Department of Misunderstood Playwrights | Letters | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Letters

Department of Misunderstood Playwrights

by

comment

To the editors:

Although no writer or performer likes to be on the butt end of an "I know what I like and I don't like it" review, in Chicago that's not uncommon, whether or not fair or useful.

What is unfair and unconscionable is for any reviewer knowingly to misstate the factual content of any theater work so as to foster the illusion of his superior knowledge and so to justify his disparaging remarks.

Tom Valeo is guilty of gross intellectual dishonesty with his distorting and largely unfounded review of Triage (Reader, March 24, 1989). He has quoted my lines accurately because he holds a complete copy of the script. To substantiate, I'll cite his printed paragraphs and my manuscript pages.

As if it is his perception alone (Para 11), Valeo states "But the reasons for the food shortage are complex, and reducing them to simple greed is trite." In fact, my Minister of Welfare (a protagonist), in nearly two pages of script (MS page 9ff), states "The reasons are complex" and then outlines three root causes: a) public taste for beef; 2) greed and profiteering; and 3) government policies that encourage the other two. Since the first and third causes are widely acknowledged, the play concentrates on the second, which is not only little-known, but denied. Valeo knowingly distorts.

As if he has some objective data to back up his assertion, Valeo continues (Para 11) . . . "sure, it's comforting to blame grotesquely evil humans, but the real horror is that atrocities are caused by people very much like ourselves. The baron [antagonist] is simply too easy to hate." Wrong.

Valeo pretends to a moral perceptiveness he actually lacks. By blaming all of us, Valeo attempts to shield everyone, including himself. That's known in psychology as denial. Perhaps that's comforting to him, but it's also immature. He's not alone: A few potential producers of this 1975 work also rejected the potential offensiveness of this not-quite-verdict-finding play: blame is not commercially viable.

On December 29, 1987, a British documentary called The Politics of Food, narrated by Martin Sheen, was broadcast on public television. The documentary established factually that greed and profiteering are indeed major contributing factors to world hunger and the practice of triage. That also validated the play's viewpoint twelve years after I wrote it and made the play newly viable. That's why a not-for-profit organization underwrote the production. The same documentary also establishes for the Reader's readers that Valeo's sensibilities are less dependable than required by such complex material, however convincingly he states them.

Nobody wants to be found guilty of anything--that's human nature. But since Valeo mentions the Nazis (Para 10), it's wise to recognize degrees of culpability, as ethics does. There were those in Nazi Germany who a) understood and acted wrongly with intent; b) understood but did nothing--abetted; c) could/should have known but chose to deny so as to justify inaction--hypocrisy; and d) those who truly had no knowledge. Only those truly without knowledge are innocent; yet the Nuremberg trials condemned only the direct perpetrators. That was pragmatic: Who can prove motives among millions? It does not change the ethic of the individual actions.

Valeo also knowingly misstates the factual content of the play when he says (Para 12) "So Triage fails to illuminate the causes of world hunger, and it fails to prescribe a viable course of action for ending it." My President (protagonist) presents a five-point plan (MS page 29), which the Baron (antagonist) rejects on grounds he knows to be superficial--he is performing for his own video record. Among his comments is Valeo's quotation, "Scarcity drives up prices . . . Are the poor to be immune to economic law?" These rationales are not my invention--they are specious arguments actually advanced, sans euphemisms, and the actions being taken. Unconscionable? Blame the society, not the reporter.

Valeo distorts by omission when he fails to note that the protagonists accept the Baron's claim of mitigating circumstances after "his" cameras are turned off. In a long, cold indictment (MS pages 34-35), the Baron decries both religious beliefs that encourage over-population and various religions' historical roles in power politics. It is within that context--and at the end of that two page scene--that the Baron introduces the argument Valeo chooses to deprecate: "While (the religions) prate that it is more Godly to create unwanted life than to avoid it, they help to create God's problem." The next sentence, with no interruption, is the one line Valeo quotes: "Starvation is only God's tool." In full context, the scene is a valid philosophical syllogism articulating the socially-acceptable attitudes underlying and supporting current laissez faire policies. They are Calvinistic in nature, as a character comments.

The Baron also states perceptively, "When we consider money made unproductive, there is no difference between the purchase of a bomber or a new church or synagogue . . . no difference between a space satellite or any religious sect's new television studio." In his summary attack, he challenges "You demand my total involvement while you tolerate token contributions by the religious organizations, whose task the poor properly are (MS page 34)." By dealing with chronic hunger through charity, rather than by identifying root causes, religion tacitly tolerates inequities. Given an ethical/philosophical grounding, Valeo might have faulted the social values rather than the play. Since this entire exchange occurs in two pages of script, Valeo cannot plead that he missed scattered significant points. He has knowingly misstated and misrepresented--why?

It is fair to say that Valeo's arguments demonstrate that he chooses not to see: to acknowledge the validity of Triage would require him to act--or to admit his impotence. His type of baseless, intellectualized rationalizing helps to perpetrate the "horror" he professes to feel (Para 10).

Moreover, his sympathy for the "heartless" Baron's easy-to-hate underdog position (Para 8) seems to imply that strong, acceptable explanations for such inequitable and inhumane policy actually exist: would Valeo state those justifications? If he has none, he is merely posing as thoughtful.

