Dear Hannah Moscovitch (Or, Is Love The Limit?)

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tn-500_infinity5Dear Hannah,

What’s the “common sense” definition of gifted playwright, a definition that would be accepted by those without highly specialized (“scientific”) knowledge of theatre? I’d say it might go something like this: a person who writes compelling scenes of drama that feature convincing human action and dialogue.

A theatre specialist might argue, rightly, that that definition is too limited. She might also, again rightly, point to the scarcity of Canadian artists whom that definition fits. In Toronto, for instance, we have a number of skilled monologists, able Lecoq- or Gaulier-trained physical performance-devisers, talented etchers of sketch comedy so-labeled or not, writers of vivid poetry and prose inserted willy-nilly into onstage characters’ mouths, but few dramatists who can write a credible, active, witty, high-stakes dramatic scene.

You can.

Infinity, your new play at Tarragon Theatre in a Tarragon-Volcano Theatre co-production directed by Ross Manson, is in large part about the tension between the “common sense” understanding of things — time, for example, or love — and the technical or specialist understanding of those things. A family drama that’s ostensibly about physics in general and the concept of time in particular, your play calls to mind Augustine’s famous quip about time, a profundity that’d be at home in a Groucho Marx routine: “What therefore is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I’m asked and wish to explain it, I don’t know.”

What therefore, I wonder, is a play about time? When no one asks me, I know; when I’m asked (albeit by myself) and wish to explain it, I’m stumped.

I’m stumped because to speak of time is inevitably to speak of events in time, and in a drama those events are very likely to be human events. A “drama about time” would seem to indicate extra attention paid to the time-bound character of those events. But that still tells me nothing about what the events are. It tells me almost nothing about content. In a pretty fundamental way, it seems to me that “time” can never be the real content of a work of dramatic art, because what happens in time will always compete for pride of place, will always declare: “I, I am the subject matter! Look at me!”

What happens in time, in your play Infinity? A young couple, brilliant high-achievers both, she a violinist and he a doctoral candidate in physics, proceed through (spoiler alert?) courtship, marriage, pregnancy, marital strife, trouble with their precocious young daughter, his cancer, his death, and the daughter’s trauma and grief and ways of coping, not only but largely through sex. We see some of those events out of order, out of time. infinity

This narrative is related with wit and verbal precision. It’s well acted, even if the three performers in Ross’s production seem to be in different stylistic worlds: Paul Braunstein, for instance, wears the slightly heightened naturalism of your language like a tailored suit, while Haley McGee is unleashed! She unearths the poetry that lurks beneath your naturalism and inflates it to an outsize style that’s bizarre, fully committed, theatrical, and mesmerizing. I loved it, but it’s not what Paul’s doing, to say the least, and I’m not sure what’s gained by that lack of stylistic consistency. Nor by the violinist who adds a beauty that’s, well, beautiful but also uniform and verging on sentimental. (Didn’t Natasha Mytnowych put a violinist in at least one other of your plays? Am I remembering right? Is this now a signature thing?)

Anyway: I think the production is quite good, with clarity and moments of high-ish theatricality, like the movement sequence before Paul’s character gives a truncated lecture on physics, a movement sequence that doesn’t seem to signify anything in particular but is nice to look at and nicely breaks up the naturalism of the physical staging. It brings into focus the actors’ bodies, which seems like an important and interesting thing to do in a play that’s at least in part about the conflicting demands of the mind (which wants to “work,” to challenge itself, to pursue legacy in a conceptual sense) and the body (which wants to procreate, whose eros leads to the family or legacy in the corporeal sense).

