David Mamet and the Fringe

At the dead center of summer, performances in the fine arts screech to a halt (the subject of some whining and excusing in the past few posts here), thus museums for the plastic arts become medicine for creative cravings as they lack that international behavior of shutting down for the summer.  Having spent the day at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, enjoying a silent-era Salome screening (notwithstanding the dated synth-pad timbres of its accompanying jazz-fusion-y score, which merely anticipates the relative brilliance of Richard Strauss in October), and the Norman Rockwell exhibition that's already finely covered in local blogger Brieahn DeMeo's piece at Artistic Culture, there's little more to write.

But wait:  Wolf Trap?  Whether because of the economic downturn or because of new management, or some other barely-outside-the-Beltway reason, there's not much music playing at the Filene Center these days besides pop repertory repeats.  Even the brief annual residency of the National Symphony Orchestra has fallen further into that vintage slump of staples like Gustav Holst's The Planets and "favorites" mash-ups on one theme or another.  In contrast, I have fond memories from not long ago when we were treated, under the lively direction of Leonard Slatkin, to challenging works like -- one example -- the local premiere of Richard Danielpour's Elegies, to which Frederica von Stade sang World War II letters from her father she never knew...this, to the accompaniment of light rain and distant lightning, against the hum of trees all around buzzing buggy nocturnes.  This simply is not the sensation I get when hearing Joshua Bell slosh "Around the World."

And then there was the Capital Cringe festival.  One wishes it were rather like a low-budget Spoleto Festival with a same unconventional sense of purpose (sans the agony of sojourning to slim pickings of overpriced inns, and the festival's swarm of notorious post-seersucker patrons).  Yet the Spoleto Festival, like other reputed summer establishments, decidedly procures.  Against that tradition, the Capital Fringe festival aims to bomb that establishment ceiling open, and as documented in Chris Klimek's fine City Paper article, it has unresolved growing pains.  Logistically, it can be a nightmare for patrons, not only in terms of parsing the plethora of unpredictable shows on offer, but also in terms of ticketing problems that simply result, often, in getting turned away from a show that "gets legs" from word-of-mouth.  And although there were a few chamber operas in the festival, their scores (from what I heard) simply were not through-composed works in any serious sense that would exceed jam-session instincts.

This leaves me merely to ruminate on something sort-of related to that, but not tied to any event date other than mine alone finishing David Mamet's Theatre, leaving a sense of urgency to evangelize his otherwise vilified new tome of cranky essays (on the heels of Joy Zinoman's valedictory production of American Buffalo at the Studio Theatre).  Largely confrontational, Mamet's book attacks the atmosphere of prevailing theatre craft that elevates the actor, director, and other machineries of production higher than the essence of a play, which really is the text.  This crowing comes as no surprise from Mamet who primarily writes plays, but his ulterior complex doesn't moot the vitality of his criticism.  In his crosshairs is the egocentric theatrical rubric, from actors in particular who strain to "inhabit" their roles with authenticity but end up fulfilling externally justified doctrine, that any dramatic work requires reinvention and application unto context (such as modernity and political theory).  To Mamet, this sanctioned ritual is absurd, and where his posture gets interesting is his historical associations.  Mamet views the prevailing doctrine, with the Strasberg Institute (and related Actor's Studio) as its mother church, to be fundamentally...totalitarian.  Quite seriously, he associates the widely practiced artifice of "method acting" with Strasberg's deep affection for Constantin Stanislavski's rambling treatises on acting, which only blossomed into historical importance through the Russian master's collaborations with Anton Chekhov.  As Mamet sees it, Stanislavski's vitality was borne of his need, along with Chekhov, to navigate Russia's totalitarian control of the arts -- fighting fire with fire.  In such an environment where the static text was much easier censored than the living performances that grew from the text, it was solely the actor's opportunity to enliven the true meaning of a play -- a sort of sneaking subversion.  That Stanislavski's "method" in that context survives to this day is, in some sense, utterly ironic.  Playwrights are liberated here and now to tell true stories.  No amount of acting, stagecraft and interpretation can exceed that space.  And a bad play will always be a bad play.  (In my view, Mamet has written a few stinkers himself, and engages in odd side projects too that betray his fundamental talents, rather like his younger peer Neil LaBute.)

