This play is a reasonably smart play (and better-performed than it deserves), it's a mean, cynical fast-moving comedy with knives for teeth, and though I spent most of the play in a state of fierce discomfiture and stress, unsure as to whether I liked it at all, I thought I appreciated what it was trying to do. I appreciated that it was cynical about the industry, that it was wrapped around this vein of realism that was about telling the characters that they can't simply get what they want (unearned progress is a HUGE problem with so many stories about art; qv. Smash) but about diverting them and allowing them to in some ways take away what they need. And then it fails itself at the end. As a project, as a statement about art, this play fails. This play betrays.
But we'll get there.
The play in short: four students recruit Alan Rickman to teach them a private writing seminar; he brutalizes each one of them in turn; drama ensues. The students are: Kate (Lily Rabe), rich, white Bennington grad living on the UWS in her family's apartment, which she lends for the seminar; Martin (Hamish Linklater—a S&Co alum and a babe, character n'importe, if I may just say), middle-class and self-righteously idealistic about his craft; Douglas (Jerry O'Connell), connected and ridiculously pleased with himself, on the verge of success; and Izzy (Hettienne Park), pretty, Asian, and sexually frank, also out for fame and not apologetic about it. The play starts with all four of them in a room together. It ends with Alan Rickman—all right, his character's called Leonard—and one of them.
Looking at the characters is a mixed bag. Douglas is treated pretty fairly—the loudest voice in the room, out for success, told yes, you can be successful, but you're not half as smart as you think you are, and finding that out might kill you. Allowed to keep moving, allowed a cocktail of ridiculousness and humanity. Fair. He and Izzy get the least amount of time to be people, rather than artistic statements. This isn't really a problem with him, though.
It is a problem with Izzy, whom I simultaneously love and am wary of. Izzy wins, wins without scruple, gets what she wants and is never made to apologise for it, and naturally that appeals to me. But the play belittles her a lot of the time, and she more than anyone feels incomplete, undefined when she's not onstage. I want to love Izzy, I want to spend all the time in the world with her, but the text doesn't let her stand alone. Post-play, you can see everyone on in a trajectory of career independence but her, and it's frustrating. She's so cool, so coolheaded, so unapologetic, but the text cares least about her, definitely as an artist. There's a racial thing, too: I thought she was cast colour-blind until the play commented, for the first and only time, on—these words in Leonard's mouth—her "Asian exoticism". Now it's a line that's played as ridiculous/obscene because he wants to sleep with her, but forever after, her unapologetic sexuality goes in and out of feeling fetishized. And I don't understand her sleeping with Martin—he calls her a whore, says "you can do better," and she advances, advances, and all I could think was, with no little amount of confidence, oh, she's going to destroy him. Nope. She fucks him.
And that's the thing with Kate, too, who gets laid in the end, again by Leonard, and although she's been sexually frustrated for the entire play (messy joke), it again plays like commodification. The women—both women—are defined by their codes of desire before their art, Izzy as promiscuous and Kate as frigid. Their sex is their art, whereas the men's desires don't codify their writing styles. Then they're written as enemies on a sexual level—Kate's jealous because Izzy's fucking Martin, Kate's jealous because Izzy's lauded by Leonard who wants to fuck her, and there's a level of inherent coded disdain for the both of them.
But the other thing about Kate—other than Lily Rabe being superb, which she is (redeemed forever for her participation in that mess of a Merchant, I tell you what)—is that she's right. No, first the thing is that she's wonderful, and she reacts to every painstaking step to depict her as one-in-a-million with pure, glorious, sly rebellion. She's told that she's just another rich white chick with a Jane Austen fetish (and I laughed myself sick on the inside at the idea that she couldn't make a fucking mint off that, can I just say, but the point, I get, is that if you can deter someone from publishing Jane Austen fic, you should. Fair.), and she turns around and tricks him and says I am a writer and I can be anything I want to be, eat shit, amoral and grinning and vindicated, and I clapped in my seat, I truly did. Kate is marvelous and imperfect and messy and messily written sometimes but—I'll be frank, Kate hits me in a bunch of overeducated-sheltered-privileged-white-g
That's the frustrating thing about the end: Kate leaves on an ellipsis. She tells Martin that he's Leonard's golden boy because Leonard sees himself in Martin—true; it's the whole thesis of the second laughs. She touches him on the chest, she's finally gotten a kiss out of the boy she's loved forever now that it's too late to emotionally manipulate her, and she leaves, back to her apartment, which is her own. She leaves, correct. She leaves to go be a ghostwriter, the most pragmatic and changeable and also the only one who is implicitly denied fame—slightly frustrating, but there will be bigger things ahead, she's just not too stupid to compromise, Martin. She's right! And it isn't fair! None of it, and she, loudmouth feminist rageblade that she is, knows that better than anyone. And—then there's a whole scene after that that finds Martin and Leonard telling each other that they're not bad guys, that Martin's going to be famous, that through him Leonard shall get a piece of his youth back. Curtain falls on the white guy circlejerk, on Martin getting just what he wants.