I think the first half of the play is also really good. It treats of intimate relationships with intelligence and a light touch. I don’t know and won’t speculate about how “personal” the play is, but those early scenes of romantic courtship feel fully imagined, wittily realized, with plenty of insight and charm. It had been a while since I’d seen a play in Toronto that gave me as clear an impression of a very sharp, active, engaged authorial mind behind it, and I watched yours with pleasure and a kind of deep relief. Tarragon_Infinity

I found myself a lot less interested in the play’s second half, after the story’s “tragic” turn. As soon as Paul’s character is diagnosed with cancer, the play seems to lose its sense of humour and veer into melodrama. It no longer surprised me. And I think the ending-ending (spoiler alert for sure) — where a character comes to the realization that time and, by implication, love really exist, aren’t just constructs — is a false move. It purports to be a discovery, but for it to be revealing or surprising, the audience has to hold the physicist’s or the postmodern’s opinion that time and love are constructs. And the audience, insofar as it isn’t comprised of physicists and humanities grad students (not how I’d peg Tarragon’s subscribers), likely doesn’t hold that opinion. It holds, I think it’s pretty safe to say, the “common sense” notion: time is real and now it’s time for drinks, love is real and isn’t it great. So to point out that time and love really exist is just to affirm what the audience already thinks it knows. Which is sentimental, and okay, I guess — lord knows it’s a common move in our theatre — but to the extent that it’s trumped up as a revelation, I find it a bit misjudged.

But those are quibbles. Okay, they’re more than quibbles. But they’re not criticisms that interest me enough to more than clock them, and of course they don’t change the fact that I think you’re one of our community’s best writers, whose plays I’m always eager to see, and whom I hope TV writers’ rooms (exciting places though they seem to be) don’t kidnap altogether. They’re also not the reason I felt compelled to write you this letter.

I felt compelled to write you this letter because I’m interested in another ambiguous move your play seems to make, a move I make in my own writing all the time, one I worry about.

Your play purports to be about a Big Idea: the nature of time, understood as physics understands it, and its effect on or intersection with intimate relationships. I believe with full confidence that this particular Big Idea did indeed spur you to write the play, that the Big Idea, which I capitalize without irony (if that’s possible), guided and prodded you all along the way. But I don’t find your play really to be a sustained engagement with, or even very much about, that Big Idea. I find it to be about love and sex and family and work, and one of its characters happens to be a physicist and, because you’re a conscientious researcher and have a good ear, he talks likes one. But his problems that give rise to the play’s conflict — social dysfunction, an obsessive focus on work at the expense of his spouse and family, mortal illness — don’t seem to me to be tied in an essential way to his work in physics. The physics stuff is an attractive poetic gloss on those problems, but he could just as well be a socially awkward novelist obsessively at work on a novel, say, and the play’s action, as far as I can tell, would unfold exactly the same way that it does now.

Tarragon_InfinityContrast this with Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, an obvious comparison piece for your Infinity. I’m not all that convinced by Frayn’s play as a play, don’t find it very dramatic, but it’s clear that Frayn’s theatrical speculation about Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr’s controversial mid-WW2 meeting depends absolutely on the fact that those men were physicists. It depends on physics, ideas, for its action. Whereas I can think of very little action in your play that relies on science or ideas, strictly speaking, for its motive force. The play seems first of all to be about intimate and family relationships, full stop.

I should add right away: I worry that all my own plays suffer from the same defect, if it is a defect. Often I’ll start a play with the intention to explore a thorny political problem, say, and then a lot of people will tell me it’s half nonsense and the only bits that are any good are those that are “deeply felt,” i.e. typically those that are in some way about love. North American dramaturgy, applied to plays by both men and women, seems so often to be a reductio ad amor. This dramaturgy seems to say: most plays, most artworks of value are finally about love. The hot air of ideas must serve and give way to the reality of love. What the audience wants is to be moved, and what moves them is the love.

Maybe this is true. Maybe it’s true in an intrinsic sense — the core of art is the expression of the human capacity for love, the transformative and redemptive power of the erotic — or maybe it’s true in an instrumental, not to say cynical sense, one that has to do with producers’ perhaps correct assumptions about what “the audience” wants.

Or maybe it’s not true. Maybe there’s an art that’s about human questions that include but also transcend the question of love, that are also about power and politics and virtue, for example, in a way that isn’t just ornamental in the fashion of, let’s say, some of Tom Stoppard’s plays. The real intellectual crisis of the contemporary theatre isn’t that nobody’s writing “intellectual” plays. It’s that most of the plays that announce themselves as “intellectual” aren’t finally about ideas, that they dress themselves in ideas but don’t engage with them in an ultimate way, that they offer no deep critique of political realities — and if anything is the mark of the intellectual, it’s the desire to create a radical change in consciousness that inevitably has consequences for, or is explicitly about, political consciousness.

