Need to take a break from politics? Turn to the culture war for a moment. Thomas Curry raises an interesting question in a recent letter to the Providence Journal. He and his wife were “subscribers” to the recently closed 2nd Story Theatre in Warren for two decades, but then:
Over the last several years, we noticed a trend in the selection of plays that we found unsettling. We had decided not to renew our subscription for the coming season, which was a disappointing end to a long-term relationship.
Gratuitous profanity and genres that seemed to target a segment of theatergoers outside of our interests seemed to be on the increase. In some performances a few years ago, there was full frontal male nudity. Since then, I have been reluctant to invite a friend or my grandchildren to a performance, fearing embarrassment because of over-the-top flamboyance, profanity or even nudity. We also noticed that there were more and more empty seats.
Some of my most fond memories are of small-venue theater performances of classics and semi-classics — from Shakespeare to Wait Until Dark to Death Takes a Holiday to The Price, and I’ve hoped that a more stable household budget and a loosening schedule (someday) would allow for more such experiences.
I wonder, though, whether those owners, directors, and actors who gravitate toward (or get stuck in) these small venues have a greater inclination to be transgressive. Strong social standards once put some restraints on that inclination; even beyond the question of direct marketability, one just didn’t push the envelope too far. For my money, that tension made for better art. Subtle transgression is necessarily smarter and more profound, if only because of the ambiguity it requires.
But standards have long been deteriorating and have been wiped away entirely in recent years. Some precincts have a strong standard to always attack the old standards, and we’re reaching the point that clever, subtle transgression can only be accomplished in support of traditional values.
This context creates some intriguing opportunities. Perhaps a small-venue theater that explicitly stuck to the vast library of classics and semi-classics could fill their seats with the likes of Mr. Curry and me. And perhaps it could periodically sneak in a play with some subversive cultural conservatism.