In Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” a meeting of the local culture society comes to order. Vernon, described as “a willowy younger man with an open collar and Byronic locks,” has brought his long verse play to read. It is quickly decided to put off the verse play till cooler weather and hear a paper on William Blake instead. Alma, the heroine, suggests that before the paper is read one of Blake’s poems should be heard to acquaint the group with the English poet, and she reads “Love’s Secret,” which is greeted by “various effusions and enthusiastic applause.”

Vernon never utters a word and does not appear in the play although we are told in a later scene that his verse play was read in another meeting. “Ah, how was it received?” asks Alma. “Maliciously, spitefully and vindictively torn to pieces…” replies Mrs. Bassett.

Williams does not make it clear whether the malicious response is deserved. His sketch of Vernon as a would-be small town Lord Byron suggests satire aimed at a certain type of perennial sentimental versifier hopelessly out of touch with art and life.

Poetry is the historical language of the theater. From the ancient Greeks until mid-19th Century it held sway, being challenged at times by melodrama, farce and outright circus. Circus is the historical enemy of the theater. On the London stage in the Romantic Period one could find nautical drama, equestrian drama and plays built around animal acts.

From Ibsen into the present, prose has been the dominant language of the stage. Prose is the language of the Modern Age; of the scientist, technician, journalist, ad exec, talk show host, sports celebrity. All of the professions considered to be more important and worthwhile than the poet. It is the language of the transfer of information and disinformation, of getting along in the Space Age, Atomic Age, Computer Age.

The looming obstacle the American poet confronts in his or her journey in the theater is the uncertain status of the poet in the society and culture.

Our heroes, mythical and real, are lumberjacks and frontiersmen, cowboys and drifters. Walt Whitman has had bridges and schools named after him. He is not woven into the fabric of the nation in the way Shakespeare is in England. Poets win grants and prizes but make little impact on the culture at large. Poets have preferred the politics of flat-sounding unquoteable lines. Art has been replaced by sincerity. Most of us know more rock lyrics and TV jingles by heart than we do lines from poems.

Since the 1960’s, the theater has been dominated by the speech of adolescent rebellion. The 60s brought youthful energy into the theater and a fresh awareness of the body, and with that a sharp tongue, the politics of shit-fuck.

The most compelling reason for a stronger presence of the poet in our theater is simple economics.

Recently, I noticed a script call in the Dramatists Guild Newsletter by a theater group asking for “kitchen sink realism.” Well, realism has an honorable tradition in our theater, but I wonder what kind of sink they have in mind. Probably a porcelain model of the 1930s.

The truth is, the theater cannot afford much in the way of realism these days. The production budget is too small, and every playwright knows this. In a curious way, economics has thrust the small theater back into the days of The Globe in terms of the limits imposed on staging.

If the theater is to mean anything any longer as an art form, if it is not to be reduced to mere craft, it must reach out in some apparently limitless direction.

If poets/playwrights are to be part of the age they live in, there must be a loosening and broadening of imagination. We cannot continually reinvent Checkhov and Ibsen as if nothing has happened since their day. A 30-second TV commercial contains more visual information than a stage play. The news broadcast gives you realism, and doesn’t cost a dime.

The theater is whatever writers, actors and directors choose to make of it. Like all art, it is artifice.

Our society is fragmented and sectarian. We have women’s theater, gay theater, minority theater. Each faction seeks to appeal to and influence the world. Can’t we also have a poets’ theater?

Poets/playwrights, used to scrabbling for existence, are a feisty lot. And numbering in the tens of thousands, we are no small army.

If you are cynical, you might say the odds against a vital, challenging theater in the 1990s are long indeed. The theater is too divided, too political, too crazy, especially in New York. The audience is laff happy and soft. As a people we no longer have the intellectual and spiritual capacity to take up the great themes with conviction. Is it the best we can hope for in the twilight of this the American Century to be decently entertained by those who buy us out?

We have come to the end of the road in this amazing 20th Century, reached a vanishing point. All of us. Along side the white light at ground zero stands a blank canvas, an empty page. It is exciting, this empty space, because it means that one thing has ended, whatever that is. We begin a new painstaking search…touching our keypads and powering up!

First published in Lamia Ink 1990. By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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