I don’t think all theatre has to raise ultimate questions and attempt to answer them. I think there are plenty of working playwrights who have little interest in, and still less capacity for, this sort of project. But you’re a whole lot fucking smarter than they are. If anybody in this country has the intellect and dramatic chops to ask radical questions in her theatre and give them compelling form, it’s you. Along with Michael Healey and Jason Sherman and some other people. But they’re not writing for the theatre much these days.

I think I’m writing you this letter partly because I see you following the excellent Mr. Sherman to the white-sand shores of TV, for obvious and good reasons, and I want to say to you, for whatever it’s worth: great, go, make fine work within the limits of that form, but please don’t, if you can help it, internalize the logic of TV. Yes, the cliché is true, most contemporary cable TV is more complex and interesting than most contemporary theatre, but that’s only because North American theatre has forgotten itself, lost nearly all sense of its civic and spiritual function. Please, if you can and want to, keep writing for the theatre and maybe use the theatre as almost nobody in this country does, but you could: as a way to interrogate big problems of the highest and broadest importance for human life, which include love but as part of a constellation of realities in which love has competition for ultimacy — and feel free to make people laugh and cry while you do it, because that’s nice too and probably needed to sell tickets, and you’re good at it.

Or, again, maybe that ideal isn’t possible. Maybe all art, whatever its political and philosophical aspirations, is about the erotic and the erotic’s social consequences like the family. My own work, much of it, would support that theory. My play that opens this week at The Theatre Centre (sorry, I gotta) is pretty focused on the erotic. Maybe that’s a flaw, a limitation. Or maybe that limitation is acceptable if it’s part of my larger project as a writer, which includes but isn’t limited to the erotic. Maybe Infinity, as I read it, is vindicated on those grounds too.

For sure it is. Your project is already clearly bigger than it. Your earlier plays are far from fixated on love and sex. Yet I think I actually prefer Infinity, at least the first half of it, to those plays. In spite of my reservations, Infinity feels to me like perhaps your most inhabited, exploratory work. I sense in it — and the death-of-the-author folk may now feel free to pile on — a quality of authorial care, an authorial urgency, that isn’t legible to me (subjectively, subjectively) in a piece like The Russian Play. The human problems in Infinity‘s first half seem to animate your imagination in rich, surprising ways. The result is drama with an ease, a complexity, a depth that’s really striking.

So I’m not cheerleading here for a return to the high topicality or occasional high genre style of those earlier plays, though I admire many of them. But I wonder what’ll happen if and when the greater intensity of engagement that, I find, Infinity reveals — a real peak in your work, in my opinion — is brought to bear on different subject matter.

Thanks for the play. And, as always, for the inspiration.

Yours,

Daniel

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3 thoughts on “Dear Hannah Moscovitch (Or, Is Love The Limit?)

  1. Hi Daniel,
    For reasons I can’t articulate, it feels an eensy bit wrong commenting on this letter – open or not, it somehow seems among the more personal of the ones you’ve written. But, well, fuck it.
    I haven’t seen Infinity yet, but I did see a reading of it a while back. I would certainly echo your major criticism – the play seemed ultimately not about time or physics at all, but about a particular relationship between particular people. I liked it, but found myself wanting a little more.
    I wonder, though, if any of this has to do with the Infinity qua Infinity, and not with the limitations of capital-D Drama as a mode of expression? Judging by some of your opening remarks – and some of the criticism you leveled at Harper Regan – I get the sense you find Drama a little less restrictive than I do. I also find your distinction between “playwrights” and monologists, sketch writers, and poets a tad invidious; I would contend that you’re conflating “playwright” with “Dramatist.” I mean really – is Mac Wellman not a playwright? Or Peter Handke?

    You, like me, look for the Big Idea in a work of art (frankly, I wish more people would…). My own experience as a theatre-goer has been largely that Big Ideas are absent, or at least marginalized, on our stages, most of the time. This is not because the people making this theatre are stupid. But it might be because “North American dramaturgy” (i.e., Drama) is, as a medium, inimical to the expression of Big Ideas. After all, Drama requires mimesis, requires these things called “characters,” “dialogues,” “opposing viewpoints”; Drama deals – can only really deal – with the affairs of earthly creatures. Even Shaw’s bloated, pretentious political plays (I might be the only one in the world who can’t stand Shaw) still ultimately revolve around Higgins’s relationship with Eliza, Marchbanks’s relationship with Candida.

