Friday, February 22, 2008

from the vault

Getting seriously swamped this week, so here's some Friday laziness. This is something I wrote back in 2001, still true, I think. Haven't seen Letts' latest and am really looking forward to it, frankly. Nonetheless, here's the libel:


Steppenwolf Theater has always been cool. They are the Rat Pack, the Dirty Dozen, the Wild Bunch of the American theater, roaring into town, picking up some awards, roaring back out. The name itself, at first rangy and sharp-toothed and then a tip of the hat towards German literature perfectly captures the Dharma Bums/Hell’s Angels confluence of American cool. Then you have the Chicago mythos. You imagine working-class Poles and Micks toiling in the deafening slaughterhouse all day and then trudging home to rehearse wild-ass shit all night in the basement of a church, slugging back black coffee and rye to stay awake. Add to this the wild success, the movie stars, the Broadway runs and awards, and clearly Steppenwolf is the ideal. So it’s hard to argue that they’ve all but killed American theater.

Not them, of course. It’s their spawn, infected by the Steppenwolf Syndrome. The Stepford Steppenwolfs. The Steppenpuppies. If you’ve worked for any extensive period in the American theater you know them. The actor who looks for any excuse in the script to take off his shirt, knock furniture around or clean his nails with a Bowie knife. The director who casts these actors and encourages everyone to shout, smoke and stalk around. The writer who is openly or secretly re-writing every early Shepard play and constantly robbing profanity of its beauty and power by using it as mere punctuation.

The result of all this misguided energy is a dizzying and ultimately dispiriting accumulation of loud, violent, messy evenings of theater. Every once in a while, like a night in a crowded bar or a walk on the Lower East Side on a Saturday night, these evenings can provide a life-affirming, electric jolt. But all too often you find yourself looking around and thinking, “What the hell is everyone shouting about?” and wishing you were home with friends. The Steppencubs have given us an undergraduate theater, a juvenile theater, a “boys-with-guns-and-women-who-strip-and-cuss” theater.

It is, undeniably, an American theater, which is a large part of its draw and satisfaction. For as much as Pinter and Stoppard and Orton thrill and stir us, there is something in Shepard and Mamet and Rabe that resonates more deeply and fully within us. The best of this theater, like the best of American culture, achieves a Steinbeckian simplicity, an immediacy and a power we recognize intuitively. Plainspoken truth and a celebration of the endurance, courage and decency of the human spirit, coupled with a heart-breaking, bleak beatification of the loner, the misfit and outcast, these things can appear and vanish in much of our theater like the ghosts of the American night. But usually we see the worst of our culture, a loud, leering, dim-witted aggression and a sense that violence is in itself somehow both inevitable and vaguely romantic.

This translates to the stage as actors with little or no control or interest in their physical and vocal instrument, directors emphasizing mood and attitude over thought and objective and writers with their feet stuck firmly to the killing floor, afraid or unwilling to spread their wings and try to fly. We should remember that Thornton Wilder and George S. Kaufman and Elmer Rice were three of the prototypical American playwrights. We should remember that Dos Passos and Odets allowed working-class characters to breathe a lyricism that rarely rang hollow and always reached beyond the grim desperation of their circumstances. We need to stop romanticizing the vulgar and vulgarizing the romantic in our theater and our heritage.

And I lay all of this on Steppenwolf’s door?

Sure. Why not? It’s an American tradition to tear down yesterday’s champions and it’s an American attitude that says, “We know where that road goes, so let’s try something new for a change.”

If the SteppenFetchits were emulating Steppenwolf for the fierce tenacity of their early days, their insistence on an ensemble dynamic and their ability to attract and foster great new writers, I’d say Godspeed. But when you strive to emulate their style, or worse, a dumbed-down, third-hand understanding of their style, I say enough, already. You can break all the furniture you want and never create anything more meaningful than firewood onstage if there is no thought, poetry or craft behind the wreckage. If you want to create the next Steppenwolf Theatre, then do what they did. Commit to ten years with the same core of people and spend every night arguing and agreeing and thrashing around in a basement somewhere until you have your own aesthetic and vision to share. Stop wearing hand-me-downs. They don’t fit and they’re out of style anyway.

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