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That Wasn't Garbage, It Was Postmodernism



To the editors:

Mr. Tom Boeker is an aggressive ignoramus. And if this is not enough, he is self-indulgent. . . . I could have continued in this style, so familiar to those who have read any of Mr. Boeker's reviews. Unlike him, however, I shall explain my position, and articulate the reasons why Mr. Boeker's writing disturbs me.

Boeker's reviews raise several questions for me, two of which I regard the most important: value judgments and the updated education of a reviewer. Thus, we must ask what the function of a reviewer/critic is. Although in the 70s-80s, receptiveness is mainly visual, the written word still holds considerable power over the reading public. Leaving a severely judgmental individual to project his rather questionable taste onto the public does not necessarily make for credible criticism. By the same token, how can such a phenomenon, so frequently appear in our press? In what follows, I attempt to present some doubts about Mr. Boeker's ability to understand what is presented on the stage.

It will be absurd to "challenge" Mr. Boeker's review of Robert Wilson's The Knee Plays [May 27]. Fortunately, Mr. Wilson's place in theatrical history is secured by world-wide success and many informed admirers. My concern here is Mr. Boeker's review of Alagazam . . . After the Dog Wars, published in your August 26 issue.

How does Mr. Boeker begin his review? The sixth word is the adjective "tiresome." Boeker places his value judgment immediately before the reader without even pretending to analyze the production in order to arrive at a reasoned conclusion. Only two sentences further, we read: ". . . this medicine show is about to teach us something, if only we can suffer through the 'entertainment' (Boeker's quotation marks) . . ." Boeker does not restrain from the use of such words as "suckers," or "bullshit," which may, perhaps, disguise his inarticulateness.

Mr. Boeker prefers a single, narrow interpretation of his own to presentation of a particular problem in the production. After he retells the narrative in an abusive tone, he continues: "But wait--that's not all! You also get the antiwar theme. . . . Indeed, you get far more political baby food than you can stomach in one sitting. . . . I found the intermission the most illuminating portion of the evening, watching River North yuppies--too young and too trendy to have been slapped out of their naivete . . . "

The adjectives such as "derivative" and "reductive" are tossed in without any explanation. What is, for example, according to Mr. Boeker a correct political show? Mr. Boeker secures his political position quite shrewdly: "You'd have to be either very young or culturally illiterate . . . " He later appeals to the reader's impatience to see such "unimpressive," "tedious and one-dimensional," "company-conceived garbage."

But does Mr. Boeker say anything credible about the theatrical event he saw? Do we know what the performance looks like? We have been told about the narrative, informed about Mr. Boeker's dislike of yuppies and given weak description of the actor's performances. Mr. Boeker's analysis of the mise-en-scene is more than significant: "John Cusack's direction is about what you'd expect from this kind of production." Is this a professional statement? "He uses action . . . " What action? Why is it important? Are there any aspects of human and animal behavior without action? He continues: ". . . and a crowded, restless stage picture in a losing battle to keep the audience's attention." Of which performance is this a revue? Vague sentences, as a matter of fact, are characteristic of Mr. Boeker's reviews. A lot of poison substitutes for absent thoughts.

But what is even more impressive about Mr. Boeker is his ignorance of current, postmodern concepts of the arts. He states: "This is a fungus that's festered in the back of the refrigerator for 20 years." But Mr. Boeker himself, seems to write from the point of view of 50s aesthetics. He may be angry about the 60s culture. His personal prejudices, nevertheless, must become irrelevant if he wants to function as a reviewer.

Surprisingly, Boeker recognizes that the production of Alagazam refers to many established cultural cliche/phenomena. But it has escaped Mr. Boeker's attention that plagiarism, references, cliche, kitsch, fascination with "low-grade" culture and pastiche are the primary features in the postmodern concept.

Both the textual and audible/visual execution of Alagazam introduce some of the current strategies in the performing arts.

