02 March 2011

Why I do dark, difficult plays sometimes

I'm currently in rehearsal for The Shadow Box which is a lovely play about three families coping with terminal illness.  Needless to say, it has fewer laughs and "feel good" moments than your average Neil Simon play.  The show isn't about uplift, it's about closure.

I find myself feeling the tiniest bit defensive about the show because a cheery evening out, it ain't.   Frankly, it's always easier to ask your friends to come see happy comedies.  But theater, as I like to say, is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  How human beings got where are are and how we'll get where we're going.  And that isn't always sunny or uplifting.  Sometimes it's sad or difficult.

My friend, Craig, who loves dark, difficult plays recently directed David Harrower's Blackbird in comparison to which The Shadow Box is pretty sunny.  I think that he would be very interested to read these quotes which were found and posted to Savoynet* by Andrew Crowther** about W.S. Gilbert's drama The Hooligan which is celebrating its centennial this month. The Hooligan is story of a condemned man's last hours.

Andrew wrote:

A comment from the Stageland column in the Penny Illustrated Paper of 11 March 1911 (a more racy and perhaps more working class paper than others):
It disturbed everyone. Most to applause; a few to resentment. There was the ruddy, ample gentleman whom I met in the bar during what the Col. calls the 'Intermission.' 'You come here to be amused, not to be----" He groped for the word and lost it. 'A man of a morbid turn of mind might think it all right, mightn't he?'

A play that can wing a ruddy, ample gentleman; leave him puzzled, gasping, unsettled; stir up vague doubtings about killing folk and giving them 'no chanst'--a play like that is a play which you ought to pop in and see at once.

In Holbrook Jackson's essay "Why Do We Laugh?" in his volume of essays Occasions (Grant Richards, 1922, pp 94-95):

I always felt that the laughter provoked by [James Welch's] characterization in The Man in the Street was an expression of relief from the underlying tragedy of the thing. But if there is any doubt about that, there could be no doubt whatever about the small gasps of hysterical laughter during his realistic interpretation of the condemned man in Gilbert's little tragedy The Hooligan. The theme is so painful as to be almost unbearable. I have seen people walk out in the midst of this play unable to stand any more of it. Yet those who remained in the grip of the horror, watching Welch revealing the fear of a condemned man during his supposed last few moments on earth--the fear of a man who is half idiot, and who has very little worth preserving in his life--those who remained laughed every now and then at the humour of it. Some things may be too deep for tears, but nothing is too deep for laughter.

* An e-mail list for Gilbert & Sullivan fans

**Andrew is a G&S scholar who has added greatly to what we know about those two men, their works, and their times.

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