Lacking material for a new post (although a flood is heading this way), I hearby attach my artistic statement for a pending grant application, written at about four o’clock this morning. Those are ways the best ones, because the censor is off. I have been writing and re-writing the sentiments expressed therein since I was a teenager. I hope one day to get better at it.
Probably the most pernicious and unnatural aspect of the performing arts in America (and increasingly elsewhere) is the schism between the two artificial constructs called “popular culture” and “the arts”. Unlike the theatrical cultures of the Greco-Roman world and post-Renaissance Europe, America’s did not grow organically out of the nation’s religious life but, having been banned by officialdom, sprang up illicitly in close association with vice. “Entertainment”, like the traffic in sex, booze, drugs and gambling with which it was long associated, became a pleasure industry, without the same social mission – the social glue — that characterizes old world theatre. Recognizing this as long ago as the 19th century, certain individuals and groups in the U.S. made a counter-revolutionary effort to establish an “art theatre” that could compare with Europe’s. That it has failed in this mission may be attested to by the simple bellwether that its audience consists of a tiny minority of intellectual and economic elites. Millions appreciate the products of Hollywood, Broadway, and the music industry; a tiny clique cares anything about “art films”, “important plays”, or “serious music”.
And rightfully so. “Art films”, “important plays”, and “serious music” are unspeakably boring. I avoid them whenever possible. Art, which reaches us through the senses, should quicken the pulse, excite, draw us to the theatre in the same way as the products offered by bordellos, saloons and casinos do – commercial producers at least know this much. Business sense is SENSE, after all. On the other hand, pimps, drug dealers and gangsters are all scoundrels. That is the definition of someone who places personal gain over public welfare, is it not? Do commercial producers fall into that category? I’ll be careful and say “Not all of them, and not always”.
My philosophy has always been – always (I found my voice as a writer as a teenager) – that neither of these approaches is suitable or adequate for a great culture. America now clumsily bestrides the world in farm boots and a baseball cap like a drunk and retarded Gulliver on a spree through Lilliput. Wherever it goes, it deposits jingoistic Hollywood fireballs and misogynistic rap lyrics like a hundred thousand diplomatic turds. This from the nation that produced Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Melville.
And yet I love America’s popular culture. I love it with all my heart and soul. I am inspired by its originality, its individualism, its dissonances, its iconoclasm. I love its diversity, its populism, its accessibility. I love the new forms it is constantly inventing. Jazz, the blues, vaudeville, burlesque, rock and roll, Gothic horror, freak show…all of these form have played a major, defining role in my work.
At the same time, I think I reflect the true national character by being a bit schizophrenic. I am not someone who thinks life ought to be lived as one long, perpetual party. I am enthralled with the dime museum and the amusement park…but at bottom, I am a Jeremiah. I have been a critic almost as long as I have been a playwright and producer, writing first for ‘zines, then for major publications like the Village Voice and American Theatre and now on my blog Travalanche. Many of my plays have long, Shavian style didactic prefaces. And while I have presented hundreds of vaudeville and burlesque shows, Barnumesque exhibitions and pop and folk music gatherings, have written books about pop culture, and always seed my plays with elements like original pop music, borscht-belt humor, vaudeville style characterizations and burlesque dances – all that aside, my plays tend to mix that love of popular American forms with a) themes and forms that anchor us in the world by evoking tradition and history; and b) rather stern, angry satire in the tradition of Aristophanes, Swift and Voltaire. I consider it my mission as a playwright and as a citizen both to make theatre that elevates the sensibilities of the audience (i.e., not to “dumb down”), and to make them think about the cruelties and follies being perpetrated in this world, often in their name. Commercial entertainment has the power to bring us all together – but, having no greater agenda than pleasure, annihilates that power. But in a democracy, we are more than consumers, we are citizens. “Entertainment value” should not be a mode of escapism, it should be the spoonful of sugar that contains the medicine.