I was having this conversation with my friend a few days ago and thought I would transfer it to the blog. This is a different kind of blog post -- more of a ramble than anything else, thoughts off of the top of my head. I look forward to having all my opinions corrected in the comments, as I fully expect much of this to be just WRONG.
Theatre and poetry used to occupy a central position in the culture. Having lost that position to film and television, they are fetishized -- look, for example, at the sentimental treatment each gets in Slings and Arrows and Dead Poet's Society, just for starters. As much as I wanted to, I never became fully and casually conversant in psychoanalytical theory, but I do remember two things, at least sort of: Freud said the fetish is designed to cover up for something essentially lacking (the ultimate origin of fetish being the child's impression of the mother's castration); and Lacan said a person can be between two deaths, the symbolic and (I think) the real, a point which Slavoj Zizek illustrates by talking about the Looney Toons image of the cat who walks over the cliff but does not fall until he looks down. It seems to me that this is the position of theatre and poetry -- they are fetishized to cover up the fact that their centrality has been cut off, and they are over the cliff but not yet fallen.
I wanted to get tickets for Waiting for Godot but -- oh the irony -- I waited too long. But I did sign up for the theatre defense fund or whatever (TDF) and got this back in an email: ""As a TDF Member, you are part of one of the most educated and committed theatregoing audiences in the world." I don't necessarily deny the accuracy as far as the demographic goes but that is some self-satisfied stuff right there and it is the same kind of stuff I see on the mailings I get to my house about poetry societies I can join if I pay X amount of dollars (these people all found me through work somehow, I am sure of it). I have learned not to flaunt the Oxford D.Phil. in polite society any more -- well at least I try to be less of a jackass about it -- but I feel like with these folks it would be an Aaron Sorkin festival, everyone putting their alma mater into conversation as often as possible (I can tell you off the top of my head where everyone on the West Wing went to grad school, and it was a punishing lesson to learn I should not emulate Sorkin's dialogue in this respect).
T.S. Eliot has played a weird conflicting role in the fetishization (I feel like that should not be a word but spell check claims it is) of poetry and theatre. In pop culture he seems to stand in for poetry, second only to Shakespere (who is sort of beyond all these mortal things): he is quoted at the opening of Showtime's Nurse Jackie (so the reviews tell me), in Southland Tales, and that great TV Warhorse Law and Order (Lenny and I think it is Benjamin Bratt arrest a college professor who is discussing TS Eliot in a graduate class at the moment of his arrest -- one of my favorite moments in popular culture, a kind of "well that is what you get for doing THAT.") T.S. Eliot declaiming the collapse of everything in the Waste Land (not the Wasteland by the way -- even academic books make this mistake) becomes the quotes that shore up the ruins of poetry in the popular imagination. He FEELS like poetry because he is dense and difficult and no fun and so on. Because at the end of the day you can't have a poet like the inimitable Ron Padgett (click the name for a sample) be poetry in the popular imagination -- no one would be able to determine it IS poetry, even though one of the things we want from poetry is to be expanding itself so that people are always not quite sure this is really it. "Did John really write Paradise Lost in ENGLISH? Latin, really, is what you want for an epic." People first reading the Waste Land did not know what it was; ironically it is the most POETRY poetry we now have. Ironically, I feel one of the reasons people fetishize poetry -- by which I mean not really engage it -- is because they long for some kind of spiritual center in literature; once Eliot got that spiritual certainty he started being really bad.
As for theatre, I think the fetish is not only for some kind of centrality, but also for the LIVE aspect in an increasingly technologically mediated world. I do not deny that there is an electricity in the room -- interesting, possibly ironic metaphor -- because there is a GUY on STAGE performing LIVE, but people go MAD for it: Theatre has a lot of basic structural similarities to movies -- people in seats watching a actors enact a story four about 2 hours -- and yet charges 10 times the price tag. Obviously this is a necessity for other reasons, and of course you can find cheaper tickets, but to me it points to some kind of OVERSELLING of the live aspect, a powerful nostalgia for what it means to be LIVE. And there is TS Eliot again -- his poems the inspiration for CATS, which went on forever and -- am I wrong about this -- has no redeeming value whatsoever. And yet theatre has this tremendous abstract power -- the same power poetry has -- because the marginal, once central, now fetishized, now expensive thing MEANS HIGH CULTURE whatever the CONTENT. You get this every time you watch some movie and someone points out sagely that Ian McKellen was actually trained for the STAGE, you know -- as if a) his film roles are somehow his coming down to our world in mortal form and b) that somehow legitimizes his hilariously campy turn in something like the Da Vinci Code.
Someone on Slate I think -- and I may be remembering this wrong -- said when the Wire ended that someone should get all these guys together for a performance of Julius Caesar. At first I though GREAT IDEA, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed mildly insulting, as if some said to Shakespeare "Hamlet was so great you ought to try making frescos," with just the most subtle suggestion that frescos are REAL art.
This is so abstract, and there are of course about a million counter examples. Mitch's Triumph of the Underdog, for example, was a great example of using live theater to really do something that you can't do in another medium -- he was a professor giving a lecture (the performance space was in a school to boot) and we were the audience at that lecture: that was perfect and intimate and smart. I wish I had made it to the live Speed the Plow so I could see whether Piven live was five times better than the recording of Jeff Goldblum I got on iTunes playing the same role, since I think the tickets must have been at least five times the cost. I will be attending more live theatre in the future so we will see.
Comics have a similar position -- once central now marginalized, except now they have this weird position as an idea farm for movies. And I am not sure if I did not like them better before, when no one was paying attention to what they were doing (and so they could do anything -- you can't have gay Batman and Superman analogues in the movies the way you can in the Authority), and comics writers were not using comics to audition for other jobs.
At the end of the day, I care about distinguishing good art from bad art, and these seem like some issues that distort the the faculties of judgement in ways that get on my nerves, so I am trying to keep and eye on them.
And again, the point of this is to start a conversation. I am not married to any of these opinions. I am looking for the comments here to maybe offer a course correction.