How Seeing Disgraced Made Me See Theater Differently

DisgracedI had a profound experience recently, watching the play Disgraced.

As a young man, I saw a lot of theater. It was mostly in school, but there were other times. As a result, I was trained to consider theater more “artistic” than film or television. And for the most part, it bored me stupid. It seemed more pretentious than anything. People at Shakespeare plays tittering to demonstrate they were educated enough to “get the jokes.”

I’ve always liked reading plays, though. I love Ibsen, Shaw, Wilson, Wilde, Williams, and yes, Shakespeare. And eventually I discovered Gore Vidal, who explained how many movies I admired were just filmed plays. I read Vidal’s play “The Best Man,” liked it. Saw the movie, liked it. So the ice was cracking — though I would have sworn to anyone it wasn’t!

A few years back the SO invited me to a play, “Two Pianos, Four Hands.” It’s about two old friends recalling their background as classically-trained pianists; they reminisce over their love of music and how stressful their classical training was. Possibly because the SO has shared similar stories, I found myself really enjoying the humor, the emotional moments, the music. (It’s a two-actor show, and you do need serious piano chops to perform in it.)

I was surprised. But I still thought of theater as either pretentious or Cats and refused to budge.

Disgraced

Two weeks ago, we were offered free tickets to a local production of Ayad Akhtar’s play, Disgraced. Well, I rarely turn down anything free. And it opened my eyes to a different side of why theater can be great.

The play is about a successful second-generation Pakistani-American lawyer. His Anglo wife is a budding artist, his friends from the law firm are Jewish and African-American, they live in Manhattan, they’ve got it all.

Until one day the lawyer’s nephew asks him for help. He knows an imam who has, almost certainly, been railroaded on phony terrorism charges by the FBI. The lawyer uncle doesn’t want any part of it. He’s an apostate; he’s angry about how Muslims are treated yet loathes the fundamentalist Islam he grew up in. Still, his nephew is sweet, his wife wants him to try, so he’ll see what he can do.

And then all hell breaks loose.

What progresses is one of the quickest transitions from “casual entertainment” to “intense drama” I’ve ever seen. And the entire play is just 90 minutes long. But it’s set up masterfully. When the tensions explode, you recall the hints of them before. Longterm relationships can sometimes be based on mutual affection overriding simmering resentments — it might only take a second for those resentments to boil over.

The Significant Other and the Holding of Hands

Now, the odd thing here isn’t that I enjoyed it. The work was personal and political, and the actors (particularly the lawyer) were magnificent. Of course I’d like it! What stunned me is how much the SO liked it.

The SO can handle drama in documentaries, no matter how dark or dense. But television or movies? No way! If a fictional show or film has too much tension, whether physical or emotional (and Disgraced has both), the SO hates it. A documentary shows you what happened, and history can sometimes be ugly. We shouldn’t turn away from ugly history — acknowledging it is how we get better. Yet the SO dislikes tense fiction, even in service of admirable reform goals; entertainment should not be stressful.

Afterward, I asked, “So you liked the play? I found it enormously tense!”

The reply: “It was. But after all the characters were horrible to each other, the actors came out for a curtain call and held hands.”

Rethinking Theater

And that made me think of a different way that theater is great. It’s not more artistic than film or television. But it’s more stylized, less “real.” You’re aware of set design, unnatural blocking, the possibility of catastrophe. It’s less faux-realistic than film and television; and sometimes that is a good thing — a very good thing.

Film and television have contributed to each other over the years — sometimes constructively, often less so. One example: television learned from film how images seen on a screen seem truer than reality. A cleverly-constructed political spot is more convincing than a live stump speech.

TV commercials (probably inspired by film cartoons and experimental cinema) demonstrated that quick images are often more effective than long stories. Now films rarely have coherent stories, they largely bounce from set-piece to set-piece with a logic that’s more visceral than meaningful.

How do you go about making the audience forget they are sitting in a chair, eating popcorn, and instead think they are watching something really happen? It’s an art film and television (and now internet visual media) have innovated over decades, and no doubt will continue.

And don’t get me wrong — I love it! I admire the craft and passion that goes into it. These days, I seem to be drawn to films that work less hard to put you inside the narrative with, for example, ever more complex special effects. I’m drawn to films with more compelling stories. Or ones that intentionally make you question the story’s logic or are bluntly self-aware.

This is essentially what theater always did, by its very nature.

A Change Has Come

I’m not going to convert. Films and televisions shows I get on DVD from the library are free. Theater costs money, and I am broke. But if I avoided theater as a young man because it seemed pretentious to me, now I’m learning that any art form can be pretentious. And some theater is more heartfelt and less pretentious than television or movies.

Basically, I’m being anti-McLuhan. Screw the medium. I prefer the message.