Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Theater as Historiography

The History Boys. The Ahmanson Theater. 11/20/07.

Ideologically, I should have hated The History Boys. It is the story of white working-class British boys struggling to get into Oxford and Cambridge (there is one black and one Muslim character, but they only have a couple of lines each). While it deals with issues of sexuality, it portrays its most overtly queer characters as repressed, tragic and/or unsuccessful. It also portrays a postmodern approach to history as ideologically suspect and opposed to an idealised "truth" and knowledge for its own sake.

It is a testament to playwright Alan Bennett's skill and insight, then, that I loved the play despite all of my theoretical objections. It is a beautiful, sensitive portrayal of characters wrestling with ideas of maturity, sexuality, and knowledge, questioning which knowledge is considered valuable and why. While I object to the portrayal of Irwin, the history teacher (played by Peter Paige), as advocating a deliberately provokative and intellectually suspect approch to history in the guise of postmodern skepticism of traditional histories, overall the characters and particularly the queer characters were interesting, complex, and actively engaged in a debate over what we value in education. I may not agree with Hector's (played by Dakin Matthews) methodologies as an English teacher, stressing memorization and appreciation without analysis and transcendent ideas of "truth" and "art," but I love the way the play established these ideas and displayed his truly entertaining pedagogy. It was all the more interesting against a the classroom backdrop of postmodern collage combining images from art history and pop culture. The actors playing the boys were all charming, especially Alex Brightman as Posner with his sweet voice and youthful innocence. I was also intrigued by Brett Ryback as Scripps, who often took a narrator role in the play and whose characterization as the religous one of the boys could have used more explanation/development.

The best moment by far intellecually was when Charlotte Cornwell as Mrs. Lintott, the more traditional history teacher and the only woman in the play, goes on a diatribe about history being 5000 years of men's mistakes and the women cleaning up after them who don't get mentioned. It's a great speech and a fun introduction to feminist historiography. Unfortunately, she doesn't get an opportunity to model this as pedagogy the way the men do. This speech gestures toward the way postmodern approaches to history can be done right, but Lintott remains outside the main discourse of the play nonetheless.

Overall, it was an entertaining and mildly intellectually engaging play. I enjoyed it very much, and it is rare that play manages to disarm me enough that my intellectual and ideological objections fly out the window so that I can sit back and enjoy the play uncritically as a solid, engaging, well-crafted piece of art.

Go See Bear in San Francisco

The fabulous author and performance artist S. Bear Bergman is teaching workshops in San Francisco this weekend. I wish I could be there instead of grading quizzes and applying for jobs! Even the descriptions make me giggle.

All workshops take place at the Center For Sex And Culture in their new space at 1519 Mission. Please feel free to forward to repost as appropriate. All classes are pay-what-you-can.

Saturday, 1 Dec, 4pm-6pm
A Re-Introduction To The Only-Mostly-Dead Art Of Chivalry
(Now! With 200% More Feminism!)

Everyone's heard the stories: men who get kneed in the balls for holding open a door, youngsters who sprawl on bus seats while elders stand, the myth of the handkerchief-carrying gentleman, and all the rest. What, exactly, do girls women people want in the world of chivalry? How can a modern gentleperson be courteous without being sexist or a suckup? And while we're at it - who goes through the door first, again? Talk a little about the principles, and then learn a lot about the mechanics of walking in public (v. walking in private, natch), and a whole lot more.

Sunday, 2 Dec, 2pm-4pm
Writing With and About Gender

A 2hr. workshop designed to get writers thinking about the language of gender, its vernacular and lexicon and ways of making itself heard in writing, and then figuring out personal, useful ways to turn that to their advantage. This workshop is appropriate for any one who can form a sentence, regardless of hir experience as a writer: from novelists writing transgendered characters to transfolk writing about their experiences to academics tackling queer theory to people still
exploring the nature of their gender and sexuality in private writing to absolutely anyone else. Feedback opportunities will be provided but not required.

Sunday, 2 Dec, 7pm-10pm
Theater Skills For Better Sex

People with improvisational theater training know three things you don't about how to make a scene out of nothing, and/or keep one going if it gets away from you. Excellent for eager newbies and jaded ancients, the straightest of couples and the queerest alike will learn how to seamlessly become new characters, take old standbys in new directions, and incorporate new ideas, handy props, and changes of scene on the fly without missing a beat. Inventive, snappy, and lots of fun - even if you've never stepped on a stage in your life! Participation required.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dolan on Wasserstein, again

Jill Dolan writes an extended critique on Wendy Wasserstein's Third, which she saw here in LA at the Geffen Playhouse. Go read her description and analysis of the play - she does it more thoroughly and better than I will.

The production is part of a season of the Geffen doing plays about women, only half of which are written by women. Two out of the three plays written by women criticize feminism, particulary academic feminism, and Third decidedly falls into that category. It's an intensely problematic play, Wasserstein's answer to King Lear reducing its female protagonist to begging forgiveness of a student in a dorm room and leaving academia. But while in Lear you witness the king's downfall and desperation as tragic, the play sets up Professor Laurie Jameson's humiliation as deserved and just, a victory over a too-rigid feminism. The play constructs this desertion of academia and feminism as a gesture of "hope" and a rejection of "irony" which is really intellectual critique.

In terms of the Geffen's production, I know several people who thought it was awful. Personally, I found it serviceable but in no way inspired. It presented without helping a problematic text. I was less disturbed than Dolan by the awkward blackouts and scene changes and transition music. I was, however, furious at Matt Czuchry's portrayal of Woodson Bull III. He came across as an overgrown frat boy completely without the insight and intelligence the character supposedly should have. He was awkward and arrogant. You'd think that my complete lack of sympathy for him would help me to identify with Christine Lahti's portrayal of Laurie Jameson, but honestly I spent a lot of time thinking about how her floral skirts and heels were completely inappropriate for New England in the winter and why in the world she was outside without a jacket. Because Bull was so utterly unsympathetic, there was nothing at the center of the play. If he is encouraging hope at the end, he has to offer some, but instead his moralism seems vapid. He doesn't offer a vision of a new kind of student with a critical awareness of privilege and lack of privilege but a resurgence of the Old Guard in a new skin, and that's where this play fails. It tears down feminism (without offering any sense of what feminism actually is), but offers nothing but a vacuum in its place. The "feminist" professors must be humilated, prostrated, and removed from the university, but what is left? Where is the "hope" the play espouses when no one is left? Everyone is removed from the university, but the institution stands, presumably in the hands of the old white men who were there first, but even this isn't seen as a tragedy in the play - it's almost seen as the way things should be .