can identify with their pain and anxiety, as (if) we come to know them. The actors have to become the people such that not one sentence can sound written.  The repartee, the comebacks, the conflicts must remain spontaneous.

Yet at the same time, there is the paradox – external to the play itself – that people who share the background and social status of the characters could not afford to see this production, even at off-Broadway prices. For that reason (among the demands of real life), I personally cannot have seen as much contemporary theatre as I would like so I cannot say categorically that this kind of new social realism is rare, but I suspect it is.I hope it’s part of a new wave.

The reason we remember Miller, Odets, Lorraine Hansberry, is that they expose something real yet complex about the relationship of individuals and families within the economic matrix. Perhaps this is what it means to be American in the post-manufacturing age. And furthermore, even though race hovers over this play and the deep vulnerability of its characters, the racial positioning of the characters themselves is far more ambiguous and complicated than what Hansberry’s Younger family had to deal with: both moving into the middle-class and remaining in the working-class are fraught with dangers of different kinds.

All of these tensions become that much more heightened as – in every industry, whether manufacturing or healthcare or higher education – fewer and fewer full-time workers relative to the growing need are being asked to do more, work more, give more. We are all becoming the very skeleton crews keeping this nation’s professional engines generating, whether products, service, care, or knowledge, while our brother and sister workers, and dads and moms, are severed, cast off, demoted to precarious, contingent positions or, as the play points out, moving from skilled labor in auto plants to jobs with no human impact in copy centers. Unemployment may technically be low by quantitative measures, but there remains just a skeleton crew doing meaningful work, in both the middle-class and the working-class, leaving bare our open wounds of aspiration.


30 Dec

There’s a moment of dialogue at the end of Ron Howard’s film, In the Heart of the Sea, that pricked my conscience when I saw it last week.  The film is otherwise formulaic in its writing, although being a Ron Howard film the technical side (namely the directing-cinematography-editing troika) can always be counted on to deliver, especially in the sailing sequences, which can be breathtaking.  The Herman Melville character, played by Ben Whishaw, turns to the narrator/interviewee who is the subject of the film, and says something to the effect of: The plot of the story I could come up with, but you have given me the courage I need to write this book.

This was the first in a series of three films in three nights, a kind of paroxysm of release from the semester and other tensions.  The next night I went to see Trumbo, a film that takes on the thought crimes against the American Left in a way that is not only engaging but fun, followed by the new Hungarian Holocaust film, Son of Saul, with its unrelieved claustrophobic tension, no fun and no uplift.  Where Trumbo is a paean to writers who have the audacity to hold on to their morals, stand up for their values, while subverting what they must in order to survive, Son of Saul is a portrayal of Auschwitz as a chamber of horrors so circumscribed that one can hardly come up for air, let alone get enough distance to even begin to consider acts of rebellion.

Speaking of audacity, I know that there is more to these films than a springboard to thinking about my own individual courage (at a time when I happen to be dealing with ongoing writer’s block and a relentless year of personal tribulations that has made any focus on my own creativity a distant possibility).  All three are about acts of moral courage (although to be certain, the story within the frame story in the Melville film is about physical courage), with Dalton Trumbo having the guts and also necessity (psychological as well as financial) to keep writing because that’s what writers must do. Not that all writing is courageous, but writing when the world wants you to be silent is. Auschwitz on the other hand was a world in which even the moral space needed for a courage response was so squeezed as to be impossible – and I don’t think Primo Levi would disagree.  That there managed to be rebellion at all makes us consider how we must be wired for this on some level, or at least a few people, since moral weakness seems to be more the hallmark of the human condition than moral courage.

Full disclosure: Dalton Trumbo’s National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun was one of the most influential books in my life, one that, more than any other, turned me irrevocably against war and violence (and as the subject of a pivotal application essay that got me into an elite summer program in high school, also had an instrumental effect upon my intellectual careers as well).  Years later, when asked to recommend books for the “Suggested Reading” bookshelf at a local library, I had to have the librarian rescue the book from the depths of “young adult storage” where it most certainly did not belong for a number of reasons.  I didn’t just want to be a writer after reading Johnny Got His Gun for the sake of being a writer, I really saw what writing could do when it came to ideas and ideals and social change and how writing itself could break free from conventions of not only politics (which I would later see again in The Jungle) but formal written language (language without commas(!), language that represented interior thought and image, which I would come back to in Light in August, penned just a few years earlier).

At one point I wanted to be courageous, but somehow I had lost that over the past few decades.  Although in fairness to me, not giving up and still trying to stay within the bounds of the kind of career I wanted – which is to say, not working for any entity governed by the profit motive, while still occasionally being able to speak my mind in the form of a lecture or more collaboratively via a community or artistic project – took just about all the courage I had left in the tank. It wasn’t that I had lost hope that prevented me from “bothering” to write, it was that I have so profoundly lost courage because I’ve come to believe that nothing I have to say matters, in any way or on any level.  (And not being, like Jimmy Carter, a person of faith, I don’t have that pillar to lean on either.)