Martin frustrates. Martin frustrates royally. Martin is where the play blunts its teeth, when it needs them most. Martin, whose self-righteousness takes up half the stage and whose insecurity takes up the rest, who calls Douglas a hack and Izzy a whore, who thinks he's a genius beyond criticism—is in fact a genius beyond criticism. The other shoe doesn't drop for him. Does the opposite: he's been acting like a coward the whole play? No, no, he was just too good for this; his performative rhetoric is—the truth! He says "here is a piece of my soul" meaning that means you can't critique it and NOBODY CRITIQUES IT; he says "that's not what writing is for" meaning I know what writing is for and none of you all are Real Writer and HE IS THE PLAY'S SHINING MODEL OF CRAFT AND IDEALISM. Where everyone else is tossed into the trash heap and digs themself out to make their way to the top, he digs himself into a hole and gets cranelifted out. By Leonard, who looks into this shining mirror of ego and artistic self-righteousness and naturally sees himself, naturally chooses to take Martin by the hand. And somehow the play makes this the optimistic core, the light at the end of the tunnel. Curtain falls on them. The two of them.
This is a problem, structurally, one, in that it's such an obvious priority switch: this play that's supposed to be about the students (with Alan Rickman as castingbait, but regardless) becomes about the best student; this play that's about the many facets of what writing can mean becomes about the Right face of what writing should mean. One of these is vastly less interesting than the other. And the fact that the Right one is the one who a) was smug on an ideological level, and b) who is the average nobody white boy selected as a projection object from on high is a grim goddamn ending—and this vicious, blackhearted comedy acts like this is where it's grown a heart! No, no. This is not the great hope for the future of writing. This is a miserable reflection of what people are learning to think writing is.
Not what it actually is! But in pop culture, there has been an increasing trend of Writers Writing About Writing, and it's dominantly a privileged-white-guy trend, and it is incredibly boring. It isn't deconstructive—there are a thousand different ways to self-consciously narrativize life, but that's not the trend, that's not the trope, that's not the trailer for that movie with Robert deNiro and Paul Dano that I saw before the last three art-house movies I went to. The trope is: Writers Are Different—"Writers aren't people," Kate says tearfully, and I cringe, because this is a play about people in their most basic socially normative states: you want to show me a play about how vicious writers are, how writers are like "feral cats", as Leonard says? Write me that play. I am interested in the cruelty of writing your own life, the sociopathic separation you need from yourself to mine the gold out of everything around you, the need to create Good Stories at the expense of living a good life—but this is not that play, and few stories about writers are that story. The trope is Writers Are Different because Writers Carry the Word and the Word is a sacred thing.
The word is a sacred thing, it can be, but that doesn't sanctify its bearers. To drop a Stoppard bomb here: writers aren't sacred, words are. You can do powerful things with words. You can make worlds, change them, let people escape into them. But the minute you start thinking of yourself as a sacred vessel of that power, of taking your ability to perform that small, sacred act to pretend that your craftsmanship is a moral act, to declare that your capacity for wordsmithing makes you morally superior to those who Abuse This Power—then you are wasting your words. Writing is a mad, vast, powerful thing, but writers are not gods. Frankly, writers aren't the point. (If you are writing a book to make yourself feel like a better person, you're not writing a very good book.)
Unfortunately, writers have become the genre. That's dominating pop culture's POV, and that includes literature, especially High Literature with pretensions of immortality (or at least a covetous eye toward this week's Sunday Review of Books). This is not a sacred thing. This is not an artistic high-hat. That is an artistically depressing use of the power to create whole, fresh worlds, and I am tired of it. It's not even a problem of narcissism—all artists are narcissists, in that we think our worlds are worth making—it's just bad, boring art. I have no time for "high art" earning its "high" designation because it looks like itself. That's a trend to break, not to laud—at the very least, writers are a fairly small market; writing for an audience of writers as a means of collective back-patting is a painfully insular waste of potential. (These are the people who worry about the death of the novel, too—which isn't a thing I believe is happening, or possible, but heaven knows they're trying their damnedest to suck the life out of it.)
In any case, I don't know if it can be broken, but I'd certainly like to try to drown it out with stories. What stories? Any stories. There's no limit—shouldn't that be the point?
Here is the point: As a writer, I don't need another story telling me how great and terrible it is to be a writer. Just fucking write. When you have a story, we'll take it from there.