Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Great American Play

I've noticed a trend in the plays that my current employer chooses. The mission of the Montana Rep is to produce high quality productions of the 'Great American Canon' of playwrights. It strikes me that in the last five years or so, all the plays that are Great American Plays are either set in the South, or the Northeast (New York.)

Certainly those places have an undeniable soul and quality that really speaks to the (American) human experience, and we relish these people and stories. The great South is such a part of our history; the old stories, the ghosts, the red dirt and the human struggle resonate with us deeply. The southern writers seem born with a poetry in them, infused with the history and the scent of magnolias and a knack for deep observation and understanding.

The New York stories have a different flavor, but - in the end - the same kind of tapestry. The great melting pot, the arrival point of all adventures that are American...that city and the great web of peoples and histories, dreams and iconic American City Culture also pluck a bright chord within us, and there are many great plays from the writers of New York.

Does anyone know of any great plays that take place in the West, particularly the great Northwest? While New York calls upon the tough-as-nails, gritty city and opportunity kind of character or story, and the South has a past as thick and rich as Alabama soil... where are the stories of the West?

Maybe I just haven't read enough plays, so if anyone knows of one (and I'm not talking 'Paint Your Wagon, here), please correct me. It seems to me, though, that the spirit of the Pioneer is mostly captured in movies and novels. There are some fantastic western writers, such as Dorothy Johnson, but even her stories were scooped up to splay on the silver screen, not the stage. Everyone's first idea of the West is, of course, the Cowboy. When I was in Scotland I got into a discussion about stereotypes with two girls from Switzerland. I told her the stereotype of Swiss women (buxom, sweet and blond), and she told me their American stereotype: Big (overweight,) big belt buckle, and a cowboy hat.

So despite all of Tennesee Williams and Neil Simon's work, our image is still the cowboy. Yee haw. I think it's fitting, though. Don't throw things at me for using the word 'maverick,' but that's an image we hold in our hearts - the brave, adventerous, western spirit. I've just never seen a play about it.

I think it's a mistake to set out to write a Great American Play (or novel, for that matter). If you look at all the great stories, they cover deep human feelings and truths, but in a specific way. They reverberate in our hearts because we feel along with a character, not an idea. To Kill a Mockingbird works because it isn't about deep racism, corrupt juries and ignorance: It's about Scout, Jem, Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson. It's about the people in the town who struggle with all those ideas. Through those people, we begin to reconsider or reaffirm our own ideas.

That said... with writers like Harper Lee or Tennessee Williams, you still get a sense of the Great American Story because within the specific, they speak to the universal. They also drop in magnificent flavors of the regions about which they write - the beauty and the darkness.

That said... I would like to see a great play about the northwest. Or rather, set in the northwest. I'm not sure who it would be about or how exactly you could convey a glimmer of the spirit of the people who choose a life in the northwest. I think it's a kind of person who's just as rich as Blanch or Big Daddy. When you watch them, you can feel the Southern heat, smell the bayou or feel the dust on your face in a cotton field and struggle with their old, awful, deep histories. You get a very real, human story that somehow we can identify with. We can identify with the pain of a lost sister, brother, or a dying father. Yet as we watch that universal human story, we feel the sticky heat of the south, enjoy the quirky neighbors or, in another play, hear the city traffic, dodge the Mafia and still hold fast with one very specific, human family.

I want to see a play that, when you watch it, not only do you engage with a character and story, but you can feel the brightness of a silver winter sun, feel what it is to dive into an icy mountain lake or watch snow fall for five months, cry at northern lights.... that spirit that brought men and women over the next mountain and across the broad valleys looking for their slice of this land, and why it's still important to us. A very different person. A very different slice than the riotous city, the mysterious south or the steadfast Midwest. I think it's story worth telling.

I think it could be great. A great play.


LIZZIE said...

Looks like you have your work cut out for you Jess. You have started me thinking of plays placed in the Northwest. Hum.

Monica said...

Lizzie's right. You know, if you can't find it then perhaps it is your calling to create it? If anyone could, it is you Jess.