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The New Testaments Toward Theatre

By Nick Fracaro at 12:46 pm on Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A recent post by Mac Rogers started me thinking about the reason and nature of blogging itself.

As Isaac would say, read some Hunka, then read some Walters. Both, I fear, showcase two of the leading lights of the theatrosphere with their powers a bit under a cloud, but it’s interesting to think about why.

If there is a literary form that certain blog posts in the theatrosphere have come to resemble, it is the epistle. In a similar way that students of literary history are able to distinquish between the letter and the epistle, perhaps one day they may be asked to make distinctions between species of literary and critical blog entries.

Both the letter and the epistle are substitutes for a spoken conversation. However, where the letter (now also the email) is essentially spontaneous, ephemeral, intimate, personal and private, with no pretense toward the literary, the epistle is written in lieu of a public speech with a specific audience or community in mind. And as literary form, the epistle also displays an artistic or critical effort aspiring to some degree of permanence.

In history, the most prominent use of the epistle was by the early Christians in the establishment of their community. Often didactic in nature, giving advice or instruction on belief and behavior, the epistles of the New Testament became the main tenets of Christianity.

The writers of Superfluities and Theatre Ideas each argue their aesthetics and ethics of theatre almost as fevently as any religious sect. There is also no denying the didactic nature of the “epistles” emanating from these blogs. So not surprisingly, writers George Hunka and Scott Walters often find themselves debating in the comments section of the theatrosphere from opposing poles of some polemic. These comments append the publication of the epistles in many unique ways, and Scott and George, as do many bloggers, write at least as much in these other “domains” as in their own.

Scott Walters informed his readers six weeks ago that he was establishing a New Code of Ethics within his domain :

I will no longer be addressing the NYC theatre scene, nor will I be responding to defenses of the NYC scene, nor attacks emanating from the NYC scene. If such posts appear in my comments box, I will ignore them or delete them. I will no longer define my ideas in terms of the dominant mode of production. I plan to be more utopian.

At that time I wrote a couple blog posts examining Scott’s and others’ criticisms of New York theatre. I used the poster image from Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western masterpiece Unforgiven in the second post as a visual to underline the meme I saw at play in Scott’s call for Law and Order in the Wild Wild West of the theatrosphere. I used that image also because I suspected that after turning over a new leaf and swearing off verbal fisticuffs, Scott would have relapses. Like all those old gunfighters in Westerns from Shane on, I figured that even though Scott would take off his six-guns and bury them deep in some storage truck along with his tin star, circumstances would never allow him to retire. Some affront or injustice would arise demanding the reluctant gunfighter’s return to action.

Shane represents the Goody-Two-Shoes pole of the Christ-like hero, but a much stranger beast slouches toward Bethlehem in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven character Bill Munny. Like all the other forsaken gunfighters in Westerns before him, he also is trying to escape his reputation or past, the old self that he no longer believes he is, but in this revisionist take, the Old West Hero is haunted and hunted by his own repressed psychology as much as his violent past.

Clint Eastwood (Bill Munny): I ain’t like that no more. I ain’t the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin’ whiskey and all. Just ’cause we’re goin’ on this killing, that don’t mean I’m gonna go back to bein’ the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.
Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan): You were crazy, Will.
Clint Eastwood (Munny): Yeah, no one liked me. Mountain boys all thought I was gonna shoot ’em out of pure meanness.
Morgan Freeman (Logan): Well, like I said, you ain’t like that no more.
Clint Eastwood (Munny): That’s right. I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.

Like Bill Munny, Scott hoped that by dramatically and publicly stating he had a New Code of Ethics, his blogging would become more “utopian.” In the film, the audience knows where Bill Munny’s continual recitation of “I ain’t like that no more” will lead. So when Munny hears that his friend Ned Logan has not only been beaten to death by the town sheriff, but is also in an open casket display of frontier justice to the citizens of Big Whisky, there is no surprise that he breaks his vow of sobriety. As Munny dramatically brings the bottle of whisky to his lips and gulps deeply, the audience knows the avenging Angel of Death is saddling up for his ride into town.

So, too, in Scott’s current post “That There Is Some Bullshit”, the old gunfighter is back, riding into Big Whisky via the Big Apple with his guns drawn and firing.

This is the kind of bullshit I am talking about when I insist that the NYC aesthetic is not universal, and in fact is openly scornful and dismissive of experiences and lifestyles that take place west of the Hudson and in places with less than 7 million people. There is an arrogance just beneath the surface — hell, lying right on top of the surface — that needs to be called out by every non-New Yorker who is tired of seeing good people insulted, and every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left.

