Saturday, July 10, 2004

Outdoor Drama, part two: First for Freedom

Max B. Williams's First for Freedom is not a great play, or even a particularly good one: As outdoor historical dramas go, it's fairly typical. The play is set and performed in the small town of Halifax, North Carolina, and pertains to the town's involvement in the Revolutionary War (particularly the Halifax Resolves, which signaled North Carolina's independence from England nearly three months prior to the Declaration of Independence). The cast of twenty-four is about average for a production of this sort. In keeping with his genre, Williams focuses on a few "ordinary" citizens, and discusses how they affect -- and are affected by -- greater social and political forces. Major historical figures put in brief appearances, explaining why their actions are important; the state's governor, filled with gravitas, even leads assembled townspeople in prayer. In the play's sole battle scene, a young Tory is tragically killed (after suddenly declaring his loyalty to the Patriots' cause), and a thieving villain gets his just desserts. A tavernkeeper and his betrothed provide wholesomely corny comic relief; a town outcast contributes some more low comedy, yet eventually proves herself a vital asset to her community (in the manner of Old Tom from Paul Green's Lost Colony). In a major subplot, a poor, Patriot tavern boy romances the daughter of a Tory landowner, crossing class barriers and political lines. Naturally, their vows of love at play's end signify an end to revolutionary strife, and a happy beginning for the new American society.

All in all, First for Freedom is a typical production -- not a major work of art, to be sure, but a decently crafted crowd-pleaser with a specific ideological viewpoint. Not only does the play echo formal conventions of a great many outdoor dramas across the nation, it also exemplifies the way many red-state Americans have come to view their country.

As a vision of America, the play has one massive shortcoming: Everyone is White and heterosexual. Makeup for the town outcast bears a disturbing resemblance to "blackface," although her character is clearly Anglo-Saxon like all the others. Since the lion's share of outdoor historical dramas were written between the 1930s and the early 1960s -- prior to integration, let alone multiculturalism -- they tend to present Native Americans as either exotics or outright threats, and Black characters as vaguely risible domestics. First for Freedom, written for America's Bicentennial, has a different problem: It can't integrate Black and Native characters into a story about our nation's freedom. At the very least, this bespeaks a failure of imagination.

But this play's vision of America also possesses major strengths. First for Freedom successfully presents the United States as a country founded on resistance to governmental oppression. Each side of the debate over independence is given a chance to present its case, and the Tory side is no less eloquent than the Patriot. The play also depicts America as a country without a clear, fixed class structure. It tries, less successfully, to negotiate a balance between individual liberty and social order -- and, as one might expect for a drama set in wartime, it comes down a bit too strongly (for my taste, anyway) on the side of social order.

Since I'm presenting this play as an example (and a pretty good one) of American popular drama, I'll note that its values are almost totally in opposition to what most drama critics manage to encounter in their common experience. Popular drama emphasizes a positive rather than a negative vision of America. It presents functional families instead of dysfunctional relationships, and focuses on historical forces rather than personal concerns. It tends to value spectacle over introspection, large casts over small, and Craft over Art. Naturally, the dynamic with the audience is different, too: Popular drama is designed to entertain and educate its audience (roughly in that order), while much contemporary drama is meant to stun and provoke. Which means that audiences who won't show up to be harangued at a production of Larry Kramer's Normal Heart will gladly show up for something like this.

Or at least, they would show up, if those audiences knew something like this were around. Because of massive state budget cuts, First for Freedom is (for all practical purposes) a homeless outdoor drama. (This year's production was staged on the steps of the county courthouse.) Since this show can no longer afford to advertise, audiences are small: I had to inform several bewildered theatergoers of the play's location this year. The show can't afford professional lighting, so performances must be finished by sunset; the script has been truncated by nearly a third. Worst of all, the play's season -- which used to run through most of July -- has been shortened to a single weekend: Three performances near Independence Day. This may be, at the moment, our nation's most endangered outdoor drama.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Outdoor Drama

The much-heralded revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart has shut its does after disappointing sales, while the highly praised Sondheim musical Assassins has all but posted its closing notices. Both shows were stridently leftist; both shows are dead in the water. So it's only natural that Terry Teachout would take a quick survey of the wreckage. He has just written an interesting meditation on the fate of theater in America, and the text for his sermon comes from Larry Kramer himself: "I mean, when are we all going to realize that people don't want to go to the theater anymore?"

