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A Manifesto on the State of Contemporary Theatrical Drama, Poetry and Fiction...


Richard Gloucester

America is a cruel soil for talent. It stunts it, blights it, uproots it or overheats it with cheap fertilizer.
Norman Mailer

I ought to go upright and vital, and
speak the rude truth in all its ways.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is the year 67 A. D. In the bustling, furious, oppressive city of Rome, a wealthy, deliciously beautiful and seductive Roman matron who is engrossed in a torrid, sweet but completely ephemeral and absolutely meaningless extramarital relationship, is at the Roman theater sitting with her lover, watching a salacious play production based on Ovid's The Art of Love. They had just left their secret love nest two hours ago, and gorged themselves on a lunch of sweet wine, sparrow and blackberries before arriving at the theater. Meanwhile, one of her slaves, a hungry Scythian widow, saw her own daughter mauled to death two days ago in the Coliseum by a bear, while Romans, completely indifferent to the sight of the bloody, mangled child, cheered in their seats while gladiators in the same Arena desperately clashed their swords, ruthlessly struggling to stay alive by killing their opponents.

While her mistress is smiling happily at the playhouse, she stands at a slave's burial site instead, anguish and devastation wracking her heart and soul. The world of her mistress might be very carefree and pleasurable, but her own world as a Roman slave is hideously dark.

Indolence vis a vis suffering. Why this grim story?

What is vitally more important to you if you are an American dramatist, poet, fiction writer or some other creative artist: an unceasing, superficial, sensual tang of daily blackberries, or the bitter taste of social injustice and a cry of outrage and pain? What is more important to you, sweet aesthetic obfuscation, or the truth?

"The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace," protested the storyteller in Ezra Pound's narrative poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, referring to the catastrophic, tragic new twentieth century.

The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace.

That was true immediately after the Great War, but sadly, it is even truer today. Most Americans today who attend theaters to see plays or read poetry do not really want Mauberly or anything like it. Instead they want Big Mac With Disposable Wrapper Art, Big Mac Plays, Big Mac poetry, Big Mac novels, short stories and films, and Big Mac paintings, or, put another way, they want quick consumption art, art for the masses, brought to you by American capital.

Recently, film director Woody Allen said, on the state of Hollywood films: "I've always had a very critical attitude to Hollywood. Essentially, it's a place where people spend a huge amount of money and yet make few, if any, decent films."

Woody Allen, in different language, might as well have been talking about the state of the dramatic Great White Way….

On a related aesthetic matter, in September, 2000, Alice George, an editor from Rhino, echoed some concerns of poet Mark Doty. Both, it seems, were upset about the plight of modern American poetry. Miss George, in particular, would have liked to see poetry rich with "formal inventiveness or which has "engaged social commentary or political thought," renews the disciplines of political "satire and invective," and which expresses "cultural concerns," poetry with "out and out gorgeousness."

Poetry, and more relevant here, theater, rich with "formal inventiveness", ou, peut-être, le risque et l'originalité? "Engaged social commentary or political thought?" "Satire and invective?" The contemporary American masses, including most theatergoers, don't want that, whether they are lovers of dramatic theater, poetry and literary fiction or not. Today nearly everybody in the culture wants well-written but comfortable, safe and docile playwriting, fiction and poetry, theatrical dramas, fiction stories and poetry which, above all, please the personal and pragmatic tastes of a Broadway artistic director or mainstream establishment editor before they please the tastes of the playwright, literary fiction writer or poet. Pabulum. Playwriting, poetry or fiction that mentally challenges an average playgoer or reader by compelling him or her to sob with passionate agreement or shout with passionate disagreement even ten years after the playgoer or reader has seen the play or read the book? Very unlikely in America's future if current trends in the American writing world continue.

America's contemporary aesthetic landscape is frighteningly sterile.

But am I a lone aesthetic wolf crying in a wilderness where no one else has noticed this hideous trend in playwriting, literary fiction and other genres?

Consider the words of Nobel recipient, writer Gao Xingjian, back in 2000:

It would seem that truth is the unassailable and most basic quality of literature…. It would be best also for the writer to revert to the role of witness and strive to present the truth…. It is this non-utilitarian aspect of literature that is fundamental to literature. That the writing of literature has become a profession is an ugly outcome of the division of labor in the modern society and a bitter fruit for the writer…. This is especially the case in the present age when the market economy has become pervasive and books have also become commodities…. If the writer does not bend to the pressures of the market and refuses to stoop to manufacturing cultural products by writing to satisfy the tastes of fashions and trends, he must make a living by some other means. Literature is not a best-selling book or book on a ranked list and authors promoted on television are engaged in advertising rather than in writing. Freedom in writing is not conferred and cannot be purchased but comes from an inner need in the writer himself. The writer writes what he wants without concern for recompense not only to affirm his self but also to change society.

