Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making my way through the theatre canon

I'm not even sure that there is a functioning literary canon for theatre these days.  Going to and/or reading plays seems like a fairly fringe preoccupation outside of New York, Chicago, Toronto and arguably San Francisco and perhaps L.A.  (There are tons of underemployed actors putting up shows, but I don't know if people outside the industry are going.)  I would say that Chicago definitely has the best scene in terms of average people just deciding to go see a play -- not quite as popular as going to see improv or sketch comedy but pretty close.  However, I think Toronto is closing that gap.  I truly have been pleasantly surprised at how many small productions are popping up here and there.  I am seeing just about as many shows as I used to in Chicago.

Anyway, there's a pretty good piece with a handful of stats here.  Most theatre companies are producing contemporary plays (10 years old or less) and only 13% of produced plays are from before 1960 (and 40% of that is Shakespeare and probably another 20% of so is Chekhov -- that last stat is not official, but I was talking with someone who had run the numbers).  So beyond Shakespeare and Chekhov, there is a huge gap.  My guess (from looking at the DPS website) is that Arthur Miller is next and then probably Tennessee Williams.  A few decades back, G.B. Shaw would be in the running, but I just don't think he is anymore (the Shaw Festival notwithstanding).

I don't even know what a global theatre canon would look like, but this is how I would probably make the list:

Ben Jonson (the Alchemist only)
Moliere (Tartuffe and The Misanthrope)
Goethe (Faust)
G.B. Shaw (by his fingernails)
Noel Coward (is he even still in? - comic plays seem to have less staying power and Neil Simon is definitely out now)
Samuel Beckett
Bertold Brecht
Eugene O'Neill
Arthur Miller
Tennessee Williams
August Wilson
Edward Albee
Harold Pinter
David Mamet
Caryl Churchill (in the UK)
Alan Bennett (also only in the UK)
Tom Stoppard
Tony Kushner

Not sure if I would add anyone after Kushner, though Sarah Ruhl is edging up there, and Jez Butterworth in the U.K.

I'm not sure English Canada has a canonical playwright -- possibly David French.  (I really like George F. Walker's work, but think he is a bit too much of an iconoclast.)  In French Canada, Michel Tremblay is pretty canonical.

I haven't decided if I want to list all the plays by these authors I have seen (for my own amusement) but that seems a bit too obnoxious.  What might be a bit more acceptable is to mostly just list the plays I have not seen but feel I should.  Several of them are taken from this list, but the focus here is on older canonical plays, whereas that list was a bit of a grab-all and skewed towards contemporary plays.

My progress to date:

I've seen almost all the non-History plays at least once (as detailed in this post), though I am not 100% sure about Two Gentlemen of Verona and Troilus and Cressida, so I suppose I am most interested in trying to catch them the next time they come around.

Ben Jonson:
I'd be up for seeing The Alchemist again, though I've seen it twice.  I am most interested in trying to catch Bartholomew Fair.  I figure there is a reasonable chance George Brown will put it on one of these days.  I'm also hoping they will do some Thomas Middleton.

The less said about Tartuffe the better, but I might go see The Misanthrope again some day.

I don't believe I have actually seen Faust, or at least not a full production.  I figure one of the university drama departments will do it one of these days.  Still, it isn't that high on my list.

Honestly, I wasn't that gripped by Miss Julie.  I should probably see A Dream Play again, since I don't remember anything about the performance.  I expect I'll catch The Ghost Sonata one of these days.  I am still sort of toying with the idea of catching The Dance of Death at Shaw this summer, but haven't really decided either way.

I've seen a fair bit of Ibsen.  I thought The Wild Duck held up better than Hedda Gabler or A Doll's House.  Actually I think I have seen Ghosts (perhaps up in Rogers Park in 2010), but I haven't come across the program that would prove it.  In any case, I still hope to catch The Master Builder one of these days, and this summer, I will go down to Stratford to see John Gabriel Borkman (this is looking like the only Stratford show I catch this summer).

I've seen all the major plays at least once (even Ivanov).  I probably won't see The Sea Gull again, but I'd be up for Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters again if the reviews were stellar (I saw so-so productions in Vancouver).  I perhaps should have gone to see The Cherry Orchard, but it wasn't the best time for me.

G.B. Shaw:
I saw a fair number of productions a long time back, but really haven't been following him lately.  That's not that likely to change, to be honest.  I'm trying to keep an open mind towards Mrs. Warren's Profession this summer at Shaw, but I'm certainly leaning against going.

I don't think I've seen that much of Coward's work.  I did see Private Lives way back when.  I think I had a chance to catch Hay Fever, but passed.  I might try to see that on its next go around and perhaps Design for Living.

I've seen pretty much all the major plays, several of them twice, and quite a few of the one-acts and short pieces.  I believe the only one I've missed out on is Happy Days, so I will make a major effort to see that the next time it comes round.

