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Monday, 26 March
Hardly Any Of The World Is A Stage

On Friday, I went to the THEATAH! To see my good wife in action; she opened her show The Duchess of Malfi this weekend, and, I must say, it was strangely interesting to see my wife murdered twice onstage: once when her neck was cruelly snapped, and another when her other character had her faced smushed into a poisoned bible. While watching these atrocities, I thought to myself, as I have so many times before, "Why is this art form dying?"

It's not a new thought. I've been thinking about the stiffening corpse that is theater for years. In fact, I confess, I tire of it. I'm probably more or less done with acting myself. And for the really large majority of you reading this, live theater is probably something right up there with bearbaiting or illicit donkey shows: if it's even available to you, you'd still probably never consider going.

If you do have any kind of local theater, it is likely either community theater of the "Let's put on a show!" variety, featuring calcified horrors like The Star-Spangled Girl. Or, if you live in a larger town, you might have "fringe theater," which is what I did for years, and consists of youth-skewed dynamos with the energy to put on things like Eric Bogosian pieces or strange adaptations of The Trojan Women with a sound design that incorporates Primus. But nobody is seeing those shows except for damaged perverts, because they're probably in the better, non-warehouse part of town watching the local regional theater put on a well-lit, technically sweet production (in an actual theater) of Pirates of Penzance.

Everyone else--which is still, I must stress, hardly anyone--simply waits for that NYC trip where they make the obligatory trip to Broadway, which is to actual theater (that is, everyone else, good or wretched) as Cirque du Soleil is to the hometown carnival where they serve poisoned hot dogs.

Those scrappy kids in the fringe theaters do occasionally score. My longest run was in a comedy called Poona the Fuckdog and Other Stories for Children, written by a very funny sociopath named Jeff Goode. It ran for close to half a year, and you don't do that if a show isn't genuinely funny: it certainly was, and featured such characters as a singing penis, God, and a Shrub (me). But it would be silly for me to say that people didn't show up merely for the title: It has "fuck"! Right in the title! Other shows have learned this trick. Shopping and Fucking comes to mind, as does Urinetown.

The Duchess of Malfi doesn't have this sort of thing going for it. The Whoozits of Say What? It was written by a disturbed person named John Webster, a late contemporary of Shakespeare about whom virtually nothing is known, except for the inarguable fact that he was a demented grump who wrote shows that featured tremendous bloodbaths, torture, dismemberment and lycanthropy (Duchess features all of these). Why wouldn't anyone not want to see this? It's not that far from any episode of "24" or "CSI: Miami," and it has the added virtue of the absence of desiccated ghouls like Kiefer Sutherland and David Caruso.

Almost thirty years ago, a playwright and novelist named William Goldman wrote a marvelous book called The Season, in which he reported on an entire year of watching Broadway shows. Despite some clanging, poorly aged comments regarding gays, women and minorities, it is perhaps the finest document I've ever read about the state of live theater at a given moment in time (1967-68). In it, he describes several shows that were produced (even if some of them never made it past previews). I'm listing some of them below, along with some complete fakes that I just made up out of thin air. See if you can figure out which ones are inventions. No peeking! (And you can just be quiet, theater geeks. I'm looking at you, Brad!)

How Now, Dow Jones

Mysteriously absent a question mark in the title, this musical comedy might have a claim on the stupidest title in history, possibly only behind How to Stuff A Wild Bikini. Featuring, among others, Brenda Vaccaro, this show --which had some success--was about a young lady engaged to a fellow who would only marry his fiancee when the Dow average hit 1000. So she goes out and gets pregnant by another dude, and then tells her beau that the Dow hit the mark, and everyone, instead of looking at the newspaper, believes her.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Another outstanding title. Nothing brings 'em in like death! This play actually has the distinction of being really very, very good; it also has the distinction of being an English comedy about a couple whose marriage is slowly but inexorably being torn apart due to their daughter, the eponymous Joe, who when not catatonic, suffers from shocking epileptic fits; the couple's coping mechanism is to perform laceratingly funny comedic skits to the audience about Joe's condition.

The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N

God, I love these titles. This musical smash featured Tom ("Mr. C") Bosley and Hal ("Barney Miller") Linden. It is, I assume, about the education of someone named Hyman Kaplan as told through internet forum flamewars.

Leda Had A Little Swan

Set in the future, this comedy thinkpiece was directed by "My Dinner With" Andre Gregory, and was written by the delightfully-named Bamber Gascoigne. An examination of childhood bestiality, it posited a future where, in order to help the kids cope with puberty, they were assigned animals to have sex with during this difficult time. The last act featured things like windy discussions about the morality of underage sex acts with farm animals.

The Seven Descents of Myrtle

One final horrible title. A justly forgotten Tennessee Williams piece--and he wrote dozens of simply pathetically awful plays--in which a clearly gay Southern farmboy enters into marriage with a blowsy, dimwit stripper in order to screw his musclehead brother out of the farm's inheritance, but then he puts on his dead mother's dress and dies, right before a dam bursts and floods out the farm, but the musclehead and stripper survive. Hooray!

I'll let you know in the comments which ones are the fakes, presuming that you didn't cheat or know up front which ones were real. I'm not even sure I even have a point, other than to dick along about crappy shows through the ages, or their terrible titles. Like I said, I've been doomsaying about the death of live theater for years.