American playwrights, American literary fiction authors, poets, screenplay writers, artistic directors, literary fiction and poetry editors? If you have read Xingjian's words above, then most of you should be ashamed of yourselves….

Nearly a century ago social activist Emma Goldman wrote: "Publishers, theatrical managers, and critics ask not for the quality inherent in creative art, but will it meet with a good sale, will it suit the palate of the people? Alas, this palate is like a dumping ground; it relishes anything that needs no mental mastication. As a result, the mediocre, the ordinary, the commonplace represents the chief literary output."


That screed, indelibly written on the cramped, conforming, collective brain of the American masses, is manifested everywhere. Here in the States the Market is dictating the worth of everything, not the individual playwright, literary fiction writer, poet; the Market and the false images it projects are dictating the worth of automobiles, real estate, beer, music, clothes, relationships, films, dramatic plays, fiction, sneakers, poetry, fast food and even human beings. A luscious chick named Terry Bradshaw, her friends, Mister Big, and their crude, vulgar and meaningless sexual adventures in the American Spiritual and Aesthetic Wasteland, not an unattractive single mother or a disabled Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair who's an attorney fighting police brutality, business corruption, child abuse or racism every week on cable. The gorgeously good, perfectly flawless protagonist killing off the absolutely evil antagonist in the movies and the well-written, well acted but meaningless sugary romance on the stage. The exaltation of the mundane and the prurient in theatrical drama, poetry and narrative fiction. The delicious cliché of the afternoon soaps. There are no ideals anymore in America, just Image's Golden Calf. Ad captandum vulgus. Pabulum, pabulum, pabulum. Frequently it's not even the actors and actresses at fault, but, rather, the bland or aesthetically meaningless script for the new play they are given to act with.

What would the late Ayn Rand say of all this, you 'professional' American writers, playwrights included?

"What business does any contemporary American art form or contemporary American artist in particular have making aesthetic statements or comments on social and political conditions?" you might wonder. All I would say to you is, if it were possible, ask the same question to Arthur Miller when he wrote Death of a Salesman, which raised serious, disturbing and controversial questions about America's timeless concept of The American Dream through hard, honest work. Ask Lorraine Hansberry the same question, when she wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and included a controversial scene daring to depict genteel white racism in pristine white suburbia, or ask Dmitri Shostakovich why did he dare write Symphony Number Ten to protest the Nazis' presence outside the gates of Leningrad, or take one step further were it only possible, and ask Picasso why he painted his picture called Guernica after the Nazis bombed the helpless Spanish city by that name, for that matter!

Why is it that hardly any prominent, well-known playwright, poet, or literary fiction author, is boldly and without any cosmetic dressing up, addressing the important political, social and other issues of our time? Are there any important issues? What about terrorism and what is really fueling this irrational behavior? What about religious fanaticism? What about flagrant corruption on the American business scene? What about police brutality? According to Amnesty International, police brutality is a serious problem in America, Russia and around the world. What about the Patriot Act and what it could mean for Free Speech?

But, in all honesty, just what does sometimes happen in America, usually, to a playwright, poet, literary fiction writer or other writing artist, who is bold enough to march onto the artistic scene but in a new direction diametrically opposite to the march of society's programmed, inebriated conforming herd, and who struggles to express, like Ayn Rand's nonconformist architect Howard Roarke in The Fountainhead, his or her own individualistic, vital, unique and possibly even artistically revolutionary new ideas? He or she is sometimes repudiated and vilified, perhaps by those more conservative critics, conforming, compliant artists, and politicians, terrified of giving up the culture's aesthetic inertia and social status quo, or marginalized inside his or her own artistic sphere, or else politically demonized by the media. Then after he or she either gives up their fight from psychic exhaustion or else because they mercifully passed off the scene, the less talented aesthetic hordes strive to imitate that artist.

In the early sixties, poet Elizabeth Bishop complained to Robert Lowell she got depressed every time she read Poetry magazine. There was "simply too much poetry around, too many novels" and plays and paintings around, and no one was "saying anything much." It is very much worse today, and this ambient cultural and aesthetic stagnation in America not only reeks inside a great deal of irrelevant contemporary American poetry, but in fiction, film, and theatrical drama as well.