Will Munny: Who’s the fella owns this shithole?
Will Munny: (To Fatty) You, fat man, speak up.
Skinny Dubois: Uh, I own this establishment. I bought the place from Greeley for a…thousand dollars.
Will Munny: (To the men behind Skinny) You better clear out of there.
Man: Yes sir
Little Bill Daggett: (As Munny takes aim) Just hold it right there…HOLD IT!
[Munny shoots him]
Little Bill Daggett: You, sir, are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man.
Will Munny: Well he should have armed himself if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.
Little Bill Daggett: You’d be William Munny out of Missouri; killer of women and children.
Will Munny: That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawls at one time or another; and I’m here to kill you Little Bill for what you did to Ned.
Little Bill Daggett: [walking toward Will] All right boys, he’s only got one barrel left. When he fires, take out your pistols and shoot him down like the mangy scoundrel he is!

The angel of death is indiscriminative when it enters town. Men, women, and children…the good, the bad, and the ugly will all fall beneath the cleansing scythe.

Many in the theatrosphere are New Yorkers, so of course this scattergun attack on the community, along with its prescription on how those with “conscience” should behave, has its predicable reaction. Scott, the mangy scoundrel that he is, knows this, but like the little kid standing over the anthill with his stick, he just can’t help himself.

Yet perhaps this particular anthill stick has become predictable as well, less disruptive; most NYC bloggers have kept their responses in the comment sections on this occasion.

Scott’s scattergun attack wounds not just the innocent, but allies as well, as he does here.

When are we going to stop endorsing the idea that the majority of this country is “flyover,” as the ArtsJournal site insultingly calls its blog devoted to “art in the American outback”? AMERICAN OUTBACK??? ArtsJournal ought to be shot.

If Scott had read the Flyover blog before he criticized it, he would have realized that, in their short exisitence, the journalists writing there had already instigated many thoughtful discussions aimed precisely at concerns surrounding the NYCentric perspective. Scott’s epistles would readily find an audience there.

Let’s cut to the heart of what inspired this blog in the first place. In his keynote address to the NEA Institute mentioned in the first post, New Yorker senior theater critic John Lahr stated, with what at least appeared to be a straight face, “If it’s not in the New Yorker, it doesn’t exist in the culture.” He went on to explain his belief that the New Yorker serves as the de facto publication of record for theater in America.

While it’s true that the New Yorker consistently has some of the finest and most thought-provoking theater criticism in America, this assertion seems the exact kind of New York-centric thinking that is common in the arts world. If you’re serious about theater, you go to New York. If you’re serious about film, you go to Los Angeles. Yada Yada.

So the blog was initiated as counter to the above Yada Yada, and in the hope of serving a broader American artistic community.

It’s a way for arts journalists and artists outside the major American urban areas to celebrate, discuss, critique and share what they do. While it was established to continue a conversation begun at USC Annenberg’s 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, we hope it will ultimately grow to serve a larger community of journalists, artists and institutions involved in the arts in America.

Scott has escaped for the weekend from the current Shootout at the O.K. Corral to be among “people who are thoughtful, generous, intelligent, and gracious”, something he suggests cannot be found in the theatrosphere.

I consider Scott an ally in theatre. I suspect his temptation will be to follow suit with Laura and quit writing his theatrosphere epistles. Laura was the inspiration for the New Code of Ethics he established at his domain, then broke six weeks later. So, as he has advised me, along with “every New Yorker who has even a small conscience left,” I will advise him. To assuage the guilt of having transgressed against his new code, he should link his Theatre Ideas to the conversation at Flyover where his theatre epistles would do much to serve in building community.

No surprise that with a blog named Rat Sass I find Laura much too precious in her attitude toward what is civil discourse. (Laura is giving no reason, allows no comment, forcing other theatre bloggers to speculate and assess their own guilt and others’ in offending her sensibilities, and reconsider their reason for blogging at all.)

Even though I disagree with most of the split-court legal opinions of this Supreme Court Justice, I found an advocate of my viewpoints regarding discourse in a speech by Clarence Thomas.

    Today, there is much talk about moderation. It reminds me of a former colleague at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who often joked that he was a “gun-toting moderate”-a curiously oxymoronic perspective. Just think of that, dying over half a loaf. I do not believe that one should fight over things that don’t really matter. But what about those things that do matter? It is not comforting to think that the natural tendency inside us is to settle for the bottom, or even the middle of the stream.This tendency, in large part, results from an overemphasis on civility. None of us should be uncivil in our manner as we debate issues of consequence. No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine. However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing “judgmental.” They curb their tongues not only in form but also in substance. The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society. . . .Again, by yielding to a false form of “civility,” we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us. As I have said, active citizens are often subjected to truly vile attacks; they are branded as mean-spirited, racist, Uncle Tom, homophobic, sexist, etc. To this we often respond (if not succumb), so as not to be constantly fighting, by trying to be tolerant and nonjudgmental-i.e., we censor ourselves. This is not civility. It is cowardice, or well-intentioned self-deception at best.

Those who care about the artform need to continue to post their passionate, uncensored epistles and testaments under whatever ethic they establish as their own. Whatever audacity or perseverance it takes to continue blogging, they owe it to themselves and their community.