Teachout maintains that this isn't true: People do go to the theater, just not to shows that promise nothing more than a flaccid, two-hour harangue. (Which raises the question: Just why are people still lining up to see Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which is every bit as joyless and dreary as Kramer's Normal Heart?) Well, Teachout and I have very different perspectives on this quote. Since Teachout lives in New York City, he probably knows people who go to the theater on a regular basis. But I live in Charlottesville, Virginia -- and although the town has a bustling theater scene, I only know one person who goes to the theater -- and he's a semi-professional critic. Most audiences for the productions I see run the gamut from polite middle-aged liberals to sleepy senior citizens; young people, and especially young adults, are rare as hen's teeth.

So from my perspective, the people I know don't attend the theater. Granted, theater can be expensive, and my friends don't always have much disposable income -- but in Charlottesville, ticket prices for most shows run under fifteen dollars, while highbrow operas cost less than twenty-five. Why, then, don't my friends go to the theater more often?

I've written about this subject before. In a recent New York Times article, Tony Kushner discussed the state of contemporary theater (lauding Assassins, predictably enough), and noted that audiences who attend theater tend to be intellectually curious about life and about their fellow human beings. Which meant, he added, that no Republicans need apply.

Well, if contemporary American theater starts out by excluding a little more than half the country, no wonder it seems to be dying.

Contrast with track records for the nation's outdoor historical dramas: Kermit Hunter's Unto These Hills has been playing in the Smokies for fifty-four years; Paul Green's The Lost Colony has graced North Carolina's Outer Banks for well over sixty. Even Don Baker's Stonewall Country, which just closed "for good" (or so the artistic director claims) in Lexington, Virginia, had enjoyed a solid run of twenty years, and was drawing sell-out crowds every night, right up to the last show.

The audiences for these shows come from all walks of life -- parents, children, the elderly, young people -- and they're precisely the people who don't go to the theater back home. I find myself wondering: Just why are these shows still thriving after all this time? Why have these shows caught on? And what would it take to bring this general audience back in the theater?

My first stop, which I'll discuss tomorrow, is a tiny outdoor drama in Halifax, North Carolina, entitled First for Freedom. The play was originally written during the Bicentennial, to be performed at a nearby state park. But when the park's amphitheater fell into (rather mild) disrepair, the state of North Carolina abruptly pulled its support for the play. Undaunted, the citizens of Halifax took the costumes, brushed up their acting chops, and performed the play on the steps of the county courthouse -- without help from the state. Now why would the citizens of a small North Carolina town work to keep this particular play alive?

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Some questions about Spider-Man 2

(Caution: Many spoilers and impieties ahead.)

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 bears a curious resemblance to Richard Fleischer's vastly superior Superman 2: Both films ask what keeps a superhero going, and why a person would voluntarily choose a life of self-sacrifice over personal fulfillment. For that matter, this same question is posed by Last Temptation of Christ and It's a Wonderful Life, which gives both these "summer flicks" some heavy existential baggage. Superman handles it with panache; Spiderman lugs it rather sloppily, I'm afraid. Still, Spider-Man 2 begged for my love with the all-out desperation of a bug-eyed puppy, a Liza Minnelli reunion concert, or an ex-boyfriend with ADD. I'd have to be uncommonly thoughtful and perspicacious not to fall for something like this -- so of course I fell for Spider-Man 2 like a total sucker.

To be fair, the film has much to love: The initial fight between Spiderman and Doc Octopus is a glorious tangle of flailing arms and falling bodies, suggesting something far more erotic and Oedipal than a standard knock-down brawl. One scene between Peter Parker and his girlfriend offers a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of just how creepy a "human spider" might be. When Doc Octopus's mechanical arms murder a morgue's worth of ER surgeons and nurses, director Raimi reminds us that he is indeed the same giggling sadist who gave us Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. The film is also packed with plenty of sad-sack humor, never hesistating to place Peter Parker / Spiderman in subtly humiliating situations.

Tobey Maguire gives a marvelous performance as the tormented webslinger (who even suffers from impotence!), and the luminous Kirsten Dunst matches him scene for scene. James Franco, alas, still labors mightily under the illusion that he's the new James Dean, and although Raimi keeps him on a tight leash, I fear we can expect much more overacting from him in the inevitable Spider-Man 3. With so many things going for this film, it's all the more heartbreaking when the second act turns preachy and the third act falls apart.

Like most of the nation, I saw this summer blockbuster over the Fourth of July weekend. After all, it was my duty to the American film industry to push Spidey's box-office cume over the $200 million mark by now. Though it hasn't yet hit that mark, I did my part, buying my matinee ticket with all the pomp, pride and solemnity befitting a film buff and a patriot. (Take that, French cineastes! Your sophisticated post-New Wave sensibilities have no power over me!)

