Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ubu, Absurd plays and the theater of today

Just finished reading the three Ubu plays, by Alfred Jarry. If the name doesn't ring a bell, suffice it to say that they are very weird experimental French plays from the late 19th century, commonly acknowledged as precursors to Dada, Surrealism, the Theater of Cruelty and the Theater of Absurd (Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Pinter, etc). For those interested in pursuing non-realistic styles, I'd say it's mandatory reading. The translation I read was pretty funny, too.

But the reason I'm bringing them up here is an intriguing bit of information I found in the entry for Theater of the Absurd at the French Literature Companion:

Absurdism helped to liberate playwrights from outmoded conventions, and gave rise to some powerful theatrical metaphors. Beckett's image of two tramps waiting beside a tree in a barren landscape became a universal icon of futile existence. But its nihilism represented a philosophical impasse. Moreover, it was the last theatrical avant-garde led by writers. After 1960 original dramatic writing fell into decline and directors took the initiative.
(the last paragraph in the entry)

I have felt for some years now that current theater has more emphasis on production than on text, with a predominance of radical re-readings of classics and collaborative experimental group creations. I don't think it's necessarily good or bad, it's just a current trend. But I do have the feeling that the big names of playwriting nowadays are not as big as their counterparts from a couple of decades ago -- think of
, say, Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard, John Patrick Shanley or any of the Pulitzer-winning playwrights of the last ten years. They're not doing bad by any accounts, but they're not the big kahunas Beckett and Pinter were in their time, are they?

That does give me a couple of things to be concerned about: on a very practical level, of course, what kind of succe$$ beginners like us can look up to in the current theater scene/industry, but also what it means to write plays at a time when production shines brighter -- and what kind of writing is more likely to move and captivate audiences in this context.

Am I the only one seeing this trend? (I can't deny I'd be a little comforted if someone told me it's all in my head.) Do you have any feelings about this trend and your own writing, and whether you should bear it in mind at all when writing (and how)?