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The Playwright's Profession

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Recently Theatre Talk has been discussing political plays, in particular the inability of contemporary political plays--and politically minded playwrights--to say something profound about contemporary life.

Over the past few years Los Angeles has seen countless plays that specifically address issues and topics familiar to today's theatergoers; but few of these political pieces have stayed with me. I fear that even the better-written ones will suffer from irrelevance in a few years time.

The one Los Angeles production from the last year that offers real political insight about our enlightened times is David Mamet's Romance. What's odd is that Romance, doesn't tackle any one big issue like the Iraq War, it deals with almost every hot-button issue, but in a completely farcical way.

Romance has no traditional moral or subtext, like Mamet's early plays American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross, plays which used to drama to make powerful statements about American capitalism and more importantly, the American character.

But like those plays, Romance shocked people, and not just because of the vulgar language--no, Romance was even more shocking because this serious, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had written something so silly and slapsticky about the world we live in today.

I was reminded of Romance and real theatrical shock this week when I was in New York and saw a small, off-Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw's classic work Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Seeing this modest, but splendidly acted version shows how shocking--and politically relevant--Shaw's writing remains today. So I offer to any theater-goer who's been frustrated by the current crop of political theatre--pick up a copy of Mrs. Warren's Profession and be reminded of how memorable characters, funny dialogue and insightful political discourse used to be able to cohabitate on stage.

It may seem obvious to praise a master like Shaw, but seeing his work onstage makes clear what so many modern political plays are missing.

I can't tell you how many plays I've seen that have &quotcharacters;" that are little more than cutouts of public figures you read about in the daily newspaper. David Hare's Stuff Happens is perhaps the finest of this rapidly evolving genre--but while that show made for an engaging evening at the theater, I don't think it will be seen much after the 2008 election.

Shaw no doubt could have written scathing plays about British public figures at the turn of the century--but he saved those views for his essays. In plays like Mrs. Warren's Profession, he used the stage to not just ridicule or make a singular political point; but rather to speak of the bigger picture.

It's this bigger picture that's missing from so many well-intentioned political plays by esteemed authors. Granted, we live in a difficult era to pin down--even Arthur Miller himself, the author of one of the great political plays, The Crucible, stumbled recently with a work that tried to satirize American globalization.

Perhaps then what's needed is for playwrights to stop focusing on the big issues, and focus on the characters and situation--and let the bigger picture speak for itself. Perhaps if playwrights wrote compelling stories about contemporary Americans, then audiences could see how the policies that artists are raving about are actually affecting real people.

Arthur Miller didn't rant about Wal-Mart in Death of a Salesman, he created the character of Wily Loman. David Mamet didn't satirize Reaganomics, instead he created the character of Ricky Roma. Who is going to create a character that speaks to people about America today?

Interestingly, David Mamet's next play to premiere in Los Angeles is Boston Marriage--which opens this month at the Geffen Playhouse--a work about two women at the end of the 1800's who decide to live together instead of taking husbands. G.B. Shaw, to say nothing of Mrs. Warren herself, would certainly be interested in the politics of that.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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