Where today are all the Arthur Millers, the Lilian Hellmans, the Eugene O'Neills, the Lorraine Hansberrys or even the T. S. Eliots, the Plaths, the Ginsbergs, the Faulkners, Dreisers, Baldwins and Mailers, for that matter? Where are they? Why has great playwriting, poetry, fiction and film, with very few exceptions, virtually vanished from the American scene? Wonder why The Great American Drama, Novel or Poem has not turned up yet? Ironically, it probably has, time again and time again, but those manuscripts were and are often lumped together, unfairly and indiscriminately, along with the other rejected works from amateur dramatists, fiction writers and untalented poetasters who scribbled out, "It was a dark and stormy night," and, "Oh, my roses are red, violets are blue." Ironically, the less talented and the more competent but cautious and accommodating playwrights and other writers will get produced or published somewhere, while the future Our Town Thornton Wilders, Amen Corner Jimmy Baldwins, and Mother Courage Berthold Brechts, will, having been so aesthetically ostracized by the powerful arbiters and setters of mass taste, jump into suicidal immolation fire, their manuscripts and their brilliant ideas all clutched, tenderly, against their hearts, while the high powered theatrical artistic directors and poetry and literary fiction editors who so capriciously turned down their fine work for something more "workable", hail out the door and into the busy, commercial Manhattan street for their power lunches, clutching, in their hands, the completely marketable but totally ingenuous and uninspiring play manuscript, novel or poetry collection.

As long as there are aesthetic Joseph Stalins around telling a Prokofiev what and what not to write or create or even how to create, American theater, poetry, and fiction, no, ALL American Art, will never shimmer with "out-and-out gorgeousness."

In modern history, artistic revolutions on the stage, poetry or fiction either spur great social cataclysms or follow in their wake. The nineteenth century, for example, witnessed the disturbing ascendancy of Darwin and the industrial machine. The age of religious modernism followed. The aesthetic reaction, however, was a new artistic age of Romanticism and social thought expressed in Drama. German and Norwegian playgoers in the nineteenth century rushed to the theaters either to enjoy or to squirm at a new play by Hofmannsthal or by Ibsen, respectively.

The age after 1914 emerged as a freight train madly accelerating down a steep hill, and playwrights like Eugene O'Neill reflected onstage to great effect, modern humanity's acute anxiety and dislocation in an age of great wars, dangerous demagogues, violent political ideologies, deceptive advertising, and fusing hydrogen atoms inside mushroom clouds billowing frightfully. The present age is even more disruptive, with its irrational international terrorism, cyberterrorism, regional wars, its American and international racial, religious and ethnic balkanization and threats to free speech, social fragmentation, the alarming spread of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere, serious dangers to the biosphere, and international events threatening the complete disintegration of the World Community. Many of these international ills are indicative of something seriously, possibly fatally wrong in this world, yet, sad to say, the only response to all this by many contemporary American playwrights and other American literary writers is well-written obfuscation. Distract the American theatergoer with the sweet but ephemeral taste of mundane, disengaged blackberries tossed skillfully downstage and out into the contemporary audience beyond that fourth wall, while this Age's own version of a freight train madly roars down the hill to the rocky bottom.

When even the majority of "acclaimed" artists, including playwrights, in a society are obsessed with conformity and with what the artistic director, fiction editor, theatergoer or critic wants to see, there can never be any true light in a dramatic work, for the more powerful artistic directors for example, intent on making a killing at the box office, don't want to see that light, too terrified it might empty the theater of people too mentally lazy to attempt to understand it.

As suggested earlier, this lack of beautiful aesthetic light, sadly, also exists in much contemporary American literary fiction and poetry, and there are even some poetry and literary fiction editors, such as G. Tod Slone of American Dissident, who are brave and honest enough to admit a tragic, aesthetic erosion exists in the American artistic scene. Even the aforementioned poets Alice George and Mark Doty from Rhino must have recognized this trend in the poetry genre. There is just no light. There is just no fine, bright artistic light anywhere shining across the entire American landscape or the world to illuminate things, and that does not seem to bother American artists, not even most playwrights, nor most editors nor play or film directors, as long as the audience keeps cheering, the royalty checks keep coming and the agent keeps calling. So theater going Americans can go on and on enjoying their Big Mac dinner, after they have digested all their commercially supported, televised info-bytes from the evening news which help to mold all their collective tastes and opinions of the world, and after which they head out McDonald's front door and down the street to the new and very popular theatrical musical with a shocking, scandalous sex scene in it….

Ignore the train about to crash, just pass the blackberries, please?

If this remains the state of affairs even with contemporary American playwriting and drama as well as in fiction and poetry, then America's Aesthetic Stage for the future will be, just like this world, very dark indeed.


1. An allusion to a poem by American poet Robert Hass.


Richard Gloucester is the pen name of a writer in the state of Massachusetts, USA. Mister Gloucester, a published poet and science fiction author for over thirty years, has been published both online and in print across the United States and Europe, including in Great Britain and France. As a writer mainly of politically incorrect, controversial "soft" science fiction, Mister Gloucester uses literary techniques to explore various social themes in futuristic settings. He will be attending graduate school in 2003 to begin his graduate studies in both Pure and Applied Mathematics.

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