But unlike most of the nation, I'm afraid I walked away from Spider-Man 2 with a few hard questions. Forgive me, gentle reader, for what follows:

1. When Spiderman swings through New York City at eye level with the crown of the Chrysler building, what are those webs stuck to -- police helicopters, blimps, or jet aircraft? And where do those webs go when he finishes swinging on them? Do New York window-washers have to scrape off Spidey goo along with the usual bird droppings and grime?

2. Peter Parker is inadvertently unmasked as he saves a train full of passengers. (Another reason to avoid mass transit: That whole we're-all-gonna-die, rushing-to-certain-doom thing can ruin your morning commute.) Since everyone in the train promises to keep Spidey's identity a secret, he seems safe enough -- but what about everyone in the residential areas that train so recently passed through? Those apartments have windows, you know.

3. The mechanical arms of Doc Octopus communicate with him telepathically. Do they speak English, or does his brain understand binary code? (By the way, what's binary for "Let's rebuild the fusion reactor, only we'll make it lots bigger this time"?)

4. For physics students: Doc Octopus stops a nuclear reaction by dousing the reactor core in seawater. How does he keep the resulting heat transfer from boiling every fish in New York Harbor? For that matter, how does he stop the resulting cloud of superheated steam from turning the Big Apple into the world's largest Wok?

5. When Peter Parker throws his Spidey suit away and crime jumps up 75%, why don't the people of New York City quit whining and buy handguns?

I know this film is meant to sell me on the idea of putting my own self-interest aside to serve others. After all, the moral of the entire Spider-Man saga can be summed up in Stan Lee's famous line, "With great power comes great responsibility." But consider me un-sold. I'm looking forward to a movie in which our favorite webslinger reads a little too much Ayn Rand and decides that an open-ended superheroes' strike might be a pretty good idea after all. Maybe he could even get the uncanny X-Men to join him; I'm sure by now they've all had enough of Xavier's pieties and platitudes.

Suggested tagline for Spidey Shrugged: "Who is Peter Parker?"

Monday, July 05, 2004

Fear and Loathing: Gay Fascism

The formidable Bilious Young Fogey has asked me to comment on a recent post by Johann Hari linking Gay men and fascism. Funny how no one ever holds Lesbians accountable for repressive political movements. Some people you criticize, some you just don't.

Of course, I don't doubt for a moment that a few Gay men are fascists, neo-Nazis, and the like. Some of us, I'm told, are even Southern Baptists. We are everywhere, as the slogan goes -- including all those places we shouldn't be.

That said, Hari goes astray on two major points.

First, he labels Pim Fortuyn a fascist. Now, Fortuyn was many things, but a fascist he was not. Only in Europe could he be seen as a creature of the Far Right. In the US, this guy would be a leftist, albeit with strong libertarian tendencies on social issues: His stance on Gay marriage made French bureaucrats look like American Bible-thumpers. Fortuyn's cardinal sin didn't involve dismantling social welfare programs, advocating citizens' rights to own and carry firearms, or deregulating European industry; as far as I know, he did nothing to challenge the European political establishment on these important issues. Instead, he noted that the Islamist movement constituted a major threat to the humanistic values of Western Europe. He proved his point admirably: In a nationally televised debate with an Islamic cleric, Fortuyn flaunted his homosexuality to the point that the cleric shouted death threats against him and against all homosexuals.

Of course, these same Islamist movements have stated their enmity toward the West on many occasions, which is why Christopher Hitchens has come to call them "Islamofascist." More than a few pundits have noted the parallels between Nazi Germany and the alleged "Arab street": The anti-Semitic doctrine that flourished under Hitler's evil regime echoes today throughout state-controlled Arab media, and both Nazis and Arab nationalists have taken the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a central text. Yet in the topsy-turvy logic of the contemporary European left, Fortuyn was obviously a "fascist" -- not because he supported fascism, but because he opposed its resurgence. His defense of classical liberalism and Western secular democracy lacked nuance.

Hari's second mistake is far more elaborate, and far more damaging. He claims that because the "cult of the beautiful body" is central to fascism and to Gay male aesthetics, there must be a temperamental affinity between Gay men and fascism. Now, I'll agree that beautiful bodies -- preferably young and well-hung -- can be important to Gay men. Inasmuch as fetishistic images of physical beauty do psychological damage to Gays like me who can never live up (or down) to them, I'd be happy to see them discredited. But linking the body beautiful with political fascism doesn't strike me as valid: I'd say that as long as men and women are visually oriented -- which is to say, as long as we're human -- we'll continue to ogle the most physically fit, attractive bodies on the beach. (Yes, women do scope guys out.) Since the Soviets also had their vision of the "body beautiful" (check out the hunky "ideal workers" of social-realist sculpture, painting and cinema), and we Americans have had our matinee idols and pinup girls, we can only come to two conclusions: Either everyone's a fascist at heart, or an obsession with optimal physiques is common among human beings.

