I’m now at work on my fifth play and I’m not sure I detect an overarching voice in the first four. I see some consistency in theme and the sorts of human relationships I’ve explored, but beyond that the sky is cloudy. Does this represent a defect in my writing? Perhaps even a fatal defect? I’m not sure I buy that. As I’ve been thinking about “voice,” I recalled smart observations that a friend Roland Tec, composer and writer, made last year on the arts blog he curates, “Extra Criticum.” With Roland’s permission I have reproduced his post for you here. (Thanks, Roland!) In my next post I’ll publish as Part 2 my ponderings on this knotty subject.
Today’s Cacophony of ‘Original Voices’ is Almost Deafening
by Roland Tec, first published June 29, 2011
Just saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo [a play on Broadway] and, well, if it hadn’t already been said by so many others before me, I might be running around letting the world know that Rajiv Joseph is certainly one original voice. In fact, I spent much of his play with that moniker running through my head. Like fireworks going off moment to moment to breathtaking moment, my brain kept remarking: “Oh my! What an original voice!” Even, “What a gorgeous original voice!”
Unfortunately, an original voice does not necessarily guarantee an enduring work of Art.
In my work for The Dramatists Guild, I sometimes find myself moderating discussions among literary managers, artistic directors, producers, etc. — folks commonly regarded in the field as gatekeepers before audiences of writers, or those who generally-speaking would like to know how to get past those godforsaken gates. Again and again, like a tired old refrain, the gatekeepers love to haul out one answer to the common question: “But what are you looking for?”
Original voice. Original voice. A uniquely original voice.
I will admit that I, too, am drawn to the sizzle of dialogue that jumps off the page with the cunning seductive flair of a writer in command of his or her craft, as Mr. Joseph certainly is. But I’m afraid, for me, the sizzle simply isn’t enough. I expect steak with my sizzle and it seems to me more and more these days that the American Theatre is serving up a whole lot of piping hot dishes of empty.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is packed with shocking cruelty and unfathomable loss, a whole lot of theatrical spark, and not a whole lot of insight into the human soul. Sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, surrounded by waves of nervous laughter, it struck me that the experience of watching this play is almost a masochistic act for American audiences as we witness in discomfort the detritus of our endless and tax-free warmongering. The laughter felt generally uncomfortable. The sort that tries to instantly separate the atrocities on stage from us who are watching. But in the end, is “War is folly” enough steak for us to chew on?
I doubt it.
Another play with the word “zoo” in the title crossed my mind as I exited the theatre. Edward Albee’s Zoo Story endures as a classic and hardly ever fails to shake us up. Why? Because it confronts us with unexpected, hidden and frightening truths about our own vulnerabilitiy as human beings, truths that transcend the specific boundaries of the setting of one particular play.
That’s what I want our new generation of writers to do for us. And that’s what I wish we as a culture would learn to demand of them.