What is the biggest divide in America right now? It’s not between left wing or right wing, black or white, male or female, rich or poor. Right now, the biggest divide in the U.S. is between those over the age of 30 and those under.
Those over 30 are old enough to understand the old world values that were overthrown in the era of the culture wars. Those under 30, however, were raised on subversion; the main pop culture artifacts were not Leave it to Beaver, Stagecoach, or the Beatles; they were The Simpsons, Pulp Fiction, and Nirvana. Unlike most who first experience subversive culture in college, those under 30 have been experiencing it since grade school, if not diapers.
Subversive culture is the product of academic discontent that long ago trickled down to mainstream culture. The two mindsets could be heavily contrasted by two recent New York off-off-Broadway plays. The first is Reflections, a compilation of plays by Beckett, Chekhov, and plays overtly influenced by Beckett and Chekhov. Cast with mostly older actors, it was performed in the higher-class Theater Row complex.
Geographical History of America, by contrast, was performed, produced, and conceived by younger folks; based on the work of Gertrude Stein in name only, it was performed by the Human Group, a name almost comical in its bluntness, and filled with no words beyond what would be on a ninth grader’s vocabulary list. The main intellectual difference between the two plays was that the former treated postmodernism like it was a bold, new idea, while the latter recognized postmodern ideas as boring and played out, and aimed to connect to a Facebook age audience.
Reflections was made by people who tend to talk down to younger generations with ideological cynicism, but its bigger problem is that the play doesn’t have the bark to match its bite. OK, we kids don’t know how lucky we have it; we’ve sacrificed discipline, politics, and concern for the bigger picture in favor of recklessness, apathy, and snark. But why is a production with actors, directors, and producers older than our parents playing in a half-empty off-off-Broadway theater? How can the actors be flubbing their lines and making technical errors straight out of high school? How can they think comparing high art (classics) to low art (new plays) is any edgier now than it was in 1968?
The mission of the seven-year-old Resonance Ensemble is “to weave a thread between the theatre's past, present, and future,” and Reflections comes straight from that mindset. It splices a play making fun of the failings of Samuel Beckett, in the style of Beckett, together with the Beckett play in question. It includes a wickedly cynical dismantling of Our Town, and features and refers to Swan Song, Chekhov’s first play, about a broke- down establishment actor robbed of his off-stage humanity. The problem is not that the selected plays are derivative — whatever their flaws, it’s pretty impossible to describe Beckett and Chekhov as derivative — but the ideas behind the play selections. The older, insider audiences to whom this production panders have all probably seen something similar 30 years ago.
It hurts that teasing Beckett, Wilder, and Chekhov stands in direct contrast to the remarkable revivals that all three have experienced in bigger, more professional productions this season. If you’ve been raised with this attitude, however, Reflections is not just a waste of time and money, it’s also insulting. The same people who were supposed to change the world continue to lecture us. Meanwhile, the less-experienced educated classes are relatively penniless. They’re charging $18 a pop for a play that addresses the same issues that Generation Y saw on TV when they were in elementary school.
Perhaps the relative successes of the revivals of the plays that are mocked in Reflections are not coincidental: the classics, the “canon,” may have ideas in them which are more vital in desperate times, and more easily mocked in relatively clear economic sailing. If the David Denbys of the world don’t like the virus of snark that supposedly permeates the Internet, they would do well to see how their own generation perpetuates in the only medium that can’t be transferred online.
In the old world, I would emphasis Geographical History of America’s similarity to Gertrude Stein, and not to Seinfeld or The Wire. I would also hesitate to engage with the artists of the play in any capacity. However, Geographical History has more in common with those shows than it does its namesake. Like The Wire, the play emphasizes how individuality and personal identity get lost in the preservation of the larger whole of society. The Human Group’s name bears a remarkable resemblance to the Human Fund: Money For People, a fake charity invented by Seinfeld's George Costanza to get out of giving office Christmas gifts.
The Seinfeld joke requires an understanding of a society that has grown blind to the notion that charity is intended for people in need. Yet that episode aired in 1997, and has been heavily shown in syndication ever since. Even for those born in 1980, the oldest of Generation Y, the joke first premiered in high school on the most popular television show in America.
So why is Geographical History of America so much more vital to American theater? Perhaps because it revives a focus on an idea that was always behind radical ideology, but somehow got lost in 40 years of social upheaval: the focus on compassion for your fellow human being. Like Stein’s work, the play surveys various American factions and sects while focusing on how little actually separates Americans. After breaking the audience out of a contemporary mindset by its retro greeting in the KGB bar, Geographical History focuses on the history of identity politics, what makes America unique, and how a noble set of ideas ended up dividing us. When the lecture-like performance asks what comes next, the actors turn silent. They can only resort to childish gibberish, the same gibberish they use to mock the upper crust.
The Human Group's focus is on more than just childlike innocence, however; overwhelmingly it is on a sense of decency. They can talk about the mind/body problem and the dangers of capitalism just as easily as they can allude to The Wizard of Oz and dogs. The key to Geographical History’s success is its unflinching streak of compassion amidst the bleakness. More than combining Chekhov with plays that critique Chekhov, this is the strain that “weave[s] a thread between the theatre's past, present, and future.”
If it makes any difference, my personal experience was not all that far off from the general experiences of the two audiences of the plays. The two plays ran in similar sized theaters and had similar ticket prices. However, while the production I saw of Reflections was half empty, the Red Room was packed to the brim for Geographical History (granted, it was a Tuesday preview compared to an end-of-run Friday show.) The audience for Reflections was much older, and based on the swear words and scoffs I overheard in the audience, more or less just as disappointed as I was. The audience for Geographical History, packed mostly with friends and family, was laughing and gave a large ovation. The only way anyone could think that the Reflections was a bigger accomplishment than Geographical History was — geography: Reflections played in a theater that was geographically closer to Broadway. Other than that, the audience size, ticket prices, and expected revenue were about the same. What was vastly different was the quality of the art. That’s something that exists longer than any institution.