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Comment by Scott Walters

July 31, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

Wow! From early Christians to Clint Eastwood! Your post is a delight. Yep, I did strap on my guns again, as you predicted. And like Clint, it was over an attack on a friend of mine. Well, so be it.

The comment about “Flyover,” however, requires just a little clarification. I have read “Flyover” — in fact, I read it quite often, and I value what is written quite a lot. But as I wrote them in an email, the name is self-deprecating and dismissive of all the great artists who make their living outside of NY and LA. Outback? West of the Hudson is not a wilderness, and we shouldn’t perpetuate the idea that it is. It is time for us to take pride in ourselves, not adopt the moniker prepared for us by the establishment.

I would also take issue with your characterization of Laura Axelrod. While I did come out shooting on this issue, I have been posting quite a few ideas in a reasoned, civil way — for instance, the series of posts on occupational tribes. Laura would like there to be a more thoughtful exchange of ideas, rather than constant shootouts. She and I both admire the Partisan Review writers of the 1950s through 1970s, who wrote passionately about ideas, but did so in a way that indicated serious thought — as you did in this post, which was both amusing, generous, and informed.

While there are times when I behave in a way that isn’t really housetrained, I must admit that I am not proud of such outbursts. It bothers me a great deal that my “That There is Some Bullshit” post garnered more than three times the number of hits and dozens more comments (40 at last count) as anything else previously. That says something about the theatrosphere’s love of gunslinging over thought.

But no, I won’t be following Laura into silence. There is still too much to write about.

Thanks for your thoughtful, well-written, and good-humored critique of my blogging style. I enjoyed it immensely, and find more than a little truth in it.

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Comment by Ian Mackenzie

July 31, 2007 @ 3:19 pm

Well said Nick.

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Comment by Tony

July 31, 2007 @ 3:47 pm

I love the Unforgiven metaphor.

Who’d be Little Bill and the Duck of death?

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Comment by Mac

August 1, 2007 @ 7:40 am

Hi Nick!

I agree with you that bloggers shouldn’t be afraid to argue, and that it doesn’t mean that the theatrosphere is degenerating when we do.

Although, Nick, you are uncharacteristically reserved here. Do you endorse the ideas contained in the “That There Is Some Bullshit” post? As a longstanding participant in theater in New York and in many other communities, woud you regard the post as an accurate critique?

Let me also ask you a question about building community. In my post in response to Scott, I suggested that he might be interested to learn about the work being created by the New York bloggers with whom he is in contact, to know whether or not that work contains the prejudices and insular thinking he decries. If it doesn’t, he might come to see the New York community as just one of many communities around the country where his ideas are playing out in an interesting way. Would you agree with this?

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Comment by malachy walsh

August 1, 2007 @ 10:06 am

I’m not sure I’d say I really “assessed” blame. Or maybe I did.

But the whole thing does seem foolish to me.

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Comment by nick

August 1, 2007 @ 11:55 pm

Hi all,

Thanks for the comments. Sorry I’m so slow to respond.

Community is a sloppy overused term. In theatre it is often used as one of those blah blah blah grant-speak or PR items. The term is more suitable for theory than actual practice. Scott is theory, not practice. Enough said.
Meanwhile, the argument has gotten so noisy over at Scott’s, no one can hear themselves think. Active, Passive, and Active Non

Mac, just sit in on any of these independent, downtown, or off- off theatre community meetings that are popping up around town now over amending the showcase code, and you will immediately understand the impossibility of an all-inclusive umbrella for our New York theatre world.

The smartest advice in last night’s convention of “independent” theatres at Collective Unconscious came from Robert Elmes, Director of Galapagos Art Space. “We need to create a narrative.” What I think he meant by that (I asked him to expand on the notion but someone pulled the conversation elsewhere before he could) is that the “community” must create a fiction of itself, a PR package characterizing itself as one of “the players” in the game. People move to NYC because of the culture it provides. So that culture community needs to be more Bad Ass on how it represents itself to political and financial powers.

I went to the Galapagos web page for the first time today. The manifesto-like statement there is inspiring. Inspiring because as manifesto, it is both theory and practice.

The most basic function of the arts is to be relevant in the advancement of society.

Galapagos does not accept government grants or public funding of any kind. We believe that if the work we present is strong, communicative, and effective, we will survive.

If we don’t produce strong, communicative and effective work then we won’t survive – we’re not feeding the hungry: we make art. If we can’t be grown-up about that and stand up on our own, then we don’t think we’d have anything interesting to tell you anyway.

This is New York City. One of the greatest cultural cities to have ever risen; perhaps the greatest. We’re not sitting around dreaming of the grant we applied for.

We have our whole lives to live and that is terribly important.

Culture should reflect that clearly.

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Comment by Mac

August 2, 2007 @ 12:53 am

Nick, I thank you for this report, which I read with great interest, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it functioned as an answer to either one of my questions. And I picked up on the community idea from your post. If you go back and look, you’ll see it in the very last sentence.

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