In the course of the past decade or so, theater has reached a sort of watershed moment. There may be more multivalent, creative theater being created today than in any other time in U.S. history. Whereas theatrical movements of the recent past have privileged spectacle over text or collage over narrative, or have involved a reassertion of traditional forms, much contemporary work exists comfortably in multiple theatrical traditions, or in no tradition at all. There are a number of possible reasons for this wealth of new and interesting material—the proliferation of university theater programs, cities unofficially using artists to gentrify moribund industrial districts—but a more pertinent question might be, why haven’t more people noticed?
Part of the answer might be the issue of publication. Most of the “new” work seen by young audiences and artists, both in and out of universities, is new only to the printing press, and tends to be either a decade or so old or a blockbuster commercial success (never a reliable indicator of artistic quality). As playwright Young Jean Lee puts it in her intro to her and Mac Wellman’s New Downtown Now anthology (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), many of the plays one sees published resemble “boring, pretentious television scripts.” As a palliative to this, the editors have assembled ten scripts from what they (with caveats) refer to as the “downtown” movement (disclosure: I am a friend, colleague, former student, or some combination thereof, of many of the included playwrights and both editors). As both Lee and Wellman acknowledge in their respective introductions, “downtown” is an imperfect term, only slightly more apt than “experimental”; there is no single geographic region in which these plays live exclusively, for one thing. These are the writers who might have once been called “language playwrights,” as in Paul Castagno’s New Playwriting Strategies (Routledge, 2001). Indeed, while one would be hard-pressed to come up with a single unifying principle for the nine included authors (Barbara Cassidy, Will Eno, Elana Greenfield, Madelyn Kent, Kevin Oakes, Alice Tuan, Anne Washburn, Erin Courtney, and Lee herself), there are certain patterns that begin to emerge when one reads the plays in succession. These plays tend to be innovative and structurally inventive; many of them possess a gleeful sexiness, a sense of humor, and violent intensity; all of them are smart and linguistically playful.
This is an important book, and its highlights are too numerous to recount here; in addition, to come up with a sort of ranking system for the individual plays would be foolish and counterproductive. While any attempt I might make to catalog the book’s many exciting moments here is sure to be inadequate, I will touch on a few:
In The Appeal, Lee proves herself to be a formidable writer as well as an important thinker. This play—perhaps best described as a satiric (and inaccurate) look at the English Romantic poets, though the play is so much more than that—hides its playful use of language and its insights about pretension and artistic creation behind a veneer of artlessness. The play is hysterically funny, but beneath the humor there is a transformation of inarticulateness into something akin to Modernist poetry.
Anne Washburn’s well-regarded Apparition combines ultra-realism—specifically, a well-wrought, Chekhovian ear for lived detail—with theatrical collage, inconsistent repetition, and the frightening unease of both ghost stories and modern urban life to great result, producing a scary, funny play that is unlike anything else.
While Erin Courtney’s Demon Baby is a largely linear, naturalistic play, it contains some of the unique and exciting elements endemic to Courtney’s body of work. While she’s certainly not the first playwright to use surreal language and imagery to describe the anxieties of motherhood or domestic life, she possesses a rare gift for using arresting images to externalize those anxieties, perhaps stemming from her work as a visual artist.
As I’ve written before in these pages, Elana Greenfield’s Nine Come is like a translation of something untranslatable in any language—occupying some border region between theater, fiction, and poetry, the play is as powerfully effective as it is elusive. The play, referred to by the author as “a love story interrupted by war,” is funny and strange, overripe with rich language.
An excerpt of Will Eno’s Tragedy: a tragedy was excerpted in the June 2006 issue of Harper’s; I was unable to finish it. After reading the play in its entirety, I can say that it might have been a mistake to excerpt it. Taken in segments, the play can appear to be a glib in-joke, a hyperintellectual comedy sketch in which panicked news correspondents breathlessly report on nothing. When read end-to-end, it has a surprisingly moving effect on the reader, and achieves the apparent mission of Eno’s lauded Thom Pain (based on nothing) much more successfully, in my opinion—the void at the center of the play evokes a genuinely tragic feeling. The closest I can describe it would be that Eno pursues the mission of Beckett—by translating the emotional journey of classical tragedy into a vernacular that is simultaneously modern and unfamiliar, he allows us to experience that journey.
There are a few critiques one could make of New Downtown Now—like any literary anthology, what is omitted is almost as significant a part of the endeavor as what is included. While Lee emphatically states that the book is not intended as a compendium of the wildly diverse “alternative” theater movement (an impossible mission in any case), one might argue that, in its very presentation, it presents a certain type of play as emblematic of the current movement—that is, plays that are cerebral, language-driven, that defer narrative or symbolic “meaning” as we usually know it in favor of authorial impulse and whimsy, and that are by and for a smart and self-selected group. Whether this is indeed the case, and what the consequences might be of making such an assertion, is subject to debate, and it’s likely to be a long one—even if one avoids the issue of ethnic diversity among alt-theater’s practitioners, a subject that manages to be simultaneously volatile, trite, and worthy of discussion. Even when one takes these critiques into account, however, New Downtown Now does the theater world a service by introducing these nine innovative writers to a reading public that otherwise might not have noticed them. It is a vital work, a necessary addition to the library of anyone who cares about contemporary theater.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.