I've been really fortunate to catch a lot of Brecht, starting in Ann Arbor and then in Chicago.  Also, I saw a powerful Mother Courage in Cambridge (with Diana Quick in the title role).  I certainly wouldn't mind seeing The Threepenny Opera again.  I think of the major plays, I have only missed out on seeing The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Galileo.  As it happens, Galileo is playing in Chicago at the end of March and it is on my "to do" list.  I did make it and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I've seen a lot of O'Neill, but by no means all the major plays.  I did see an impressive Long Day's Journey into Night in Chicago.  I saw an abridged version of Mourning Becomes Electra (and that was sufficient).  I was supposed to see The Iceman Cometh at BAM last year but I got so sick and had to cancel.  At this point, I won't plan on going to see the play if there are no cuts made at all.  I simply don't have patience for a 5 hour play.  I might be willing to sit through Strange Interlude, though that is pretty experimental.  I think the only remaining play I really am hoping to catch one of these days is A Moon for the Misbegotten.

I've seen quite a bit of Miller, including some of his more obscure plays like After the Fall and The Creation of the World.  What kind of pains me is that he really was a good playwright, as least early on, but his most famous play (The Crucible) is really so bad.  I'm sure I'll have to take the kids some day (or see them in a production of it more likely), but one more time is my absolute limit...

I'm going to be seeing Incident at Vichy at Soulpepper fairly soon, which will leave just A View from the Bridge as the last major Miller play for me to watch.

Tennessee Williams
I've also seen quite a bit of Williams, though it seems like there are quite a few late plays I have yet to see.  I did manage to see A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur at Shaw two summers ago and I just saw The Two-Character Play last weekend.  I had hoped to see Camino Real at Goodman a few years back but couldn't really justify flying in, just for that.  Of all the Williams plays I've seen, I think Night of the Iguna is my favorite (and I hope to see another production some day), followed by The Glass Menagerie, and then Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  I also saw a very good production of Sweet Bird of Youth in Chicago.

Of the plays to cross off my list, they are Summer and Smoke, The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real, Vieux Carr√©, Orpheus Descending, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Small Craft Warnings, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore and Something Cloudy, Something Clear.  I guess that is actually quite a few.

August Wilson:
I've really seen very little by Wilson, despite having more than a few chances.  I saw a staged reading of The Piano Lesson that was quite good, however.  My problem with August Wilson is that I am not going to want to get just a bit into his cycle and then never see the remaining plays.  I don't think any company in Toronto is going to commit to putting on all the plays, even if this stretched out over many seasons.  So that makes it a bit of a non-starter for me.

I've seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf twice (including the powerful production that was my introduction to RedOne here), The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (which I didn't like at all) and Three Tall Women, which was pretty good.  I thought about seeing The Play About the Baby, but honestly, it just seemed like a total retread of Virginia Woolf that I couldn't see the point.

I haven't see a lot of Pinter.  I did see Old Times, The Dumbwaiter, and Being Harold Pinter by the Belarus Free Theatre (this included Mountain Language and other Pinter texts).  I may have seen The Birthday Party at one time or another.  I probably should make sure to see The Birthday Party some day, as well as The Caretaker and The Homecoming.

I've seen all the Mamet I really care to see at the moment.  I did enjoy Boston Marriage quite a bit.

I've seen many of her plays, including Top Girls twice, and I do hope to catch Cloud 9 again.  I'm wondering if her latest one -- Love and Information -- will make it to Toronto soon.  It does seem like an ideal fit for Canadian Stage.

I haven't see a lot of Bennett, other than The History Boys in Chicago, The Habit of Art in Vancouver and 6 of the Talking Heads monologues here in Toronto.  I don't think I'll ever see all of his work, but I wouldn't mind seeing  Office Suite and The Insurance Man if they are revived here.

I've made the most effort to catch Stoppard's work, particularly traveling to see Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia and Travesties, although I did pass on a chance to see Rock and Roll in Chicago.  It just didn't grab me, though many critics enjoyed it very much.  I'll definitely see Arcadia on the next opportunity, and I'd probably go see The Real Thing again, as I don't recall much about that.  I'm also hoping to see if his early work is revived, including Jumpers (for the first time) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (that would be the second time round).

I've seen all the major Kushner plays at least once, and Angels in America twice.  I believe I've even seen Homebody/Kabul twice, but I can't verify that.

I almost forgot Tremblay:
I've managed to see Les Belles-Soeurs, which was great, as was Albertine in Five Times.  I've seen two other productions that were ok, but not up to that level.  If I have the chance, I will try to catch Hello, There, Hello; Remember Me; The Real World? and Past Perfect (a prequel to Albertine in Five Times).  The last one generally got poor reviews (particularly bad for an English language production at Tarragon about ten years ago), so maybe I'll just stick to reading that one...

Ok, that is more than enough rambling for now.  While this isn't a very clean list, there are at least a dozen plays in here that I will try to catch over the next 15 years or so.  I guess I'll check them off or put a strike through when I succeed.

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