The presence of body fetishism is in itself a trivial matter, and societies that attempt to obliterate the beautiful body -- such as Taliban Afghanistan, which not only mandated burqas for women, but prohibited them from venturing out of doors without male escorts (ahem!) -- inevitably become more repressive for the attempt. The important question isn't whether the body must be beautiful, but why it must be beautiful. In fascist states, the body must be improved because the State owns that body. The State wants its property to serve its own needs, and only a perfect body can serve them adequately. Contrast with a democratic society, where the individual owns his or her own body. If a Gay man in the US chooses to go to the gym, it's because he wants a better chance at getting laid, not because the State has ordered him to work out.

Finally, I'd like to quote an unintentionally hilarious paragraph in Hari's essay, regarding Gay SA leader Ernst Roehm and the Night of the Long Knives:

But there’s another important question: will fascist movements inevitably turn on gay people? In the case of the Nazis, it seems to have been fairly arbitrary; Hitler’s main reason for killing Rohm was unrelated to his sexuality. From my perspective as a progressive-minded leftie, all fascism is evil; but should all gay people see it as inimical to their interests? Is it possible to have a gay fascist who wasn’t acting against his own interests? Fascism is often defined as “a political ideology advocating hierarchical government that systematically denies equality to certain groups.” It’s true that this hierarchy could benefit gay people at the expense of, say, black people. But given the prevalence of homophobia, isn’t that – even for people who don’t see fascism as inherently evil – a terrible risk to take? Won’t a culture that turns viciously on one minority get around to gay people in the end? This seems, ultimately, to be the lesson of Ernst Rohm’s pitiful, squalid little life.

Let's avoid Hari's unworkably nebulous definition of fascism -- which, depending on how you define "hierarchical," "systematically," "equality," and "groups," could refer to advocates of even the most limited, unobtrusive government imaginable. (Would "the poor" count as a group? How about "the rich," or "the strong"?) Instead, we'll focus on the concrete example of Nazi Germany, which was as objectively fascist as it was anti-Gay. Perhaps, as Hari claims, Hitler's reasons for "purging" Roehm from the New Order were not related to his own anti-Gay speeches and sentiments. Yet the simultaneous burning of the Hirschfeld Institute was related: The world immediately recognized this action as the start of Nazi crackdowns on homosexuals. If Hitler didn't have a problem with Gay men prior to 1934, he certainly managed to find one in record time. And since the Night of the Long Knives preceded Kristallnacht and the Holocaust by several years (just as the infamous anti-Gay Paragraph 175 preceded the Nuremberg Laws by several decades), the real lesson here is that a culture which turns viciously on one minority, or several, usually gets around to Gays in the beginning, not the end.

Unfortunately, the fate of Gay men hasn't proven much better under Hari's "progressive-leftie" socialism than under outright fascism. Some months ago, in a vastly different context, I wrote, "This intelligent homosexual can tell you the difference between socialism and capitalism in two sentences .... Under socialism, we Gays are usually led to a field and shot dead. Under capitalism, we design clothes and decorate houses. Which would you choose?"

Update (7/6, 10 p.m.): Much reaction to this post, most of which reminded me why I stay away from hard-core political science and world history. I've already had to make one minor correction; I thought I had read a nicely ironic tidbit on Hitchens somewhere, and included it in my article. It turned out (as is, alas, often the case) that the factoid was too good to "check." Many thanks to the thoughtful reader who noted my error. It has been amended.

Also, a loyal reader weighs in with the following question: "I'm no socialist, but when were Swedish or Dutch gays shot dead?" Fair enough, and the idea of mild-mannered Swedes lining anyone up to be shot is ludicrous enough to give me morbid giggles. My bitchy bon mot (written half a year ago) on the "socialism vs. capitalism" question did leave out most of post-WWII Western Europe. I was thinking of the "national socialism" of Hitler's Third Reich, any number of nameless purges within the defunct Soviet Union, and especially the atrocities of Third World socialism. Whether it happens in Cuba, Cambodia, Iran, or any number of small African nations, "the revolution" usually finds its first, easiest prey among Gays and Lesbians.

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