More Artistic Oppression

Geez Louise, not only is the political oppression in this country causing anti-war movies to tank at the box office, it’s affected the stage as well:

The constitution and the ideals that once set the nation apart have been traded for fear of Muslims and immigrants, for CIA torture chambers, widening economic inequality, and a Congress still short on backbone.

Playwrights do write the kinds of plays that deal with such concerns, says Steven Drukman, whose “In This Corner” opens at the Old Globe next month. “But that work is not getting produced.”

Drukman, for instance, wrote his “Truth and Beauty” soon after the election that sent George W. Bush to the White House in 2000. “It was the election that spawned it,” he said. “It was one of those first drafts that came out fully formed.”

Calling the play a social comedy and like others of his “political, but not polemical,” he said the play had a workshop reading at South Coast Rep’s Pacific Playwrights Festival just before Sept. 11, 2001. No theater has done a full staging.

“There’s no one willing to face that sense of regret yet,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court-decided outcome of the 2000 election. “What would have happened if the election had turned out differently?”

The hero of “Truth and Beauty” edits a magazine he describes as “post-ideological.” His publication is Eyebrow and he feels “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between good ol’ boy, compassionate conservative George W. Bush and the rigid, Clinton-distancing Al Gore.

“We tend to forget that that’s how the media depicted the two candidates,” says Drukman. “No one wants to face how wrong that media image was.”

A few playwrights of a certain stature can get their obliquely political work produced, Drukman contends. The Intiman Theatre in Seattle and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, for instance, staged Craig Lucas’ “Prayer for My Enemy” this year, both productions directed by the Intiman’s skilled, socially conscious Bartlett Sher.

But earlier conversations with playwrights Allan Havis here and Mac Wellman in New York confirmed that writers of even indirectly politically sensitive plays are being little produced. Producers may fear offending audiences – or merely reminding them of their current impotence as citizens.

In a note in the Long Wharf audience guide, Lucas wrote that he did not create “Prayer for My Enemy” to make a political point. “I have never once, in a long life of theatergoing, heard one single audience member say, you know, I think I’m going to vote for the other party because of what this play has showed me.”

Still, even more subtly than Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City” about the fallout from the Iraq and Vietnam wars, Lucas’ script uses the very private – and often comic – lives of his bumbling characters as a metaphor for the chaos we’re in and for the murderous deceptions that got us here.

I’m sure these plays are about as obliquely political and subtle as a brick to the skull. But if you don’t feel even that, it’s your fault:

Nothing has changed.

Perhaps that’s why the small outpouring of political plays earlier in the Bush administration and the Iraq War has slowed to a trickle. Locally, the trickle has dried up.

Nothing has changed for the better in nearly six years. The American people, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote recently, are in clinical depression.

Ah yes, that old psychic numbing: if you’re not bursting with anti-Bush rage like we are, then you’re nuts. And to show you just how bad it is, how did one of these agitprop pieces play on friendly ground?

Shinn’s play was at Lincoln Center last spring and Lucas’ at Long Wharf in the fall. On Broadway, not surprisingly, the only play that engaged the electorate’s most pressing issue – the war – closed at a loss in June. “Journey’s End,” a seminal war drama set in a dugout during World War I and seen in a moving, beautifully cast production, played to 24 percent capacity most weeks.

Remember, it’s the BushCo regime’s fault. Or your fault. Not their fault.

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