    Off the top of my head, plays that grapple with Big Ideas in meaningful ways: well, maybe Gay Heritage Project to name a recent one. But that isn’t Drama. Plays like Kaspar, which certainly isn’t Drama. Wallace Shawn’s The Fever (possibly the most implicated and uncomfortable – and grateful – I’ve ever felt after a performance [and it wasn’t even a good production]). Brooks’s Insomnia. Caryl Churchill’s everything.

    In dealing with Big Ideas in my own work, I’ve felt consistently shackled to the conventions of Drama; I want to write a play about how Wittgenstein’s metaphysics are a useful metaphor for understanding the NSA wiretapping programs, and how this reflects the ways in which governments view their citizens. But how can I do that when I still have to have HAL (30s-40s, has a nervous energy) tell SHEN (his boyfriend, 30s-40s) that he’s found out SHEN’s secret? (Unless, of course, I go Shaw’s route and just have characters who talk in the most literal terms imaginable about what I want the play to say…)

    After all, Drama is the most commercial of the theatrical forms. We have an exciting dialectic play out between two opposing desires (conflict), with a climactic peak and a resolution of some kind. It pleases us. Even sad or violent Dramas impose linearity and order on the world; a linearity and order we all know is illusory, is a function of the Drama itself, but is just so much easier than abiding in the near-constant state of paradox, confusion, and general subjunctive madness that characterizes real life on earth. This is why television is so pleasing (and so fun): we might stress when things go bad for Walter White, but the buzz when he overcomes it all is just…awesome.
    But of course this makes us distrust Drama, ultimately (or it should). Because now Drama is being used to sell us things, mostly by people who don’t have our best interests at heart (or in mind).

    So at the risk of taking a somewhat bleak view of the issue, I wonder if “more” you and I felt we wanted from Infinity is just a hunger or emptiness that Drama can’t fill; if in some sense the genre of Drama is not up to the task of really being subversive, political, or “intellectual” the way we want it to be?

    Thanks for the writing as always!
    -Alexander

    • Alexander!

      Oh man…there’s so much I want to say in response to your really excellent note (thanks for it!), and I probably can’t do justice to it now, what with Little Death prep. But here are some impressions. First of all, that possibility you describe — that “Drama is not up to the task of really being subversive, political, or ‘intellectual’ the way we want it to be” — is totally a possibility. For sure. I’m aware that my arguments above might tend to be, if not utopian, at least idealistic. But I think the utopian or ideal can give us a vantage point from which to scope out and articulate problems in the real. That doesn’t imply, or even make likely (to my mind), that the ideal will ever be real in a complete way.

      But anyway, that’s all more theoretical than it needs to be, since I believe a more interesting theatre of ideas (which still includes love, eros, feeling) is almost certainly possible. Yeah, my drama/other-theatre distinction may be a bit jesuitical and misleading; I’m quite happy to include as “drama” any theatre that foregrounds language and is dialectical, however it’s created and however many performers it has. But then I’d also like to include Plato under the heading of “dramatist,” since that’s what he is, and a wayyyyy more interesting and important (“intellectual,” political) one than Euripides. The fact that his dialogues haven’t been performed doesn’t matter: in a certain sense, Shakespeare too is never performed — Shakespeare who will always be one proof that a marriage of political complexity and emotional vibrancy is possible in drama, in theatre. (Have you seen Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies? Astonishing work.)

      I share some of your reservations about Shaw, but I do think some explicit statement of ideas and arguments is necessary if we’re to write plays with intellectual depth. The notion that ideas and arguments can be obliquely embodied in behaviour, non-verbal sensory detail, and so on — that’s maybe partly true, but also a bit of American-MFA-workshop ideology. Sometimes an idea needs to be unpacked in detail, since the details matter, and not just “implied” in subtext and context and image. I think. Though I also think that in drama, as you say, ideas need to be embodied in some form (not necessarily a realist form) of character and action. Michael Healey does that. Bruce Norris. Arthur Miller. Caryl Churchill, of course! Brooks’s Insomnia, yes. Tony Kushner. You.

