Please, No More Polemics Masquerading as Plays

I was having a discussion with my friend Jan the other night about The Crucible, a play we both loathe, and it gave rise to a larger issue: the polemic-as-play dilemma.

My gripes with The Crucible are legion. For example, it bothers me…

  • that few of the characters (really, only Rev. Hale and Mary Warren) have any kind of dramatic arc – the rest are no different at play’s end than they were at the beginning: Abigail grows from lying harlot to lying harlot, Elizabeth Proctor moves from long-suffering wife to long-suffering wife, and John Proctor…well he does change a bit: he journeys from conflicted unfaithful husband to dead unfaithful husband.
  • that the most interesting information Arthur Miller provides is in his stage directions, which an audience isn’t privy to. Glad you did your homework, Art. Pity none of is shows in your script. (And you know you confused Danforth with Stoughton, right?)
  • that there are too many characters and we learn too little about most of them – and virtually all of that is told, not shown. Seriously, it’s Dramaturgy 101: don’t TELL us how good Rebecca Nurse is, SHOW us. But the woman presented, though she doesn’t contradict what is said about her, has no playable actions to show her saintliness (sitting briefly with an unconscious girl hardly seals the deal).
  • that it makes its point early in the play and then beats it to death for another 2 hours and 45 minutes. Way to make me root for the hangman, Mr. Miller. Just to shut everyone up and end the torture.
  • that there is no mystery concerning any of the characters, because everyone is either an obvious liar or ludicrously heart-on-sleeve.
  • but the biggie is that he didn’t really write a play. He wrote an essay. A screed against Joseph McCarthy thinly veiled – oh, who are we kidding? Not veiled at all – as a play about the Salem witch trials. And this last one is the one that REALLY annoys me.

Not in theory, mind you. The idea of attacking McCarthy via a play is kind of a brilliant one. Why not use this forum to strike back at the man who was attacking so many in the entertainment community? But I wish it had actually been a good play that had its jabs at McCarthyism as a by-product, not the main selling point.

People look back on The Crucible with reverence, attaching import and credibility to it – as if Arthur Miller’s play brought an end to McCarthyism (and the related House Committee on UnAmerican Activities) – when in actuality, the original production of the play opened to largely negative reviews – even the good review from the New York Times complained of it having “too much excitement and not enough emotion” –  and eked out a run of just six months before closing.  Conversely, the following year, McCarthy’s approval rating reached its highest point. Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now program, aired a year after the play’s short run, had a greater impact on McCarthy’s fall. And the HUAC lived on for decades after.

Sadly, when playwrights get up in arms about some social problem, what we are served too often is  a polemic, and these rarely (if ever) make for satisfying drama. But curiously, the authors are seldom called on it because – I assume – detractors are afraid of coming off as against the issue, rather than against the play, itself.

Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Terrible play. Again, it’s not really a drama as much as a loud, angry cry against the government for being slow to respond to the AIDS crisis. Peopled with unpleasant and self-absorbed characters, we’re asked to ignore the people and focus on the politics. The theatrical equivalent of  waterboarding.

A Question of Mercy by David Rabe. Also AIDS-related, this play is about assisted suicide. But the play is so exposition-filled, so blatantly pedantic, you feel as if the author were sitting in front of you reading particularly dry articles on euthanasia directly to you. For hours. In a monotone. Dire.

The Water Children by Wendy McLeod. A messy, fragmented piece that purports to examine the abortion issue, but ends up feeling like one of those conversations with a drunk friend – where they think they are being profound and inspired, but are actually rambling and disconnected and their train of thought keeps derailing right and left and what was I saying again? Oh yeah, right, right, I was talking about, ummm…  To her credit, she tries valiantly to make the show DRAMATIC, including a scene with a young man screaming Pro-Life epithets in your face, and a talking cat. I’m not kidding. A talking cat. You’ve got to grant her some originality, but…

Ghost Light by Tony Taccone. A play that believes Mayor George Moscone’s death was overshadowed unfairly by the concurrent assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and decides to set the record straight. Unfortunately, author Taccone thought the way to do this was to write a fantastical, nightmarish and stultifying exposé of Moscone’s self-centered, porn-addicted, insufferable son Jonathan (who bizarrely directed the premiere production of this horrendous work – I have to admire his willingness to allow the world to see him portrayed so horrifically). In addition to stealing characters and conceits from Angels in America and Six Characters in Search of an Author, the play included scenes in which the Jonathan Moscone character runs a scene study class on Hamlet. My brain was trying to claw its way out of the back of my head as I watched this drivel. I swear I could feel my I.Q. dropping by the second. Ugh.

And sadly, there are many more to add to this list…

My wish is that playwrights will continue to get fired up about issues, but my hope is that they will remember that no one comes to the theater to be preached at. That shit’s for political rallies and church services. If you want an audience to care, then find a way to place characters in a situation that makes us care for their plight. Because at the end of the day, it is the person we must connect with first. Just as I can’t ask an actor to play a line “more socialist” or “less death penalty,” so too can you not expect your audience to care about an “-ism.” BUT, if your central character is sympathetic and they are in a compelling situation that just happens to involve your issue du jour…THEN we have the beginning of something. And hopefully your audience will listen. And care.


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