Bury the Classics

A few days ago, playwright Brian Friel passed away. I recognized the name, but it didn’t ring any strong bells, so when I read the New York Times obituary, which lauded him as “the Irish Chekhov,” I was shocked. Not that they’d use that phrase, but shocked that I’d be so unfamiliar with the work of someone so widely regarded.  After all, I have my shiny new MFA, and pride myself on being aware of important writers, at least in the English-speaking category.

A quick glance at his work showed me only one title, Dancing at Lughnasa, with which I was familiar. Why hadn’t I seem more of this writer’s work? Part of the problem, of course, is me. I simply haven’t read enough or seen as many plays as I could. But, I believe that theatre programming plays an important role here as well.

In the 12 months before I left New Orleans, I saw 38 plays*, the average age of which was 101 years. Yes, that includes a couple Shakespeare plays, but I skipped several, and I believe that even this skews newer than average since I was making it a point to see new work when I could; 11 of those were premieres, primarily by friends and local writers where the play is unlikely to be performed outside the region.

If I restrict my set to the 25 plays that had been seen outside of New Orleans and toss out Shakespeare and Sophocles for skewing the curve, I still have an average age of 27 years. If you’re trying to attract a more youthful audience, consider that 40% of those plays were written before a hypothetical 25yro audience member was even born. Now, I’m definitely not in favor of taking the Hollywood’s approach and pitching the majoring of work to adolescent males, but think about how often you see new films versus classic films at the movie theatre.

You can still see classic films, but they’re buried under an avalanche of new ones, and this is the sense in which I think classic plays should be buried. It’s not that I want them completely hidden or entombed, merely outnumbered.

This argument is not a new one, and it is somewhat self-serving coming from a playwright. Artistic directors have confronted the issue before, and their answer always seems to be, “we’ll lose our subscribers.” Many of them can probably show you the financial results from the year they tried an experiment with a new play season. I don’t deny those numbers.

But. What if theatre companies were willing to try it for more than one season? What if artistic directors decided not to program Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, etc. for five years rather than just one season? Would those subscribers simply drop out of theatre altogether, or would they eventually come back? And if they did drop out, would they be replaced by a generation of people who saw their own lives directly reflected on the stage?

Obviously, classic works reflect humanity across generations, that’s why they’re classics. But other art forms do not rely so heavily one older works as theatre does. This issue seems particularly intense as you get away from population centers. In the few months I’ve been in Montana, the most recent play that has been performed in my city has from 1972, though we do have one from the 1980’s and one from 1990’s scheduled for upcoming months.

I”m not sure what one can say to the programmers and artistic directors other than there’s a market for new books, new films, and new music? There should be a  market for new plays as well. Help us find it.


*In this count, I’m not including Fringe Festival works, or evenings of one-act or 10-minute plays.


One comment

  1. Jenny h · · Reply

    Just as a footnote, you may well have seen Friel’s translation of Hedda Gabbler, which I worked on at City Lights.

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