Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Franzen's Freedom elates, then deflates

I finished reading Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, last night. If you've never heard of him or the book, a quick Google search will suffice. The book is practically on every top ten list, made Oprah's book club list, blah, blah, blah... you get the picture. It's highly regarded modern literature.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, a sweeping tale of modern love and loss, family relationships coloured by dysfunction, politics gone awry, and people struggling with "how" to live. It was completely engrossing until I reached the very end. 


To spend an entire book, indeed hundreds of pages, demonstrating that the couple at the center of the story, Walter and Patty, are basically poison for each other, only to have them get back together at the end makes no sense to me. Dear Mr. Franzen: WTF? Is there something my sophomoric mind isn't grasping?

This story deserved a better ending, not some nauseatingly schleppy Hollywood denouement. Frankly, I expected more from you. I was sorely disappointed. What was the meaning of this? That it's better to settle than to spend your life alone? That Walter and Patty were able to rise above it all and forgive each other? That we must learn to forgive or we simply can't move on with our lives?

All these are interesting themes but somehow don't fit with this story. It felt more like some form of Deus ex machina, an unnatural end to a seemingly organic tale. It celebrates dysfunction, it supports a relationship based on lies and abandonment of the self. I don't get it. 

Unless your point is that most relationships today are based on these things rather than built on truth, respect for self and others, and veritable compatibility. If that's the case, then you've succeeded. 

However, it still doesn't soften my disappointment. I can't quite shake the feeling that the ending was a cop-out of some sort. 

But hey, that's just my opinion.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Live theatre doesn't have to suck

Last night was another evening of "shitty theatre in Ottawa". As a playwright, this hurts me, and nights of shitty theatre in Ottawa happen way too often. Last night, the spotlight shone on the "I'm gay and I'm therefore a lifelong victim" theme. Yawn. To all the self-pitying gays out there, check out Will & Grace - a celebration of homosexuality instead of a total f*cking "poor me" downer. The folks at NBC got it right - watch and learn.

I'm also sick to death of the one-person show. It's so pervasive in Canadian theatre right now I'm beginning to wonder if we're creating art based solely on the financing that's available, i.e. practically none from the looks of things. 

This may not be a purely objective opinion since I'm a playwright and two of my latest scripts are written for what, in Canada, are considered "large" casts - 8 and 9 actors. Ooohhhh. Aaaahhhh. No, I didn't take into consideration whether  the money to produce them would be available. I just wrote, from the gut, unencumbered by how these projects may eventually be produced.

Sure, I have days when I think I'm crazy and none of my scripts will see the light of day. Ok, most days I feel this way, but I keep writing what I want to write. I don't limit myself with the "how's". Am I crazy? Probably. 

I take comfort, however, in the fact that most great thinkers and artists were considered "crazy" in their time. I'm not speaking of insanity, that's another matter entirely - I'm speaking of following a vision, despite our perceptions of what "reality" may dictate is possible. That's why we have airplanes and skyscrapers and computers - so why can't we think past the bottom line when it comes to theatre?

It feels like the same drivel, over and over again. Most of the plays I've seen in the Capital region lately, with a few rare exceptions, are uninspired, tepid crap. English Canadian theatre is becoming what reality TV is to real TV - a debasement of a once great art form. 

This is truly discouraging as an emerging playwright. At least if the stuff that was getting produced was good, I wouldn't feel so bad about my script not getting chosen. On the contrary, I would be inspired to step up my game. But when I see work on the stage that is, frankly, inferior to my own, it's a slap in the face.

Sure, art is a very subjective thing, and yes, my judgment is totally clouded by my own pre-conceived notions of what constitutes good theatre and my personal aims as a playwright. However, I'd like to think I have some modicum of objectivity left that allows me to discern quality from crap. 

So please, English theatre community in Ottawa, enough with the one-person shows. And would it be too much to ask to think outside the box once in a while? To move away from bland form and cringe-inducing over-acting?

I'm aware that you may simply interpret this as the lament of a disgruntled playwright. I'd like to think I'm saying what others are thinking but don't have the cahones to say out loud.