Trumbo reminded me that this is a time of exceptional moral challenge.  I also happened to have seen a production of Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller (himself a playwright concerned with the very theme of moral courage over and over again, from The Crucible to All My Sons) just last week, and my friend remarked that the play seemed relevant “especially now,” and I too felt that urgency.  Why?  We are not occupied, nor at war to any greater degree than we have been since 2001, and yet it does feel especially with catastrophic climate change, a widening war against and by ISIS, along with the current crop of presidential candidates as well as the failure of our educational system to inform students about enough of the basic issues to make intelligent, i.e. informed decisions about policy, that each of us is being asked to take a moral stand, or simply give in, to consumerism as opiate.  Excuse me, but it does feel like at least once a day I have to make a decision that reflects my ethical stance in the world, from the class lectures that I give to the food I buy – maybe because I’m a teacher and I see most of my students living lives that are reactive to the economy, while more than a few are standing up to everything they have had to overcome just to get to college.  The courage of writers like Trumbo and Miller is handed down from generation to generation like a baton in a relay towards justice.

So as luck would have it, I picked up a paperback copy of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, that I found in the trunk of my car, and began reading.  With the break between semesters, I’ve also been able to do some “outside” reading for the first time since at least the summer.  There’s a lot in the slim volume, and to be honest, he does still subscribe to the Western, high art bias that creativity and imagination require on some level novelty, something new, something replacing the old.  While that is an ethnocentric view of creativity, for me already there are at least four takeaways that have added to this week’s ruminations on art, writing, and courage.

I’m deliberately oversimplifying, but here are the main points (for my purposes):

  1. The act of creativity is fundamentally an act of courage.  (Although he contrasts “moral courage” with “creative courage,” and I see them as complementary, if not overlapping.)
  2. Artists have to deal with the existence and synthesis of several conflicting pairs, including chaos vs. form, conviction vs. doubt, and the “solitary” with the “solidary,” meaning, after Camus, the need for solitude as well as the need to connect with others out in the world.
  3. This: “the creative artist and poet and saint must fight the actual (as opposed to the ideal) gods of our society – the god of conformism as well as the god of apathy, material success, and exploitative power” (p. 26).  He wrote that in 1973.
  4. Psychoanalysis historically viewed creativity or the imagination as something negative, even a kind of neurosis, whereas May writes that “The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health” (p. 38).  (To me the whole diagnosis of ADHD as a kind of “disorder” reflects this residual hostility towards creativity and an institutional desire to destroy it.)
  5. Creative people use threat and anxiety as motivators that push us to creative action in response, while resolving those feelings of anxiety and tension through techniques like meditation can actually dampen our need or desire to resolve them creatively through action; they help us to tolerate the anger and imbalance rather than channeling them into something communicative as art is.  “Bliss” and the need to write can be antithetical.

I don’t know where I’ve misplaced my courage, but I’ve got to take it out of the drawer and start to wear it again.  Without it, in a way, I am and have been nothing.  I don’t have the kind of flow that Trumbo had to keep going, keep going, keep going, but neither have I faced the threats that he, or certainly Primo Levi, ever faced.  Although, that said, these are times when the gods of conformism and materialism are particularly harsh and destructive.  Maybe that’s why it feels that “especially now” the moral choices we make – whether speaking out against injustice or simply welcoming a refugee – are so immediate, a daily occurrence, even as we go off to work or pay the bills or learn the identity of the latest unarmed shooting victim.  That and the threat of a climate that we may soon need to renegotiate on a massive scale if we are going to continue living and flourishing, which will take all the courage and creativity we can muster, morally, socially, artistically, scientifically.

Hope is all very well and good.  But I wish you all Courage for 2016.


A “Lincoln” for our times?

4 Jan

This morning I heard this interview on WNYC radio, about two new films, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Brian Lehrer was really on today, and he had on two guests, Tricia Rose of Brown University and Dana Stevens from, discussing not only the qualities of these films but their politics as well. I don’t always agree with him, but this was one of the best discussions I have ever heard on his program.

The discussion of Django Unchained reflected a lot of the discomfort I have felt about seeing it. Both guests asked pointed questions about whether Tarantino has thought through his film, and whether whites and Blacks would respond the same way to the violence, and whether in fact a Black director and writer would have handled the story differently. What struck me as the great unspoken was that Professor Rose had said she initially intended not to see the film, but eventually gave in out of curiosity and a desire to be able to discuss the film. This is not an insignificant point. Tarantino has, in a sense, won. He is a loudmouth who has built up such an influence, regardless of the morality of his films, that he has positioned himself and his work as must-sees, such that he always wins. Everyone, love him or hate him, has to pony up money into his wallet, because viewing his films, because of his loudness, has become de rigueur. Which strikes me as the proof of his commercial dominance, separate from any critical contribution he has to make. The quality doesn’t matter, what matters is that the consumers have to buy viewing rights to the spectacle, just to fit in to the conversation of the day. He grabs attention whether his film is worth seeing or not, whether you like him or not, whether he is moral or pornographic. The commercial industry has made him matter, whether or not he matters artistically, the market makes us listen. This is symptomatic of commercial control of the cinematic artform. Please go away.

