"Do you realize there is an iceberg the size of Rhode Island headed right for us? Don't any of you care about anything? I keep asking myself why everyone isn't writing what is truly important."
The above was shouted at me in a writing group after we had all gone around the table and shared our respective pieces. We had just finished a lively discussion over my play and whether or not I should include nervous hand gestures to underline the character's anxiety. The leader of the group had just turned to, I'm going to call her Mrs. Green, and asked her what her opinion was. It was this moment she chose to get something off her chest about the state of playwrighting in the world today. To this day, it remains my most scathing review. Apparently, I should be writing about icebergs and other things that are truly important. The papers of my little tragedy fluttered quietly in front of me as if to give a weak retort, only to show how truly ineffective they really were.
Mrs. Peacock answered back, "We must all write what we can, what we feel we must." I looked down again and wondered if my character should wring his hands or wipe them on his jeans when I tell him that he's going to be tossed into the recycling bin where perhaps he will be pulped and given to a playwright with worthier intentions. Which level of anxiety would be most appropriate when you have found out you may not continue to exist? That you are unworthy of existence? I decided that I would write that scene, where I talked to my character, and it would take place on an iceberg that was headed for San Francisco.
That's when I realized: I didn't care. I didn't care whether or not an iceberg the size of Rhode Island was headed right for us. I was interested...but...I didn't care. Am I in immediate danger? No. Is there anything I can do about it? No. Is there anything I should do about it? No. In fact, the very act of writing a play and producing it, takes up a lot of green house gasses. And my very important play about impeding icebergs tragedy may in fact lead to the next iceberg tragedy. Well, I can see very well why no one is writing about anything important. It only leads to icebergs the size of small states crashing into places I like to be.
What I do care about are people. I care about knowing if Girl A and Boy B hook up or die in a mob war. I care about knowing if Grandma makes it back home before she dies. I care about Guy C finding out who he really is. I care about a country gaining freedom. I care about people and the things they care about. I might care about a play about Mrs. Green and her struggles against a world that doesn't care about the same things she does.
I care about the massive oil spill in the gulf. But it's too big for me to wrap my head around. I don't know how to write about it or where to start. It is important. It may be one of the most important things that happens to the United States of America. But other then feeling terrible and useless...I don't know what to say about it. I don't even know what needs to be changed, much less how to affect that change.
And I don't think I have to.
For argument's sake, let's say "Hamlet" is the best play ever written. And for argument's sake, let's say "Hamlet" was written in 1599. The Earl of Essex and his failed exploits in Ireland being the main news story that has survived. But what surrounds that is the impending death of a long reining Queen who has left no successor, the failure of the favorite of the crown and it's people, and the fear of not just war on the boarders, but civil war with in. And yet, "Hamlet" takes place in Denmark. Not only that, but as with many of his works, it relies on other literature and pieces (stolen and borrowed) to create the story line. The death of his own son, Hammlet, may even have been the impetus to write. And it is all good background...but...is it important? Is it what we care about? Is it what they cared about then? Or is it not the person of Hamlet, his needs, his wants, his griefs, and his loves that we care about. "Hamlet" is a success by any standard, but is it talking about something really important? Has it affected change? Did it then?
Not that the fluttering and useless play in front of me on that day is or was comparable to "Hamlet", it might not even see the light for lots of reasons other than not being about ice burgs. But, is it relevant? I saw a comment on a blog post today with an answer to that question..."If you have to ask, it isn't" The post, by Lauren Gunderson in The Huffington Post, was: An Open Letter to Performing Artists Freaking Out About Relevance in Hard Times. I think she says it best:
"So in hard times, let the artists damn the stress and dream up the world we want, give it breath and blood, and let it loose in our culture so that it roosts in the zeitgeist and fills the air with obvious urgency. Make it up so that it can be made. Take up your laptops, your thread, your Avid, your Alexander Technique, your cameras, your colors... and at least some of the time in your rising careers, choose stories that help us clarify the world of our best image -- that expose joy, laugh at idiocy, speak truth to power and to complacency, make sincerity a cultural currency that we thought so overtaxed by cynicism and meanness, that entertain AND enlighten, that relish boldness and excellence of form, content, context, and like Dr. King and Mr. Shakespeare dreamed, character. Don't let people say "art is escapism" and think that our feelings are hurt. Let us say, "We're not escaping life, we're stepping out to remember what life we want." We imagine a new world so that we may see it first, then we set it right."
So, maybe there should be more plays about icebergs, or really, maybe plays about worlds where iceberg problems are solved. Wouldn't that be nice? To see political theatre that isn't doom and gloom, but positive and possible? Maybe Mrs. Green was right, and we should all be writing more about things that are truly important: things we care about.
PS: An iceberg the size of Rhode Island is not headed right for us. It's headed for Australia. Very very slowly.