A Skull Set A'Pondering


             Earlier this month, I concluded my role as “Jimmy Tomorrow” as the Fells Point Corner Theater’s 5-week run of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” came to an end.  It was a grueling, but supremely gratifying process, tackling a play that, if run unedited, would have had audiences stewing in their seats for 5 ½ hours. With director and a cast of 18 in feverish edit mode, we were successful in bringing the play in at …3 ½ hours.


            While the reviews were predominantly positive, I couldn’t help but notice that the number one complaint about the play was its length.  And remember, this was AFTER the editing.

            Even friends of mine—good friends—exited at intermission, commenting that while they enjoyed the show (or half of it anyway), it was “demanding” having to endure 3 ½ hours of drama. “You’re expecting a lot of your audience,” one long-time comrade noted.

            Oh really? Maybe its high time theater started demanding something more from its audience.

            This past Friday, for example, I attended a performance of Irish “bad boy” playwright Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull at Connemara” (am a big fan of McDonagh’s screen writing as in the  film, In Bruges), a work that reflects today’s modern theater patron…or movie goer (McDonagh notes that his key influencers aren’t from the stage, but the soundstage—film directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese).

            With these two works bopping about in my mind, it set my skull a’pondering…

            While one play looks at a room for of broken, drunken men and the pipe dreams that keep them alive, and the other, one man having to face the prospect of exhuming his dead wife whom those around him all believe he killed, you could make the argument that these are both…comedies.

            O’Neill himself describes “The Iceman Cometh” as a play that begins as a comedy and rather quickly stops being one…”Skull,” with its both bloody and bloodless skull-bashing, asides about lesbians, TV cop shows and Americans being duped into thinking every mug or cup for sale was a prop from John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara classic, “The Quiet Man,” clearly fits the definition of, at the very least, a black comedy.

            “Skull,” including intermission, comes in at about two hours. “Iceman”…well, not quite enough time to pass the bar, but apparently its close.

            If audience reaction was any indication, “Skull” was well received, and I enjoyed this Irish romp, with its loving elbow-nudges to Celtic culture (i.e. raging Catholicism and reverence for alcohol…or is reverence for religion and raging alcoholism?).

                “Iceman” was also well-received, though by significantly smaller audiences, who often didn’t seem to be sure just where the laughs ended and the serious parts began. I was quite mystified how often the characters’ pathetic attempts to depart the safety of Harry Hope’s bar for the all-too-real-world, would result in bursts of laughter from those in attendance.

                Some would argue that O’Neill, as my friend intimated, asks a lot of his audience. You have to be ENGAGED to truly appreciate O’Neill. Plays like “Skull” (and I think it telling that the playwright finds more influence from the world of movies than from the stage), not so much.

                But in today’s world of social media, blogging, YouTube, etc., I would expect the opposite. Aren’t we being told all the time that today’s modern audience wants to be involved? That the days of people lounging on the couch and letting the entertainment just roll over them are over? How many programs seem to involve viewers phoning in their opinions…American Idol, Dancing with the Stars for example.

                People watch a video or read an article online, they want to post their comments. They want to give us their 2-cents. They want to be INVOLVED…we certainly see this in politics now what with the “virtual town meetings” where people don’t merely sit and listen to the candidate, they o lob questions, praise, derision, etc., on them.

                So why in the world of theater has this not occurred? It seems that people are LESS engaged. I’ve noted that today’s films and plays are typically no longer than two hours. Humor is increasingly sophomoric. Despite being incredibly clichéd, people still yearn to see “things blowed up real good.”

                Even “Skull” has its share of “blowups,” as men vigorously shovel voluminous mounds of dirt on the stage and literally pound skulls to smithereens with mallets while music blares in the background.

                Yes, it certainly does focus one’s attention on the action. Action is eye-catching. A Guy Standing in the middle of the stage lamenting the loss of wife to adultery and his own alcoholism, not so much.

                I can only hope that it won’t be another 20 years before Baltimore sees “The Iceman Cometh” come again to the stage. Theater that can truly entertain and educate, that can bring us laughs and the sobering truth, is a rare thing nowadays.  I would not say that today’s audiences have outgrown it, as that intimates a moving forward. No, we have not progressed. We have regressed.

                Does that mean there’s no room for works like “Skull”? Of course not. It’s a wonderfully written, loving tribute to what it means to be Irish—a virulent love of family, of drink, of tradition, and of grudges (and as an Irish descendant myself, I can appreciate!). But it engages primarily on the surface. It’s fun, not great art. Great art has the engaging surface, and a deep, complicated substructure. Like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Van Gogh’s Starry Night. O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

                There is certainly room in our world for both “fun” and “great art.” My point is, nowadays, there seems love only for the former, and increasingly less tolerance for the latter…and if that trend continues, we as a society are diminished.

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From This Author Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins A communications professional for 25 years, Dan Collins was a theater critic for The Baltimore Examiner daily newspaper (2006-2009), covering plays throughout the Baltimore-Columbia area (read more...)

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