Clifford Odets photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1937
What would he say?
I need to get something off of my chest. I'm sure you've all seen bad plays just as we have all seen great plays. Both are pretty easy to categorize in your life. For the most part, we know what we like and we know what we don't. But last night, I experienced the rare phenomenon of a production I disliked immensely despite the strength of the text and acting. We all have a different name for it, but I personally would call it "The Tyranny of the director".
Last night, I saw a production of Clifford Odets' Paradise Lost. More than being classic, this is a text that encapsulates the unique american spirit and the struggle of americans during the Great Depression. Clearly, quite relevant to our own times. Some have called Odets the "American Chekhov" and I would agree. Not many other american playwrights can so effectively tell so many people's stories at the same time in such a contemporary and realistic manner. He tells the story of the american struggle through the perspectives of the everday life of all americans.
So, why exactly, do we feel the need to apply alienating effects to one of the most classic realist texts of our era?
My gripes with this production are as follows:
1) World class actors given obstrusive, arbitrary direction. A family dinner, a character walks off in the middle of the speech and begins speaking into a microphone. He pauses for a painful 30-45 seconds in the middle of a thought process. Nothing happens. It's not dramatic. It's arbitrary. It's forced. It's an intellectual exercise. It made me think rather than experience. Characters thoughout the play pulled out microphones. There was no clear pattern. No clear justification. I was being denied the pleasure of watching ACTORS do that thing called...acting? And what great actors they were. I wish I could've seen them act on a bare stage with no lights, projections or microphones... That would've been a pleasure.
2) The blocking and staging. The space was a standard theater. So...why exactly are you staging the show as if you're performing in a thrust or round? The opening image crunched the whole cast together denying me the pleasure of watching, or even hearing them work. I could've seen this staging work in a small, more intimate space. But in a huge, rather alienating space? Not so much.
And finally, the moment where I simply felt insulted.
3) The union workers scene. It's one of the more powerful moments in the play. The workers of the factory, dissatisfied with the representation of the Union bosses, have come to the co-partners who own the business to demand liveable wages and better working conditions. The power of scene lies in the life of death urgency for which the workers clash with the the partners. They are both honestly in a tough spot. The economy is in shambles, and the owners stand to loss their business, an enterprise they've spent years building. The american dream doesn't seem as safe it always has, and yet here come these workers for whom the american dream has yet to even happen. The struggle lies in the protaganists shock at the reality of working conditions and the conflict with his business partner who fears that the business will fail if they make concessions.
This production self destructed during this scene. Instead a face to face meeting between the workers (whom Leo has rarely seen face to face) turned into a stop and go projection experiment. For each workers lines, the giant projection played a grainy, muted video of random people speaking while a dubbed voiceover, specifically played without passion and completely casual, speaks the lines of the workers. As each line is finished, the video pauses. The words don't match. The tone doesn't match. It comes out of nowhere.
The scene is human. It is passion. It is bringing the struggle of the working class to the face of the honest, moral middle class struggle, the faces that rarely meet but who share a common goal: The American Dream. Not the struggle of the 1930's, but the struggle that still exists, even today as we face a toughest economic era since the 1930's. Those workers are still alive today, as are those business partners struggling to keep afloat the business that give america it's strength!
I'm not familiar with the rest of the director's work. I'm sure he's done some fine work before. But his direction was a TRAVESTY. It was a complete dishonor of the working class struggle and all that Clifford Odets was fighting for with this work. Odets successfully wrote a play that gave a voice to the working class, the bottom of the barrel, first to get laid off, always forgotten population of america. He brought us all face to face with each other. The cast did a remarkable job of bringing those characters to life, giving them passion AND a sense of justice. Even Sam Katz, who ruins the company with his greed and emotionally abuses his wife, ends the plays as a man broken by the machine, somehow worthy of his wife's pity.
Don't alienate the audience when the audience wants to connect to the actors and text. I'm not saying more stylistic approaches to theatre are invalid, quite the contrary. There is a time and a place for expressionism and abstract concepts. But you see, the reason some surrealist/abstract productions work isn't that they're "experimental."
It's because they found another path towards the passion of living. If you can remind me that I'm still alive, and I realize that life is the most wonderful thing in the world, then you have accomplished your mission as an artist! But prevent me from experiencing the joy of the moment, and you're slowly killing the american theatre.
As Stella Adler once said:
"Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one."