I have been thinking a great deal lately about whether we in the American theater are missing the bigger picture by obsessing so exclusively on the development of new plays. Charles McNulty recently wrote a fine piece in the Los Angeles Times about the astonishing pleasure of revisiting the plays of Beckett and Pinter and discovering what erudite writers and readers they were. Beckett's mordant fascination with death and near-death was as influenced by his reading of Dante and St. Augustine as by his own war-time experiences and complex personal life. The fact that Pinter was steeped in Kafka and Dostoevsky was critical when he broke all the rules and created The Homecoming. The astonishing innovations of these two great writers were only possible because they had a relationship to classical literature: they knew the metaphors, the forms, the structures of inherited culture so deeply that they could then rupture them with control and intent. As McNulty so trenchantly points out, we have all but abandoned an interest in classical theater or in older literary forms in our desire to push young writers in and out of MFA programs where they successfully learn to write acceptable contemporary plays that might appeal to the watchful eyes of television executives and artistic directors hungry for "relevant" and sellable plays. Over and over again as I have watched new plays across the country being developed, I couldn't help thinking how much an exposure to Sophocles or Brecht or Lorca would broaden and deepen the range and longevity of the work being generated.
Recently, A.C.T. asked a group of at-risk high school kids to write monologues about their lives. They had just seen Wajdi Mouawad's Greek-inspired Scorched at A.C.T. The work that came out of their mouths was quite astonishing, shaped as much by the epic struggles of Scorched and the structure of Greek tragedy as it was informed by their own life experiences. I was reminded all over again that the simple equation of contemporary subject matter with relevance is a misguided and short-sighted one. As Mouawad said abut writing Scorched: "I didn't write about civil war and vendetta because I had lived through the Lebanese civil war, I wrote about it because I had read Sophocles."
This thought crossed my mind when I had the good fortune recently to tour the new campus of the Signature Theater in New York. The spaces are flexible, imaginative and welcoming, a gift to any playwright. As I wandered through, I had only one regret: that given the mission of that theater, and indeed of nearly every theater in America, you will be able see an Albee play but never a Beckett at Signature, as you will see a Katori Hall political epic, but never a Brecht. Yet theater is at its most interesting when the old and the new collide. This was Peter Hall's brilliant vision when he created the new play program at the RSC in the '80s -- his mantra was to produce new plays with the reverence of classics, and classics with the adventurousness of new plays. So Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good sat next to Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. Many years ago, when we programmed Sophocles' Antigone next to Robert O'Hara's Insurrection: Holding History at A.C.T., it was startling how much it meant to both Robert and to our audience to see those works juxtaposed.
So why do we assume classics are impenetrable and obsolete? Why are there not more courageous funders in America (such as Vicki Reiss at the Shubert Foundation) who might get excited about exceptional productions of the classics side by side with new plays? Why do we imagine that an ecology that privileges "emerging artists" while all but abandoning mature ones, let alone historical ones, will have resonance in the long run?
The abandonment of the classical repertory is relatively unique to the theater; in other disciplines, the old and the new sit side by side much more regularly. In New York, the supposed cultural capital of America, you can hear Beethoven or Brahms any night of the week, juxtaposed with David Lang or John Zorn or Tania Leon. One kind of programming would not exist without the other. The same is true with the visual arts and with dance. Only in theater is classical work so sparse (and this is true around the country, with the exception of Shakespeare festivals). This is partly because it's so expensive to mount, and partly because of current estimations of what is valuable: the press generally only cover classical productions if they feature "name" actors, funders don't seem compelled by the fact that the classical canon requires large casts and longer rehearsal periods as well as extensively educational outreach in order to succeed, unions contracts make it difficult to include non-professionals in the large casts of classical plays, and fewer and fewer people who program for the American theater have the time or energy to delve back into the rich legacy that we are presumably here to build upon.
In considering this quandary, I began studying that extraordinary cultural success story, El Sistema in Venezuela, where it is a given that exposure to the rigors of classical music hold huge benefits for young students and gave them a foundation upon which to build a contemporary approach to music. What if we created an El Sistema for the American theater? What if schoolchildren truly had access to the tools it takes to read, perform and understand Euripides, Lorca, Kalidassa, Brecht, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega and the plethora of other dramatic texts we have all but forgotten (not just Western drama, but world drama). Would it not give us a deeper sense of history, a more nuanced view of justice, a richer palate of formal possibilities, a wider range of styles to choose from beyond television realism? Wouldn't the new plays that emerged end up being more complex, more interesting, more formally bold?
We are about to create a new second stage for A.C.T. at an old movie theater mid-Market. If we can figure out how to make it happen, perhaps this will be the beginning of our own miniature experiment with the collision of the old and the new, in a way that will actually lend depth and richness to audience members hungry for the immediacy and audacity of great dramatic works, and to kids who have only ever experienced "drama" through television or their own complicated lives. I think it's worth a shot.