One of the most striking aspects of my current New York theatre binge: the programs theatres hand out around here. Or rather, don’t hand out. Judging from the standard-issue brochure, audiences here are supposed to care, first and foremost, about actors. What little specific information there is about any one show is typically printed as the middle section of an issue of Playbill, a small-format, pulpy magazine rather like the free magazines you can pick up at cinemas, except slightly more geriatric in tone. And typically, all that information consists of is bios of the actors and the creative team — somewhat hilariously, this index of “Who’s Who in the Cast” always includes a biography of the venue and the company, sometimes of the press and publicity agents; in two cases, I was introduced to Equity. For “difficult” plays, like Shakespeare’s, one might get a plot synopsis. The Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III had brief historical accounts of their approach to music and costume, written by the designer and the composer. And that’s it.

I find these profoundly depressing documents of a deeply anti-intellectual attitude towards theatre. What they suggest is a pervasive sense that interpretation, let alone creative engagement, intellectual dissection, directorial and actorly experimentation — all of the things that make theatre such an exciting and present force — are largely negligible, that plays speak for themselves, that all an audience might want to hear more about are the performers and possibly the visuals. A particular production’s take on the play, the ideas and current topics that may have influenced specific sets of choices, the question of why this play now, the company’s sense of what they’re doing — none of that seems to matter, none of that seems to have a place in the public presentation of these shows. Audiences aren’t asked or encouraged to think about what they’ve seen, nor is there anything to suggest to them that what they’re about to see could be viewed with a particular perspective in mind — that there are things and ideas outside the play that have shaped the performance and that it will be helpful for the audience to know about those things and ideas.

My point is not just about the absence of the director from these ludicrously superficial programs, or about the non-existence of an interpretative angle in them. Most of the programs you might pick up in the UK aren’t especially challenging either. But what you might find in those, at least, are essays on the history of previous performances; or on particular themes in the text (problematic in itself, but at least designed to lead to some sort of mental engagement); or on the historical context of the play’s composition. They’re publications that suggest to an audience that there is more to theatre than entertainment, that a production has a context, and that is can — perhaps should — have some sort of impact, that it can, or should, be an event worth thinking and talking about after it’s over; programs are about the previous lives of plays and about their afterlives.

The stuff they hand out in New York, on the other hand, is about nothing. Or, if it is about anything at all, its about just this particular production, and only those aspects of it that are immediately marketable: named actors, design, theatre buildings — in other words, “production values,” as the hideous phrase goes.

Then again, perhaps that’s just as well. The one show that provided a director’s note was also the single worst production of a Shakespeare play I’ve seen in the last twelve months, certainly one of the worst Shakespeare shows I’ve ever seen anywhere: Macbeth at the Lincoln Center, directed by Jack O’Brien. It’s a note that doesn’t counter the anti-intellectual attitude I’ve described at all; if anything, it exemplifies it. Enjoy:


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7 Responses to Theatre and Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Nullifidian says:

    Now you know what it was like having Jack O’Brien as our Artistic Director for The Old Globe in San Diego. I always felt that they were conspicuously less successful with the famous Shakespeare plays. The stature brought with it all the apparatus of “great literature” and the view was that one could “serve the text” by not taking any view about it and just presenting it as is. On one occasion, this led to figures in ornate Elizabethan dress prancing around an elongated octagon and declaiming the lines of As You Like It. I left at the first interval. I have to compare that with their performance of Cymbeline, which was self-consciously theatrical (although not quite as far as German theatre is) and didn’t feel obligated to bow servilely before the Bard.

    Unfortunately, they haven’t improved much as a company (though I did see a wonderful As You Like It, the parting production of Adrian Noble) and for years they’ve eliminated what used to be a third Shakespeare play in order to perform some random historical drama. At first I thought they decided to do other countries’ classic plays, because they began with Rostand’s Cyrano, but the next year it was The Madness of King George. Not quite in the same class. This summer they’ve eliminated even the costume drama, presumably because Sondheim’s Into the Woods took so much money to stage. Ah well. That’s what it’s like having a theatre that primarily does its business in summer for the sake of the tourist trade. It’s just another attraction in Balboa Park, and as contrived as the rest of them.

  2. Wendy Hyman says:

    Good grief. Indeed, if you’d been able to read Jack O’Brien’s most insightful Note in advance, you could have saved yourself a theater ticket.

  3. Blogless Dan says:

    Ouch. I’m sure glad I didn’t spend any money on that “Macbeth.” That summary sounds like the “Cliff Notes” version.

  4. George Hunka says:

    Well said. In my own small way I’ve been writing up these Program Notes for a few plays myself (not that they ever appear in any program). As I wrote in my introduction to the series, “Under the heading ‘Program notes,’ I’ll be posting short essays about plays that I’ve been reading recently — usually plays now open or just about to open, but sometimes not. These are based on program notes I often see prepared for programs of classical music, especially new music (and the estimable Paul Griffiths is my lodestar here, for both grace of expression and lightly-borne expertise, an expertise I can’t pretend to share). I like program notes in classical music programs, usually written by third parties like critics unattached to the work or the institution itself, and often writing about the score (or the text, in the case of theatre) in its aesthetic and cultural contexts rather than the current performance (or production), usually about 1,000 words in length, so concise and informative, though personal notes nonetheless; I wish theatres would provide them in their own programs more often.”

    You can find a selection of these here:

    All best,

  5. Karen Fricker says:

    I learned my editing trade in the ’90s in NYC at Stagebill, which was then the ‘high art’ competitor to Playbill. We had contracts with nearly all the Lincoln Center constituent organisations, orchestras and operas across the US, and many of the Chicago theatres. We commissioned articles about repertoire, artists, histories etc, with the editorial brief not to offer critical judgements but rather background and context. During that time the Public Theater flipped from Playbill to Stagebill because then-a.d. George C Wolfe wanted actually intelligent programme content, and before long the Public hired me away as in-house editor. So for two years I helped create programmes and other editorial bits and bobs intended to be, in George’s memorably hyperbolic phrasing, ‘footsoldiers in our revolution.’ I left in 1997 to do my PhD, and another editor took over. I don’t know what the situation is with programmes at the Public in the Eustis era. Stagebill was bought out by rival Playbill in 2002 and shut down. All of this to say: ’twas not always thus in NYC, Holger, and (per Larry’s Facebook comment) it’s about more than gypsy robe-like tradition. Contracts with major arts organisations were coveted and contested by Playbill and Stagebill, and the more commercial organisation won out in the end. But there is a history of alternatives.

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