On the other hand, Lehrer’s critique of Lincoln could not have been more similar to my own. He was especially critical of Tony Kushner’s screenplay, or ambivalent in much the same ways I am. At the level of dialogue, period accuracy, and character, it’s brilliant. But Lehrer finds the portrait of Lincoln to be hagiographic, and is disturbed by the lack of strong African American characters and Abolitionists. Was it historically true that all the movement towards ending slavery constitutionally was entirely a debate among white people?

When I saw the film, I was bothered by the lack of strong Abolitionists, and particularly by the absence of Frederick Douglass. It is true that the role of Thaddeus Stevens, brilliantly portrayed by Tommie Lee Jones, is pivotal and complex. But here’s the issue I have, and I haven’t seen this addressed anywhere yet. I did see an interview with Tony Kushner on Bill Moyers’ program. Now, I confess I have never seen nor read Angels in America, so I am not familiar with Kushner’s best work as America’s pre-eminent political playwright. But in his interview with Moyers, Kushner justifies his portrayal of Lincoln as the Great Compromiser, one who held to his principles while being able to compromise effectively to achieve what he wanted. Then Kushner draws parallels to President Obama as a brilliant compromiser, admitting that Obama doesn’t always get what we know he wants (e.g. the public option in the health care plan) but that through the art of compromise he is able to bring together the entire country, not just his progressive followers, in moving the country forward. Be sure to read the viewer comments on Bill Moyers’ website – I am not alone in my criticism!

We have the benefit of hindsight to know now that Lincoln’s approach worked, both in saving the Union and in amending the Constitution. Kushner’s implication in the screenplay and in his discussion of Obama is that compromise is an effective, mature approach by a President to achieve social change. Lincoln is a good liberal movie: it shows Lincoln’s effectiveness, his wisdom and judgment and progressive ideals, but it is not prophetic. The film is made to upset no one, or at least none of its white viewers. The ideal of egalitarianism, of truly equal justice under law – which in theory is not that radical an idea – is not part of Lincoln’s agenda. The Radical Republicans are still depicted as, well, radical, and Kushner chooses to promote the portrayal of them as radical, rather than a more prophetic, radical vision himself. And Frederick Douglass and Black Abolitionists are not depicted at all. I had the feeling after watching the film, and especially after watching Kushner’s interview, that as an artist he is saying the mature, even wise political choice is to learn to compromise, to move forward incrementally by bringing everyone along, not to be impetuous and immature.

It may be right and more effective for an elected politician to take this approach, especially in the executive role. And it may be right for a body of people, as the Quakers have shown, to use compromise effectively as a way of building consensus and promoting respect throughout the community for diversity of views, as they work towards social justice. But I’m not sure it’s right for our artists, like our activists, to abandon their responsibility to be prophetic, by which I mean to be the intellectual engines that not only promote change but act as innovators of idea and guardians of our higher conscience. In other words, Kushner is not constrained by the same political realities that Obama is. And leaders must also lead; not all leadership consists of synthesizing opposing views. We need prophetic voices especially in the arts, but also in the civic sphere; where would Abraham Lincoln have been if Frederick Douglass had advocated patience and compromise? And can we picture Arthur Miller, say, offering the sagacious position that compromise is mastery of social change? I look back at The Crucible, All My Sons, even Death of a Salesman, which is the least “political” of the three, and they are absolutely uncompromising, that’s part of their power.

The relationship between artists and leaders, and between artists and activists, are important and critical yet need not always be smooth for us to move together towards a more progressive vision.

It’s easy for me, who have never written anything worthwhile and could never write dialogue like Tony Kushner in a hundred years, to sit back and criticize him for making the thematic choice to offer wise compromise as a political ideal. Yet it seems to me that the role of the artist is not the role of the President. The artist’s role is to take risks, occasionally to be prophetic if the times call for it (or if the artist is trying to create that kind of work), but to be uncompromising, morally as well as artistically.

Our mainstream, well-compensated artists tell us we live in times when to be able to compromise is to be seen as wise and mature. That is a theme, and it is part of a legitimate theme. But it’s not the only way that social change happens, it’s not an insight that moves us forward. It’s an insight that reassures us and cements our national mythology. But isn’t one role of literature, of the arts, in this society to prompt us, to challenge us to move, well, forward?

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