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Maintaining Distance: What Revivals Teach Us About the Contemporary Moment

Over the past few months I’ve been working on a production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union musical written in 1937, which closed yesterday. The musical focuses on the disproportionate influence the wealthiest members of society have on public policy and consumer culture. At a time when income inequality is at its most severe since the Great Depression, producing this musical is absolutely appropriate. As expected, we spent much of our rehearsal process discussing how applicable the issues that the piece addresses are to what’s happening in the United States at our current moment. Furthermore, after the presidential election produced a the wealthiest victor in history, it nearly felt like this piece was written about our current situation.

However, the true power of reviving theatre of the past isn’t in contemporizing it, but rather in maintaining distance between then and now and facilitating conversation across time. The notion that we’re having nearly identical societal problems 80 years after the play was written illuminates the progress, or lack thereof, in the development of the middle and working classes in the United States. Actively maintaining that distance allows for interrogation of the illusion of progress, of the notion that things are better than the were in the past.

Revival productions of plays encapsulate within them a duality of existence: they exist both as a relic of the past and a conversation with the present. Any effort to close that gap jeopardizes the temporality of a production, diminishes the potency of the ephemera of performativity. A unique quality of live performance is the tension between a piece of text and its production, a collision of the two that creates an entirely different work of art that can only exist in the exact conditions under which it is produced.I find the notion that theatre demands that a fixed piece of writing explode into a completely different staged work is an incredibly exciting prospect, but it’s only possible when fostering that tension between the two.

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