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The Theatre of Good Intentions Mac Wellman Artists and thinkers of our time are engaged in a war against meaning. Or rather, against the tyrannical domination of meanings so fixed, so absolute, as to render the means of meaning, which is to say the heart and soul of meaning, a mere phantom. In American theatre this happens when the fact of what is occurring on stage, a representation in itself, is eclipsed by what is supposed to be created: the "content," the story, the dramatic action's putative meaning. What is shown annihilates the showing. The true play comes to take place somewhere else, and the physical and spiritual being of theatre vanishes in a cloud of hermeneutical epiphenomena. This is why American television is so apparitional; and despite-or rather, because of-its literal-minded obsession with communication, with content, with meaning, so meaningless. This is also why American drama, for the most part, lacks theatrical presence. These notes are an attempt to explain how this happens. 1 In the American play, whether it be the naturalistic variety typical of the regional theatres or its distillations and hybrids on Broadway, certain absolute notions of character and theatricality prevail. The first of these is the conviction that theatrical action is purely a mechanism for the manipulation of emotion, particularly warm emotions. Moreover, in the theatre of our time warm feelings are superior to cold ones, and flat declarative statements of emotionality are superior to any other. It becomes clear that certain kinds of feeling are unacceptable in the theatre: anything approximating the despair felt by ninety-five percent of the population in these grim days of stagflation and brushfire wars, for example. 59 The tendency of American dramatists to equate feeling with the most absolutely literal-minded expressions of emotion means that once the currency of expression of a play dates, the play itself is dated, totally, hopelessly. Most of O'Neill and Arthur Miller has come to resemble a collection of yammering skeletons for precisely this reason. The characters lack effective inwardness . The works of Strindberg and Ibsen by contrast-even mangled as the are by translation-seem fresh and alive. One result of this lack is a preoccupation, on the part of American playwrights, with an aesthetics of intentions rather than that of action. Characters in American plays frequently do nothing and are incapable of any real action because actions by themselves are not considered to be dramatically important. A nasty, unsympathetic, or downright evil character, for instance, must always be shown to have suffered in such and such ways that have produced his behavior. From The Hairy Ape, through Stanley Kowalski, to the wretched protagonist of Albee's The Man Who Had Three Arms, he is always a victim of circumstance; a hackneyed phrase in which-for my purposes here-the key word is victim. A certain alleged suffering then becomes the focus of dramatic interest, not the behavior itself, which is dismissed. Motive-mongering has become endemic on the American stage. Not only do the aesthetic criteria of playwriting become diluted, but the theatrical experience itself suffers. What is bad is called good and vice-versa, and the audience begins to trade in empty intellectualizations about character and motive and so on. Of the ethical and political consequences of this I have more to say later. But, at base, the whole claptrap of the American play, particularly the naturalistic, rests on the conviction that dramatic action has no place on stage. Further, since the substance of the typical American play consists of statements of emotion, or-in even more attentuated form-statements of good intention, a character who is not revealed in this way is considered to be unconvincing, "flat," or unreal in a sinister way. Feelings that are not stated are considered to have been denied or somehow repressed. This confusion of emotionality with real feeling, encouraged by critics and academics and acting teachers especially, leads to (among other things) the true impossibility of an honestly pessimistic American play. What of such dramas as Mamet's Edmond, or Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother? The pseudo-pessimism of these resolves finally to mood, and the mood...


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pp. 59-70
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