Some Recent Play Sightings
Shortly after I started writing plays, I made a decision to stop reading them. Heavy text-based attention was necessary to learning how drama functioned, and for that I turned to comedies. In the course of events leading up to that moment, of course, I had, here and there, read a play or two. I may well have done all of Sophocles after Oedipus Rex was assigned in a class; and other class assignments exposed me to a few other plays, but not many.
My first experience reading plays was those of Harold Pinter. Of that generation I hold his to be the best, although I have not revisited them in years: thematically my interests lie in a different direction. Of course in Chicago of those days, you could not avoid Mamet, and so I was acquainted with several of his earlier plays (on the page).
Even after I began writing plays, I did not entirely close out reading. A brilliant 1997 Defiant Theatre production of The Skriker turned me onto a course of intensive reading of Caryl Churchill. Although I have not read anything beyond two collections of her work (here and here), I retain fond memories of them and she remains my favorite living playwright. (I dearly wanted to see her play Seven Jewish Children when it was performed in Chicago but was unable to attend.) For sheer imagination and inventiveness nobody tops her—but I must temper that assertion with the caveat that, because of my decision, exposure to plays has been sporadic and haphazard.
Lately I have seen more—much more—than ever: in the last couple of weeks I attended Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, Romulus by Gore Vidal (an adaption from Dürrenmatt), and The Cryptogram by David Mamet. Vidal and Durrenmatt are both on order from the library; Iphigenia I had hoped I possessed, but do not, so the Philip Vellacott translation will be coming. For the Mamet there is no need.
Lest that be construed wrongly, Mamet is probably the finest and surest hand presently active on the American stage—yet he seems to attempt so little, that, when you understand his mastery of technique, there is no reason to pursue further, especially when, as in my case, you find his politics antithetical: The Cryptogram is twenty years old now, and while it was a joy to see, it is hard not to suppose that his "hard turn to the Right" has crimped his style. (My second play, Mamlet, follows the foibles of a somewhat David Mamet-esque protagonist.)
Euripides is alien to me— "desperately foreign" to use the title of an essay by M.I. Finley—and while I have read The Bacchae with enjoyment if little comprehension, until seeing Iphigenia in Aulis at the Court Theatre I had little sense of the playwright. The staging was awkward, as much because Athenian stage conventions are unknown to us, as owing to what I take to be the befuddlement of the director; but on the whole well presented. What liberties may have been taken, or even what the state of the original text (Euripides' last play) in transmission I cannot guess—but hope Vellacott will have some insight for me.
The Dürrenmatt--or rather Vidal—is of a style or genre I am mostly unfamiliar with. Possibly "theater of the absurd"? Not schooled, or frankly, well-studied in drama (save as an autodidact with specific comedic targets), I am at a loss to characterize it. (I saw The Visit years ago, but have forgotten the whole of it; it will be included in the compendium I have ordered.) Thematically the sweep was broader than something by Mamet, but the execution possibly detracted. The scenario hinges upon the last Roman emperor (in the West), Romulus Augustus (or "Augustulus"), but it was not a history play. It was more camp than comedy—but, judged from standards of verisimilitude, not greatly more aberrant than the Euripides. (Imagine, if you will, Stan Freberg does "The Roman Empire.") Mamet, who strives to remain plausible, is not necessarily strengthened by that achievement.
Seeing plays performed has been an eye-opener: I have an appreciation for Tom Stoppard and Bernard Shaw, to give two examples, that their work on the page did not elicit. Possibly when the texts arrive and I have taken a look at them, I will have more to say.