I was intrigued by a recent article in the NY Times on the current dominance of small plays.
According to the author this is largely a result of economic factors. Rising costs, tighter budgets, stingier punters, all have helped bring about a renaissance in two and three handers. This ‘much lamented shrinking of the theatre’ is a phenomenon which we in Australia have long been familiar with. Our industry has contracted even more severely – for we were never so big to begin with – to the point where Australian playwrights write small, practical plays as a matter of course. When was the last time an Australian playwright penned an epic on the scale of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage Country? And why would they when they know it will never see the light of day.
But is economics the only thing at work here?
I don’t doubt how strongly controlling financial factors can be. But it seems something else is going on; a bigger, broader aesthetic shift taking place. Here are a few highly praised artworks from recent times that spring to mind. (This is an utterly unrepresentative and completely personal survey but anyway.) In fiction, the all conquering The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In film, last year’s game-changing Samson & Delilah by Warwick Thornton. And in theatre, David Harrower’s Blackbird which I can’t help but feel has been the most influential play of recent years.
Despite the difference in art forms, there’s a connecting thread. It’s a sort of minimalism, a distillation of content and character, a return to what is essential about a form. Whether it be the sparse, apocalyptic prose of McCarthy, the hunger and silence of Thornton’s Australian faces and landscapes, or the jagged, rupturing dialogue of Harrower, all three eschew complex representational affects in favour of a brutally honest aesthetic. It’s a kind of hyper-realism; a heightened realism that paradoxically achieves its effect by a reduction of detail. No flights of fancy, no glossy celluloid moments, no chorus lines of boa feathered girls, no multiple perspectives or cut-up narratives. Just a plain old artistic sock to the jaw.
My gut instinct is that this is partly being driven not by economics but by changing audience expectations. We are such highly-trained and specialized consumers now: people are innately very canny when it comes to cinematic and theatrical technique. From watching thousands of hours of television and film your average punter can cut through surfaces that would have bedazzled earlier generations. In order to impress these folk you have to cut away all the blubber and give them something raw. If you listen to Warwick Thornton talk about Samson & Delilah and you get a strong sense of this. He describes the need to peel back the layers to get at something true, something that might speak in a way that a complex psycho-drama could not, something anybody and everybody can watch – in any language – and still be moved by.
Of course (and out come my biases) this sort of thing has always been the purview of theatre. Especially so since film rose to the top of the cultural heap. Theatre, once the home of grand spectacle, has had to adapt and (returning to its roots) become small, localized and authentic. Given that our industry has been lean from the beginning this is something that Australian theatre-makers learnt early on. The virtues of minimalism, the necessity of invention, these are qualities that Australian theatre has always had in abundance.
But what is causing the shift in film and fiction?
Those with a historicist bent would probably pin it on the global financial crisis or something similar. But I don’t think it can be so easily explained. I think Thornton is probably closer to the truth when he says we are actually getting smarter as cultural consumers. Why else is every person I know currently consuming The Wire at a rate that makes a crack-cocaine addict look mild? Why is it that movies like Inception and The Dark Knight are raking in coin when in previous eras we might have been flocking to Rambo? Why, for example, did Baz Lurman’s Australia fail so dismally? Was it simply a poor script? Or was it because it had lost touch with the times? Sure, Crocodile Dundee is still a lot of fun, but only for nostalgia value.
Perhaps this is far too optimistic (and self-congratulatory) but I’m an optimist at heart.
Let the old mantra ring out people: less is more!