The Missing Plays

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Edinburgh with one of my best friends, a scarily talented writer and director who happens to be a king among men. I crashed (moochingly) with his similarly rad theater company in this gorgeous apartment (or “flat,” for the boobish Anglophiles) at the top of a handsome Georgian building ...

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Edinburgh with one of my best friends, a scarily talented writer and director who happens to be a king among men. I crashed (moochingly) with his similarly rad theater company in this gorgeous apartment (or “flat,” for the boobish Anglophiles) at the top of a handsome Georgian building in the middle of town. The location was choice through the lens of convenience, but the beleaguered actors, who, typically, smoked too much and slept too little, had to endure (a) the likes of me stinking up the joint, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and (b) the near-constant caterwauling of these truly dreadful bush-league songstresses, who, in a fitting homage to the similarly appalling bubblegum chanteuses who’ve come to dominate US youth culture as the dinosaurs once dominated the earth (I say in the hope that a miniature heat-seeking asteroid will “disparately impact” the memory of these hip-shaking hellions out of existence, leaving the rest of us unscathed), kept singing, over and over, mind-numbingly, the words, “I want it all / I want it now / I want it all” while doing this primitive “sexy” jig, which was about as sexy as red ants eating your eyes. “Good grief,” I thought to myself, “Don’t these people have parents, or, failing that, shame?” Right. Moving right along, I spent many evenings sitting with friends who make me feel cool and cerebral by osmosis, chatting at considerable length about the state of the Fringe (this big theater festival) and theater more broadly, topics on which, as with most topics apart from the tastiness of Chips Ahoy! and Big Pun (R.I.P.), I had nothing to say apart from, “Yeah, man,” or, occasionally, “word, word.” And the thing that year (as far as I could tell), as in years past, were these agitprop pieces blasting a certain narrow idea of what America represents. When the subject was raised, I piped up. This comes to mind in light of Richard Bernstein’s insightful little essay in the NYT “Week in Review” on Europe’s morbid fixation on the US—suffice to say, Bernstein put it more diplomatically in “Does Europe Need to Get a Life?” First, he briefly catalogues a set of bizarre misperceptions held by people who ought to know better (because years of schooling, often of very high quality, has given them the ability to read). Bernstein attributes said misperceptions to, inter alia, Michael Moore, the Iraq war, the Bush administration, but also to what Josef Joffe (Germany’s Stakhanovite Atlanticist intellectual, or “SAI”) characterizes as an irrational fear of American culture’s corrosive influence:

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Edinburgh with one of my best friends, a scarily talented writer and director who happens to be a king among men. I crashed (moochingly) with his similarly rad theater company in this gorgeous apartment (or “flat,” for the boobish Anglophiles) at the top of a handsome Georgian building in the middle of town. The location was choice through the lens of convenience, but the beleaguered actors, who, typically, smoked too much and slept too little, had to endure (a) the likes of me stinking up the joint, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and (b) the near-constant caterwauling of these truly dreadful bush-league songstresses, who, in a fitting homage to the similarly appalling bubblegum chanteuses who’ve come to dominate US youth culture as the dinosaurs once dominated the earth (I say in the hope that a miniature heat-seeking asteroid will “disparately impact” the memory of these hip-shaking hellions out of existence, leaving the rest of us unscathed), kept singing, over and over, mind-numbingly, the words, “I want it all / I want it now / I want it all” while doing this primitive “sexy” jig, which was about as sexy as red ants eating your eyes. “Good grief,” I thought to myself, “Don’t these people have parents, or, failing that, shame?” Right. Moving right along, I spent many evenings sitting with friends who make me feel cool and cerebral by osmosis, chatting at considerable length about the state of the Fringe (this big theater festival) and theater more broadly, topics on which, as with most topics apart from the tastiness of Chips Ahoy! and Big Pun (R.I.P.), I had nothing to say apart from, “Yeah, man,” or, occasionally, “word, word.” And the thing that year (as far as I could tell), as in years past, were these agitprop pieces blasting a certain narrow idea of what America represents. When the subject was raised, I piped up. This comes to mind in light of Richard Bernstein’s insightful little essay in the NYT “Week in Review” on Europe’s morbid fixation on the US—suffice to say, Bernstein put it more diplomatically in “Does Europe Need to Get a Life?” First, he briefly catalogues a set of bizarre misperceptions held by people who ought to know better (because years of schooling, often of very high quality, has given them the ability to read). Bernstein attributes said misperceptions to, inter alia, Michael Moore, the Iraq war, the Bush administration, but also to what Josef Joffe (Germany’s Stakhanovite Atlanticist intellectual, or “SAI”) characterizes as an irrational fear of American culture’s corrosive influence:

“The irrational part is as old as anti-Americanism,” he says. “America is the steamroller of modernity, and its forcing the Europeans to adapt.”

There’s certainly that. But there’s also—and here I’ll put on my callow, uninformed hat specially designed for trafficking in gross generalizations (wait, it was already on! Since birth!)—Europe’s failure to reckon comprehensively with issues surrounding immigration, cultural difference, and the exclusion of visible minorities from positions of power and influence. America’s dirty laundry on this score is there for all the world to see, and I frankly think we have less of it than is widely believed overseas (which is not to say we don’t have a lot). The US is undergoing a quite dramatic shift in the composition of its population, and, amazingly, assimilation has, in fits and starts and with considerable difficulties and frequent reversals, worked. “So where were the dozens of plays at the Fringe on the Oldham riots, or the East End?” This is roughly what I said to my friends at the dinner table, but, you know, saltier. Yeah, this is faintly preposterous: I’m talking about political theater, a fairly high-falutin’ universe, but I think it’s indicative of something weighty. I assume the British and the French and the Germans care about the seething anger and hopelessness of their most vulnerable citizens (and yes, many of the people I’m talking about are in fact citizens). In lieu of disquisitions on Columbine, President Bush, and the ugliness of the American soul, it might be a suitable subject for serious dramatic writing. P.S.- I’ve come up with a few ideas for songs. The first is called “Can’t Judge This,” and it’s to the tune of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” but, in contrast to Hammer’s original, it’s a series of reflections on cultural relativism, i.e., some statement concerning a cultural practice widely viewed as abhorrent in the modern West, followed by the statement that one “can’t judge this.” Keep in mind that I find this sentiment trivial and silly and objectionable on its face, but I still think it would make for a great song. (Pester me for lyrics and I’ll see what I can do.) The second is to the tune of “Simply the Best,” but goes, “You’re simply the bomb / all the others make me want to vom.” (“Vom,” a term introduced to me by the delightful and exceedingly sharp Matt Quirk, is short for “vomit.” It’s not the most tasteful choice, but it does the trick.) This is, to my mind, a quite strong sentiment—much stronger than merely pointing out that one is the best. At the same time, I suppose it suggests that one is the best solely because all the others are so wretched. It’s a thorny question. I guess that’s two, not a few. Everyone, go buy the EP titled “I Like The Like,” by The Like. Amazingly, they’re teens who rock as hard as Joan Jett, if you can believe it. Got the heads up from the inimitable Uncle Grambo, my guru. The new 8Ball and MJG album is also a hoot. To quote the “Living Legends” themselves, and I direct this to all who would cap on the Mohandas-Salam axis, “You don’t … want … dramaaa.” Or perhaps you do. I hope not. P.P.S.- Any sharp lefties reading this? Check out Chris Hayes. I first encountered him via a piece he wrote on Obama for The New Republic Online (which I think of as home, though the good folks there deserve better than an un-housetrained Bangloamerican polecat) and found it really insightful. Amazingly, when he’s not working himself to the bone on excellent reported pieces covering nitty-gritty labor politicking, Chicago, and the national scene, he’s blogging for In These Times, which had been the home of John Judis years ago. I’ll bet Hayes is a lot like the young Judis: cerebral, unpredictable, crisp, and engaging. He sounds a lot like a highly advanced snack treat. (Uh, he also plugged this blog. “Kuruption,” anyone?)

This list was compiled by Brian Fung, an editorial researcher at FP.

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