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A Well-Made Play for Today

Sam Weisberg and Rob Onorato recently published a review on HowlRound entitled “Bored with the Well-Made Play: Jordan Tannahill’s Theatre of the Unimpressed,” in which they advocate for the importance of Jordan Tannahill’s demands for an updated theatrical form. Weisberg and Onorato highlight some of Tannahill’s most concentrated and poignant claims:

1. “Film has once and for all surpassed theatre as the best medium for representing reality.”
2. “The Well-Made Play was (and still is) an easy way to bundle up middle class problems…”
3. Theatre is “the only art form that is incomplete until the very moment of its being witnessed.”
4. The heart of Tannahill’s manifesto lies in his diagnosis of the Well-Made Play: it is missing “a dedication to risk; an embrace of failure; and liveness above all else” (their emphases).

Allow me to pause for a moment to publicly admit that I am a huge fan of the Well-Made Play. I love it. I love referring to it as a “WMP” like a casual friend. To me, the WMP is still a fascinating little package waiting to be unwrapped and relished, and I initially clicked on the article because I have never before felt bored by a WMP in performance (cue the collective gasp from the avant-garde!). I don’t think that theatrical realism has overstayed its welcome.

In October 2015, I saw Martin McDonagh’s new comedy, Hangmen, in its initial run at the Royal Court Theatre in London. After the opening scene, a minimalistic prison set rose completely into the proscenium rafters to reveal underneath a 1960s northern English pub- a set designed in fully detailed realism, right down to working beer taps. McDonagh’s play followed nearly all the traditional structures of the Well-Made Play, from gradually revealed secrets to domestic, middle-class characters…and it wasn’t boring. At the play’s climax, a man is accidentally hung on stage.

After the play, I heard audience members engaging in discussion about mental illness, capital punishment, the criminal justice system, the futility of total blame, and the inherent good and evil of human beings. If such an experience is considered boring, then I don’t know if I’m ready for the alternative. The structure may be aged, but “traditional” plays are not yet completely useless in our society.

With that said, I’m not ignorant to the amount of mediocre theatre being produced out there that finds commercial success simply because it is considered to be “modern classic.” Perhaps my urge to defend the WMP springs from my middle-class upbringing; maybe my deep affection for the form exists because the WMP exists for people like me. Maybe I’m only defending the fax machine because employing it makes me feel like an expert in the office (thanks to Tannahill for that metaphor).

The beauty of Weisberg and Onorato’s discussion of the Theatre of the Unimpressed is that they do not suggest that there is no longer a place for the WMP in theatre of the 21st century (contrary to what several raging WMP superfans in the comment section inferred from the essay). Rather, Tannahill and his reviewers seem to be crying out for something in addition to the already blazing presence of the WMP in the theatre.

If the Well-Made Play is going to survive, it does have to adapt. There has to be a greater commitment to excitement; a greater necessity to be seeing the thing live and in the flesh; a greater pull to sign off of Netflix and get off the couch. I’ve seen glimpses of it in productions like Hangmen, or Simon Stephen’s Song From Far Away, and it gives me hope that my beloved WMP may not soon fade to total irrelevance.

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