This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
The British dramatist Tom Taylor wrote over 100 plays in the 19th century, many of them quite popular in his day. Taylor lived to see eight of his plays produced on Broadway; however, the famed street has not seen a revival of the playwright's work in over 80 years. Only one of Tom Taylor's plays is remembered at all today, an 1858 work that premiered in New York City titled Our American Cousin.
This three-act farce is not particularly good, but it's a piece that will continue to be quoted for generations--not because of its literary merit--but simply because it was the play Abraham Lincoln was watching at Ford's Theatre the night he was shot by a well-known stage actor: John Wilkes Booth.
No doubt there are a number of Victorian playwrights who wrote better comedies that are forgotten--or even lost forever--but that is the injustice of history. Likewise, there are thousands of short, one-act plays written and performed each year in America by aspiring playwrights and actors. Most of these will never be seen or read, and of those that are, perhaps one or two may be remembered. Yet, thanks to the Internet, the two brief 'plays' scribbled by Seung Hui Cho, the English Student-turned-gunman, have already been seen--if not read--by more people than will ever see or read the three plays shortlisted for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Cho's 10-page rants, titled Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone are awful displays of writing and really, calling them 'plays' is inaccurate. Cho is a writer in the same way Paris Hilton is an actress. Sure, Cho's Senior English class assignments have a dramatis personae and each begins with the words "ACT ONE, scene 1," but beyond that they're not plays. The directions never refer to a stage or any theatrical blocking, if anything they read like scenes from a screenplay.
The injustice of Cho's literary attention is no doubt frustrating to many law-abiding (but still unread) playwrights, but like the greater injustice of his actions, it's something that must be stomached.
Of course, there is a flip side. Three days after the Virginia Tech shootings, I walked into the lobby of a small, Hollywood theater. I had read that a tiny company was staging a play about Charles Whitman, the student who shot and killed 16 students at the University of Texas back in 1966. The playwright was sitting in the lobby and I asked him if this was a new play. He said it was. He'd been working on it for over four years. That it was scheduled to received its world premiere the same week of Cho's rampage was simply fate.
I sat down and then watched the first and only preview of Leif E. Gantvoort's Mark on Society. It's a traditional docudrama: part oral history, part slide show. It's better researched and more cohesive than most new plays that show up on Theatre Row. Under normal circumstances, it would likely suffer the same indifference that befalls most of those works. Instead, Mark On Society becomes a timely piece that demands our attention. Gantvoort's play (in this Theatre East production) is not made better Blacksburg, but it does allow us to relive the events of 40 years ago in a vivid, thought provoking way. Mark on Society in its modest way allows us to experience tragedy, a necessary reminder that even as we watch history, we are also reliving it.
Mark on Society runs through May 26 at the Lex in Hollywood.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Alan Naggar