Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

40 Years of a Century's Worth of Drama

I love to go poking around in the past every now and again. Nothing too organized, you understand. I prefer digging through the detritus at estate sales, looking for family photos or diaries. (I once scored a set of mid 1920s diaries of a teenage girl living in a small town in southeast Missouri, my all-time fave discovery because nobody but me cared about them.) And, I enjoy poring over the books on sale in thrift stores, where you never know what might catch your eye for less than $1.00.

A couple years ago, I stopped accumulating books beyond what I could read inside a month. This made thrift store book shopping slightly harder, because so many of the things I’d see seemed more interesting while bending over in an aisle than they do when stretching out on the couch and actually spending time with them. So, unlike 20 years ago, when I might pick up two dozen books at a clip, I’ve pretty much stuck to one or two oddballs from the olden days now and again.

Another thing I like to do is to occasionally read something about which I know next to nothing. Oh, and I dig reading criticism, because the process itself fascinates me. (Sue me, it’s what I do.) So, when I picked up a cute little hardback called “Twentieth Century Drama,” first published back in 1962 and written by some goober named Bamber Gascoigne, all the synapses were firing. Aside from three years in the early 90s when I was inexplicably allowed to write about theatre for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, my knowledge of the stage is limited to what I picked up in general survey English courses back in high school and college.

Back in the early 60s, you could write a book about 20th century drama and really only have it cover 40 years, and eliminate all but European and American playwrights. So, I settled into that world of certainty and proclamation, where young Mr. Gascoigne could actually imply at one point that it was a fault of a certain playwright that his work was better suited to be seen on stage than to be read. Now, that’s some old-fashioned literary criticism, folks.

You can divide Gascoigne’s book into two parts. The second turned out to be less interesting than the first; he picked eight major writers and told us what he thought about everything they did. Aside from some interesting points about the work of Arthur Miller which countered the thoughts I’d read in January by Robert Warshow, my lack of familiarity with the plays made his insights fairly irrelevant to me. I do think I want to read Sartre’s “The Flies” now, but that’s about all I got there.

However, the first half of the book was much better. Here, he surveyed the major plays from the 20s to the 50s, and came to general conclusions about each decade. Thus, the 20s were a time dominated by theatre of inaction, when “an amazed and disapproving Why?” was the major theme. And the thirties was a time of solutions to problems, a theatre of action. The forties “could be described (pedantically) as an analysis of the implications of action, from the point of view of the agent.” (And, I love that use of pedantically as ironic distance from his own approach.) The fifties return to the implications of inaction, but now the emphasis is on people. The question is no longer why so much as what happens to people.

I’m enjoying this little shortcut through theatre history, and trying to map it onto what I know about pop culture. The 20s strike me as a time of wildness, a time when life was a giant party and we were going to push everything to the limits. I hear the jazz of Louis Armstrong, I read the comic strip Krazy Kat, I see films with avant garde sets and actions, I read novels like “The Great Gatsby.” Obviously, there were downsides to the party – bringing Gatsby into the discussion probably shoots down my theory – but in some ways, the stuff I think of in the 20s is more about “Why ask why?” than “Why?” itself.

The thirties, however, did seem to be about rolling up the sleeves and getting to work. Jazz was turned into an industry – the big bands were efficient machines capable of making swing out of anything. And Woody Guthrie started roaming the land. The comics turned serious – Buck Rogers and Dick Tracy could solve problems, and eventually, by 1938, we had Superman. The movies were probably a little more distant, but novels were like “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Onto the 40s, and we’re looking for the implications of action. Well, the big bands broke up, and a thousand independent voices started to make some noise in the music world. The comics didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously, and the films seemed divorced from reality. I’m losing my focus on this theory with this decade.

But, back to the the fifties, and I’m there. It’s all about individuals caught up in a cold, cruel world. What is James Dean but a guy who can’t do anything and yet feels the weight of his inaction? And Elvis certainly seemed capable of action, but ultimately, he and all the rock’n’rollers were pushed back into a much more narrow straight-jacket. The comic books turned to crime and horror stories, where innocent victims were hurt through no fault of their own.

So what happened to Gascoigne after this book? Well, he wrote lots of other books including “The Encyclopedia of Britain,” and hosted a popular British quiz show called “University College.” I found a website called www.historyworld.net which seems to have been founded a couple years ago by the guy. Who knew?

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