I was listening to Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along the other day and it finally occurred to me why he’s so over-rated. It isn’t just the fact that the music is, let’s face it, not consistently hummable, and the dialogue is not merely witty, but self-consciously so (at a recent Toronto Sondheim love-in, the enormously talented composer/lyricist -- interviewed by Robert Cushman -- was beyond self-congratulatory about his own perilous wit. And Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat book? Please Stephen, spare me the insight into your peerless genius!). No, what I object to is that a Sondheim musical sometimes provides me with the theatrical equivalent of a good therapy session. For example, there’s a song in Merrily We roll Along called “Now You Know," which is all about (you guessed it!) growing and changing. The lyrics are “It's called burn your bridges, start again. You should burn them every now and then. Or you'll never grow!” It’s almost as if Sondheim jumped from his therapist’s couch directly to his composing desk; he could hardly wait to graft those magnificent pearls of growing/changing wisdom into his next musical.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music (yes I was in the front row watching Elaine Stritch sing the Hermoine Gingold role recently on Broadway. And yes, I witnessed her tragically and heroically struggling to remember the lyrics). But I could never figure out why I hated Into the Woods so much.
Well, it’s because of all of that ‘growing and changing.’
When I was in university I roomed with a friend. As we only had one stereo, I had the player in my room, but there was a speaker in his. Once, after we had a fight, I played my favorite song from the movie musical version of Lost Horizon (featuring Liv Ullman) “Living Together Growing Together” -- to patch things up. It sent my friend out of his room screaming. This is pretty much the way I feel about Sondheim’s gleeful psychologizing. And it pretty much sums up the way I feel about psychological art.
Again -- don’t get me wrong. I’m all for therapy, and have spent most of my life IN it. And I think I’ve improved (really, I’m better). But I work very hard to keep ‘gems of psychological insight’ out of my novels and plays. I’m not suggested that playwrights shouldn’t write fascinating or multi-faceted characters. What I’m suggesting is that the goal of a play should not be to impart ways in which we might best ‘grow and change.’ That’s boring and preachy, and it doesn’t work dramaturgically; it makes for bad art.
What do you find, for instance, in many, many modern plays, countless TV shows, and lots of movies? Well when you get to the bottom of all that drug taking and sexual promiscuity, it turns out, in most cases, all anyone ever really wants and needs is love. But I don’t think that really needs saying again – at least not by artists. Psychologists can say it all they want to. But if a play sets out to tell you the most significant truth about human relationships, inevitably that truth will be that people don't love themselves -- and each other -- enough.
What’s left? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that plays should NOT concern themselves with the difficulties of -- or the humour in -- trying to find love (that it is the subject matter of most comic narratives), only that they needn’t tell us again that we need love, or how to become the type of ‘better human’ who achieves it. Instead playwrights might focus on politics or metaphysics.
What is the meaning of life? How must and should people act together and relate in a civil society? What is good and what is evil? Is there a God? What is the importance power, submission and sex within our culture? How do we negotiate human ‘difference?’ What about nationhood and identity – do they matter? Are we and can we be responsible for our own actions? Do we all perceive the same reality? And what about capitalism, anyway?
These are the kind of questions that -- when explored -- create drama of depth and significance. The dramas I wish to see may be poetic, allusive, and abstract, and hopefully they will NOT be didactic. In the meantime please just don’t bother to sing me -- once again -- that old Beatles song.