So was Goldman. He said the same exact fucking thing thirty years ago in this book. So maybe we'll hang on a little more. I might have given up, but my wife hasn't, and neither has anyone else in the show they're working on.

Incidentally, John Webster got a shout-out in the popular movie Shakespeare in Love (written in part by Tom Stoppard, who is a very respected playwright indeed). There is a grubby little tatterdemalion in the movie, who is accompanied by a pet rat, and he professes his love for the astonishingly bloody (and really not-so-good) Titus Andronicus to Mr. Shakes: "I like it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives."

Who doesn't like that? Maybe there's life in the old girl yet.


Note: Comments are closed on old entries.

Comments

It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that I didn't make any of those shows up.

Comment number: 012767   Posted by: Skot on March 27, 2007 12:33 AM from IP: 66.235.58.126


Bamber Gascoigne?? A stageplay about child bestiality??

You have no idea what you’ve done to my memories of childhood innocence, Skot. Let me explain that last sentence and my uncustomary overuse of question marks.

You see, over on this side of the fishpond Bamber presented a wholesome quiz for young prodigies called “University Challenge”. He was the essence of the eccentric, tweedy, overeducated and slightly dopey Oxbridge alumna who made good in landing a TV job working with smug adolescent MENSA fodder. I just can’t get my mind around him penning an oeuvre about infantile sheep shagging. I will never be the same again.

You might remember the episode of The Young Ones where Rick, Vivian, Neal and Mike get invited onto a show and Viv ends up using a hand grenade on the toffs. Well the comedian playing the host was doing an impersonation of guess who?

I always wondered about the name. Just assumed that his parents were big Disney fans and couldn’t make up their minds as to whether to call him Bambi or Thumper.

Comment number: 012770   Posted by: Lung the Younger on March 27, 2007 06:28 AM from IP: 213.97.42.225

Lung, I am sorry to have caused any undue distress, but surely you will understand that Leda Had A Little Swan is one of my very favorite examples of Broadway gone horribly wrong ever. Goldman's description of it is nearly priceless--he reports his wife as saying "I'm having a little trouble breathing," while the rest of the audience is making tracks for the door. The fact that it was written by somebody named "Bamber Gascoigne" is pure gravy, and the additional fact that he was a minor TV personality in Britain . . . well, Christ. What's a boy to do?

Comment number: 012772   Posted by: Skot on March 27, 2007 07:46 AM from IP: 66.150.9.2

Theater struggles because it doesn't trumpet its greatest attributes: "No ads! No previews! No 'The Twenty!'" That alone makes it a far more attractive entertainment option than movies or television.

Ack.

Wait.

But what if it goes the other way, and in order to raise money for struggling theaters, actors are forced to perform live commercials for cars, fast food and prescription drugs before the show starts? It think I just made myself sick. Forget I said anything.

Comment number: 012773   Posted by: AndrewH on March 27, 2007 10:36 AM from IP: 216.151.6.99

Remember that scene in The Big Lebowski involving a fat dude in a unitard engaging in some hot interpretive-dance action? I think that's what the 21st century theater's missing...large leotard-squeezed man-ass interpreting the entirety of Wagner's Ring cycle. You may shake your head in disgust while fighting your gag reflex, but deep down, you know I'm right.

Comment number: 012774   Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' on March 27, 2007 11:22 AM from IP: 152.17.119.232

My girlfriend is...a playwright. My father, also, was a playwright.
We are currently enjoying the work of Dennis Margulies, ie "Brooklyn Boy".
However, and this is a big however, in general, I hate theater, for all the right reasons named here, and love it for the reasons left over. Recently, at our resident theater, American Stage here in St Petersburg-nowhere, Fl, which is actually prospering, couldya dig it? we saw Neil Simon's Chapter Two. It was marvelous.
What can I say? Simple, honest, declarative dialog, accessible and dryly humorous, involving identifiable relationships and incidences, still works.
*shrugs*
It's universal.

Comment number: 012779   Posted by: Alyxmyself on March 27, 2007 05:30 PM from IP: 68.201.0.251

durn. correction. It's Donald Margulies. I'm hopeless.

Comment number: 012782   Posted by: Alyxmyself on March 27, 2007 07:19 PM from IP: 68.201.0.251

I live in a community where the better high schools can field a Broadway musical to good effect, and our community theater is Starlight Theater, which does traveling companies of good musicals, music and etc. during the fair weather.

Theater does not appear to be dying in the heartland (KC, MO), I paid good enough money to watch one of my goddaughters in a production of Jekyll and Hyde (which until then I did not know had been MADE into a musical) at her high school. And I've a friend who's an actor and director who makes at least 1/2 a living at it.

Comment number: 012784   Posted by: Paula Murray on March 27, 2007 09:59 PM from IP: 65.26.97.216

Yeah, 1967? That was forty years ago.

Reminds me of the friend I had to have check his license to prove to himself he really was 40 years old. Denied he was born the year he was, denied it was the year it actually was, did everything he could to avoid that math working out. Turned out he was actually 42 at the time. That was fun, watching him age in two seconds.

Comment number: 012787   Posted by: dglynn on March 28, 2007 04:44 AM from IP: 74.134.242.56

But, Skot, the THEATAH obviously fixed yer neck krick.

So, it's got that going for it.

Comment number: 012794   Posted by: Suzanne on March 28, 2007 11:14 AM from IP: 66.235.57.95

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