      I want to read your Wittgenstein/NSA-wiretapping play! It sounds amazing. Though from your description, I wonder: do you already know entirely what you think about the subject matter? Is there a question that’s crucial to you that the play itself is a necessary attempt to answer? Is the writing of the play itself a dialectical act for you? Because if it’s an act of assertion rather than interrogation, it sounds like it might be kinda overdetermined. For my taste. But now I’m riffing about a play that hasn’t been written, and that’s pretty silly. Oops.

      *Has* it been written? Is there a draft? I’d love to read it.

  2. Martin Julien

    Hi Daniel,

    Ah, drama. Ah, big ideas.

    I’m thinking that big ideas only slip into drama by accident. Or, more pointedly: big ideas occasionally and accidentally emerge and define themselves out of drama — and those ideas are new ones. Not thematic explorations of existing ones. They’re new ones. Borne of some strange alchemy betwixt mise-en-scène, history, ambition, mistake, revelation, need, hunger, privilege, success, disenfranchisement, ambivalence, aspiration, politics, science, spirituality, crisis, and desperation. I guess the Greeks had that going on. The Early Renaissance writers, culminating in Shakespeare and Cervantes. The Romantics, (especially the Germans Schiller and Goethe, for awhile.) Chekhov. Most sustainedly and remarkably, Brecht and his colleagues, Perhaps. Caryl Churchill, as mentioned by Alexander, at east approaches this.

    Ah, it’s a mug’s game.

    (I am an erstwhile playwright, and certainly all of my produced works, from The Unanswered Question at the NAC to Home Free at Summerworks, were pretty much tortuously about big ideas. Pace, my muse.)

    The point I’m keen on making, though, is that plays about big ideas usually get those ideas wrong. Maybe that’s because of the limits and exigencies of dramatic form, as has been discussed. But maybe it’s because big ideas take years and years of full-time thinking, research, and process to understand well. You mention Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen — which, unlike you, I find very arresting and convincing as a play. As a drama. What I don’t find as robust or salient is the science. Or the approach to science, as a project of big ideas, as a dramaturgical tool. I don’t pretend to understand the science involved, but I always felt, upon my multiple readings of the play and also seeing it in New York, that Frayn didn’t really understand it either. That there was some fundamental — and effective — dramaturgical manipulation going on. Now THAT was something Frayn understood. He is a formidable scholar in his own right, (though a generalist, I would posit), but what he truly intuits is the makings of a good dramatic conflict.

    I felt somewhat vindicated last year when I came across a fairly recent and highly-acclaimed academic volume called “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning” by Karen Barad. She is a fascinating theorist for a number of reasons — a feminist particle physicist! — but most pertinent here is her intensive exigesis on the problematic treatment of actual science, history, and personality evident within Copenhagen (a work she admires as drama) in the 40-page Introduction to her 500-page tome, called “The Science and Ethics of Mattering”. Shit man — you should read it. (And it makes me reflect of Barry Freeman’s thoughts in this blog, regarding Leora Morris’s production, about ethics and morality in the theatre.)

    Anyway, I thought Infinity was pretty straight-up good drama. And…I didn’t really care about the science. I’m glad that it was an obsessional springboard for Moscovitch’s writing, and the less time spent writing about it the better. For big ideas about science, history, and even politics, I’ll turn elsewhere. I thought the second half was beautiful, as Paul’s character was dying, and he expressed revelations about time and love existing. I was moved by it. Provoked. Thoughtful. Saddened. Heartened. It was good-old-fashioned gifted playwriting. I bought it — and precisely because the ‘big ideas’ of the play were by then inert for me.

    I think most people wonder at time and love, and question if they are real or valuable or apprehensible. Maybe not day-to-day, and maybe not through the rubric of abstract ‘big ideas’, but at certain times. Everyone does this. That is why this was a good play; why people wanted to see it; and why the unknowable big ideas are somehow beside the point.

    best to you, thanks for posting,

    Martin

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