Obviously, the soap-opera type of American realism on stage is unsatisfactory, and the self-conscious experimental theater of the 60s and early 70s has exhausted itself to repetitions and self-anger. The destructive nature of a number of previously experimental groups has led the critics to cry out about "the crisis of the theater." They have not woken up yet to recognize that for the last 15-20 years, dance and theater have emerged into various forms of the concepts called postmodernism.

Unlike experimental theater, postmodern artists are rarely concerned about political/moral/ideological issues. They comment on current cultural phenomena, such as advertisements, TV, video, computers, fashion, and sports, and how they shape our receptiveness to the world. The idea of originality and mechanical reproduction of art works is questioned by artists in pastiche of cultural/historical concepts. Fast traveling ideas in the age of computers and satellites are revealed in an almost schizophrenic sense of time. Technology provides so many surprises that it becomes wondrous. With the use of technological tools, performance turns into a spectacle to delight the spectator's senses. Thus, the aspect of real and unreal, real and hyperreal, is crucial to a number of artists and writers such as Baudrillard and Echo.

Mr. Boeker seems to assume that there are ironclad rules for theater. Mr. Boeker offers such a meaningless sentence as: "Artistically Alagazam is depressing, largely because it's a new play." How is depression artistic? Or how can something be artistically depressing? What is the difference between being depressed and being artistically depressed? Amazingly Mr. Boeker attacks experimental theater that it never examines against what it rebels. The same could be said about Mr. Boeker's approach. He attacks without examining what is to be abused. But he is generous with advice: "Originality isn't a thing that you try to reach directly. It's something you stumble across . . . "

Mr. Boeker may be surprised to find out that originality is of the least to postmodern artists. They do not stumble. They are very conscious of what they are creating. They are also articulate and literate. Thus, Mr. Boeker may enrich himself by readings about postmodernism. Postmodern artists, emphatically, address multiple approaches toward their works. They re-examine established concepts and beliefs by not aiming to create new isms, but by using already known structures and images from everyday life. This life of the late 20th century is itself so spectacular that, quite naturally, the creators of Alagazam have turned their attention to the origins of this spectacularity. They address the issue of the powerful production of images in contemporary life. Furthermore, they have re-introduced to Chicago public theatricality on stage.

Fancy ideas usually die at the table's discussions, but rarely materialize in theatrical forms on stage. Alagazam, to the audience's delight, used the means of theatrical space and time to create a coherent theatrical event. The mise-en-scene is thought through, created, perhaps, through collective improvisation. The actors perform enthusiastically and seem comfortable on stage. If this sounds banal, look at the majority of the productions in town. Alagazam should be greeted and analyzed as a needed change in Chicago theatrical life.

I do not attempt, however, to write a review of Alagazam. The purpose of this letter is to make the reading public and the editors look critically at the reviewers. The reviewers are not the policemen of taste and their personal preferences should be omitted from their writings. They should look at the production's concept, how it was made, what is/is not fulfilled, and why. Their statements ought to be supported by reasonable arguments. They ought to write about the performance as opposed to their inteipretation of how they, personally, see the presented material. The readers should be able to know how the performance is done.

It would be also helpful to many reviewers to search for the process of creating performances. In doing so, they may prove themselves useful to the public by pointing out some alternative readings of the performance. The reviewers should guide the audience in how to look at art works, and raise, at the same time, doubts and questions. They should be positive, yet critical, but always credible.

Can a reviewer lacking knowledge of the last 20 years in the art world be regarded as credible? Mr. Boeker may hate postmodernism, yet, fortunately, postmodernism will continue to satisfy audiences with new works. It would be to the public's benefit if some reviewers acknowledged their need for updated education. I shall conclude, referring to Mr. Boeker's own advice: "grow up."

O.F. Chtiguel

Jersey City, New Jersey

PS. Did the reviewer of Uncommon Senses [Jonathan Rosenbaum, August 26] see the show before rating it as a "masterpiece"? If so, he ought to give us money back!!!

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