Valeo rejects reality when he writes (Para 9) "Finally, the baron makes a suggestion borrowed directly from Scrooge himself, who sought to reduce the 'excess population' by letting the poor starve to death: 'If the starving die, there will be fewer mouths and therefore relatively more food for the survivors. If 10,000 people die each week, ultimately the problem will resolve itself.'" Valeo asserts (Para 10): "This is where Cavalier lets the moral superiority of his position slip away. Sure, world hunger is terrible, and anyone who tries to defend it is going to sound like a monster. But the reasons for the food shortage are complex, and reducing them to simple greed is trite." As indicated, these complaints are based on Valeo's distortions and factual errors, but they point up the central issue: Allowing people to starve when chronic starvation is preventable. The Baron's comments are simply the rationales the apathetic prefer to leave unspoken.

Reality is the death of 10,000 people daily (misstated by the Baron to minimize), but even Scrooge did not invent this reality--it is the survival instinct of a world once cursed with chronic shortage. Historically, triage was inevitable, and therefore, amoral. Now, as the play makes the point, scarcity is artificially maintained by a few, and now moral/ethical culpability is newly and fairly assignable.

If that, as Valeo charges, is where my "moral superiority slips away," then it has not slipped. If Valeo is wrong, then the play is right and valid. That Valeo chose to deny rather than engage is his problem. It is not an admirable choice. Neither is it universal. Over 300 people saw the eight performances; and of those who commented, most were troubled: they comprehend. Some will act.

Valeo exposes his own personal and intellectual limitations, not mine . . . his own inability to accept responsibility to confront the status quo, as I have tried to do. To be ignorant of some areas of knowledge is to be human, but to be smug about one's own lack of knowledge is to be ignorant in the worst sense of the word.

None of this suggests that I believe Triage to be prime-time entertainment (provision of present-moment satisfaction). He could have truthfully informed the fun crowd that the play is demanding and unsettling. Unless we are to understand that Valeo reviews only subjectively and for entertainment value, his readers are entitled to see some evidence of theatrical principles and critical standards. There are none. There is a comparison to another fact-laden play (Paras 1-5), which Valeo claims "miraculously transforms" the AIDS crisis into "high drama." Valeo wonders aloud how the writer did it. Why? AIDS is here; hunger is far away. How does one compare genuine personal fear to altruism--gut-feel to intellectual appeal? Fear is a found object, not an artistic miracle, however shrewdly used. Competent criticism assesses whether any given play has fulfilled its own goals and ambitions.

Valeo also implies that histrionics are the badge of a "clash of passionately held beliefs," (Para 5), but "passionately held" is itself a cliche, not a critical standard. I believe commitment to be the measure of the depth of belief--and my protagonists choose to commit their lives. Who needs ersatz angst? By what theatrical principle is a cool, intellectual approach unacceptable?

That leaves the question of whether my characters are really "mouthpieces" and "shallow, cartoonish characters." Given that their positions are reality-based and that Valeo's own values and knowledge are skewed, no contest. The critical question should be whether these characters are consistent with the plot and within themselves. Valeo fails to comment.

My characters play not for gut, but for intellect. All the tear-jerking appeals made nightly on television by Oxfam, World Vision, Sally Struthers, and various children's funds have no curative effect: charity is voluntary and postponable to more convenient times. I believe the public must be confronted with the raw truth of this massive problem before it will respond humanely. Will that work? Well, the intellectual approach sure shook Valeo.

Valeo's directorial complaints are no better founded. He states that the Baron/actor compounds the problem ("too easy to hate," Para 10) "with his lively portrayal" that points up the "emotionless monotone" (Para 11) used by the other actors. Not a legitimate assessment. The Baron was written, directed, and performed as a grotesque: he knows and acts wrongly with intent; whereas my other characters are normal, with various degrees of understanding. How does Valeo propose that normal people/actors "act" (his emphasis) normal vis-a-vis a grotesque? If Valeo saw the difference, the director's concept is effective as well as valid. A matter of increment? That's subjective, too, by a faulty judgment.

Nowhere does Valeo frame his notes in objective or even critical terms. Verdict-finding is valid in the (best or worst) tradition of Bertolt Brecht. Is Valeo not versed in Brecht's theories, or does he believe his own (demonstrably faulty) perceptions are more important? Surely the theme of world hunger satisfies the Aristotelian precept of seeking to imitate an action having serious implications and magnitude, enacted by the persons of the drama, and using heightened language during honest confrontation. Have I failed any of these points? Valeo should have specified the breaches. Is he familiar with Ars Poetica? Or are his subjective judgments more important to him? If so, what is really at issue?

I believe the Reader's readers should be told that I have previously criticized Tribune and Reader reviewers for using meaningless, isolated artistic marks (bizarre, shocking, etc.) as a measure of artistic achievement, rather than seeking coherent work consistent with established principles of theater. See the nationally-circulated September, 1988, issue of Northeastern Illinois University's Journal of the Performing Arts for my essay on entertainment-orientation plus their Winter issue for my synthesis of contemporary principles for experimental theater.

Valeo's review of Triage provides an excellent example of the Reader's recurring failure. Such commentary does not serve the cause of theater arts. Are we to understand that Reader reviewers are above criticism? That suggests the Reader, by publishing a demonstrably-distorted review, is more concerned with establishing the power of its own reviewers than in aiding the development of quality theater through fair and disciplined critical appraisal. As they say, power corrupts.

Valeo claims that "Triage trivializes the tragedy of world hunger," (Para 5), but since his opinion has been shown to be invalid, what is trivialized, in my opinion, is the role of responsible, educated commentary. Competent critics (as distinguished from reviewers) can aid both the playwright and the theater arts by pointing out objective failures, as well as successes. Such a contribution must be based on honest appraisals made by knowledgeable people for the sake of the art, not for the commercial advantage of the publication.

Pretense, sham, and deception can be applauded only on stage. Valeo and the Reader should be ashamed. If your reviewers are capable of founded criticism, please switch. Or quit.

Richard Cavalier

N. Marine Dr.

Add a comment