Last night I attended Mike Daisey‘s performance of his monologue How Theater Failed America at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in D.C. It’s a very smart and funny show, well worth seeing if you’re in town this week—a subtle plea to encourage younger performers and audience members (Daisey notes that the baseline age for “youth discount tickets” keeps ticking up, from 25 to 30 to 35), and a not-so-subtle attack on how machinelike the world of theater has become. Between corporate sponsorships and the largely interchangeable pool of actors and directors, Daisey argues, the idea of theater as community spaces has all but disappeared, with successful companies now relegated to doing all they can to preserve the audience it does have, and failing to engage those outside of it.
I know very little about the internal mechanisms of American theater management, so I can’t speak to how much of Daisey’s monologue is truth-telling and how much is rant. (There was certainly a strange moment of disconnect after the show, when Daisey encouraged the crowd to consider attending the rest of Woolly Mammoth’s season, while in the show proper he skewered the season-subscription model.) But if the theater world is anything like the world of arts journalism, or of publishing, or of filmmaking, or of music, Daisey’s nailed it; now that these disciplines find it increasingly difficult to pay for themselves, they risk falling into survival mode, appealing perhaps to a core community but increasingly incapable of expanding it.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Jonathan Franzen‘s recent statements to 5th Estate about the state of social novel (via the Millions and OUPblog). Franzen takes a few whacks at his youthful naivete in thinking that his writing would somehow generate social change, then explains how he’s now narrowed his ambitions:
I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population. This is what I’m writing for, for the people who want a literary experience. I’m no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but I’m also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience. So it’s a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: I’ve ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who don’t care about books.
As a long-term strategy for Jonathan Franzen, this is wise thinking—he has his fan base, and presumably it’s sizable enough for him to create a decent living for himself. As a long-term strategy for American literature, though, it’s slitting one’s own throat. What is it about this country’s literary culture that creates the feeling that it can only serve itself? The terrible pay that novelists and short-story writers can look forward to? MFA programs? The way that literature is taught in public schools? Is this a global or an American phenomenon? If people creating culture are only reaching the class of people most attuned to agree with it, why are they bothering?
Little Blogger Me doesn’t have an answer to any of those questions. But I suspect everybody in the culture business will be asking those questions a lot more often in 2009, as many of the perceived support beams of that business begin to splinter, if not collapse outright.