The controversial parts of Mamet's tome are his associations of this behavior with contemporary American stigmas, most especially political correctness, which is itself a form of totalitarianism.  He likens method acting to psychoanalysis, which is (for the mentally sane) a pointless exercise in confession and guilt which in turn breeds political correctness:

The supposed aim of confession in psychoanalysis as in Method acting is freedom from inhibitions and, thus, an increased ability to attend, happily, to the business at hand (life or the play).  But neither psychoanalysis nor the Method actually works.  They are both interesting models for the understanding of human behavior, but neither functions well in practice.  For the question in each is, "Now what?"  ...We note the same in much contemporary liberal thought:  Everything is always bad, and that the wise liberal is aware of it and so somehow more worthy than those who are not.  This worthy person actually does nothing to alleviate the woes he professes to perceive (global warming, hunger, poverty, social injustice), finding the mere profession a more than sufficient proof of worth.  This is the meaning of candlelight vigils, "walks for," and Live Aid concerts, which, like charity banquets down through history, are merely a celebration of the excellence of the hosts.

All of this brings us back (with some stretch, and to the tick-tock of your attention span) to the Fringe.  It's relevant to ask how this egocentric totalitarian likeness has pervaded theatre and film with such ubiquity.  Certainly we live in a country where two-thirds of the economy hangs (by a thread) on the need for robust consumer consumption -- quite literally, two thirds of everything we do is buy stuff and hawk stuff.  Hence, it cannot surprise anyone that this infrastructure facilitates a cult of celebrity (and pertaining value of brand association), leading so-called "creatives" to lose their sense of place.  Moreover, the controlling bourgeoisie and beyond are so obese in their expectations from life that whenever routine foibles arise, action and sweat (accountability!) fail to inspire when:  endless therapy, Oprah's couch, and the placebo of consumption are just...well, one paycheck ago away.

Mamet's distaste for these things traces to his years in the burgeoning Chicago storefront theatre scene, which was probably the most fertile period for drama in our country's history.  I have fond memories from the mid-'90s of escaping the dread of law school in the Midwest for monthly visits to Chicago.  I came of age experiencing Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Touchstone.  Similarly, I sat within spitting range of Arthur Miller's All My Sons (which is to say, I literally got sprayed from the all the filial dysfunction onstage) in a tiny storefront theatre that adjoined a bar.  (The memory is, I lingered too long at the bar during intermission, chatting with "the working class," and the stage manager crossed through the wall's cut-away to say:  "Mr. Moon, the show is about to begin."  This is not an experience you'll have at Arena Stage.)  On a recent return to Chicago, I couldn't find it -- but the bar was still in business.  Mamet has a sentimental affection for this coming-and-going of troupes, which is barely to be found in Manhattan, no more here in Washington.  The worst poison for theatrical fertility, in his mind, is any venture built primarily on subsidy, whether from grants or the somewhat indiscriminate cash flow of season subscribers.  In this context, if a show doesn't sell well, it does no good for the visionary to shake his fist at God and The Fates; he need merely move on to the next venture and try harder to get butts into the seats.  Mamet's masterful new play Race was repeatedly extended and continues to sell well, even with its new cast after the first string I saw in January.  Notably, it does not kowtow to political correctness, while critically avoiding sympathy to either "side."  More from Mamet's Theatre:

The theatre exists to present a contest between good and evil.  In both comedy and tragedy, good wins.  In drama, it's a tie.  ...Drama is about day-to-day life.  Its motto, rather than "The gods will not be mocked," is "Isn't life like that?"  Comedy and tragedy are concerned with morality, that is, our relations under God; drama with man in society.  Well and good.  However, drama, being the less tightly structured form, allows for infinite mitigation of even its social concerns.

And with that finally, we are back to the Fringe. There you have an environment where artists convene in Washington somewhat at their own risk; if tickets don't sell well, they may lose money after their up-front costs.  There are no jurors or curators who would impose any litmus test of social conscientiousness.  All the same, there are no jurors or curators who would impose a litmus test of basic talent.  Whenever the Capital Fringe Festival arrives every year, it amounts to this bittersweet infusion of good medicine during these doldrums of summer.

Christopher Walken, on "method acting"