I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between a playwright’s voice and a play’s voice.
I’m not referring to plays in which the characters sound like they speak in the same, monotonously-consistent voice as the writer (a recent example — albeit from another medium (film, baby!) — of dramatis personae adopting the rhythm, syntax, cadence, and language of their (co-)creator: Emma Thompson’s Last Christmas. On screen, she attempts to mask this transparently-artificial connection by donning a hammy Yugoslavian accent. I’m not advocating that actors stick to their own nationalities, but playing the portraiture for laughs — which Last Christmas decidedly does, at least at first; yay humor reliant upon tired stereotypes! — proves an ill-fit with the Brexit storyline shoehorned in to this misconceived mess).
…um, where was I?
Rather, I’m mulling over overtly-sociopolitical plays that are basically thinly-veiled vehicles to communicate the playwright’s thoughts on the issues at hand, and — unlike in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood — their opinion on what’s depicted is almost undebatable. Instead of being interested in a topic and then using the text to explore and complicate it through a variety of angles and forms of expression, it feels like these playwrights start with a point they want to make, and then they figure out the clearest way to say it from beginning to end, rejecting the truism that probing life’s mysteries can be more compelling than relaying life lessons already learned and now tidily-packaged.
But is this truism actually, um, true? Or is it a product of the patriarchy? That appears to be the argument put forth by Jaclyn Backhaus in Wives, recently staged at Playwrights Horizons. What if these notions of what a “good” and “nuanced” play should be are dictated by the patriarchy’s desire to obscure their immorality in subtlety? Leaving takeaways open-ended can lead to profound misunderstandings of a piece’s intent, reaffirming and perpetuating preexisting, here-unchallenged corrosive beliefs.
This theory occurred to me while watching the current Broadway revival of Betrayal, because Pinter dabbles in a similar brand of abstract minimalism as an author Wives roasts: Ernest Hemingway. Both men — and, for that matter, Tarantino in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood — prioritize allowing audiences to interpret for themselves, maybe to suggest that humans rarely talk about what we’re really talking about, so why should art?
But that’s just one amongst many possible readings of their art. Their lack of black-and-white clarity expands how their output can resonate, not able to be reduced to a few, concrete, definitive messages. A more polemical approach, on the other hand, can limit the diversity of responses inspired.
But the consequences of this imprecision can be ugly, like audiences laughing at the violence against women shown in all of the above. More insidiously, perhaps this is the reason we can be aware that Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood might have killed his wife, and that Tom Hiddleston’s might have beat his spouse in Betrayal, without damning them outright? What’s the draw of digging deeper? Are they worth our attention? Or have we been convinced — by male artists, in addition to many other factors — that abhorrent men are appealing? Are these ideas grounded in reality, or just what we’ve been told is real? Do we see what we’re taught to see?
For the record, this hypothesis is imperfect. If these artists hadn’t been on to something, their writing wouldn’t have shook the world for decades … unless we’ve been conditioned by the patriarchy to herald such turpitude? But what about the influence of non-male masters like Caryl Churchill, Wendy Wasserstein, Suzan-Lori Parks, María Irene Fornés, Paula Vogel, Young Jean Lee, Adrienne Kennedy, Anna Deavere Smith and countless more who also blur paradoxical ethical lines? Wives seemingly posits that they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy as well, which deprives them of too much agency for my taste.
In any case, I will never cease to beat the drum that it’s crucial to check our biases, inside and outside of theaters. Do we like what we like because it’s legitimately better, or are our preferences rooted in the regressive, in what we’ve grown accustomed to labeling as quality? I have no answers, but hopefully there’s value in publicly wrestling with such potential problems.