As the GOP primaries head to South Carolina, Gallup has released 2011 statistics, regarding political ideology, showing that for the “third straight year. . . conservatives have outnumbered moderates” in the country (the percentages actually are: “40% of Americans . . . describe their views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 21% as liberal.” Village theatremakers can read this as too much information, maybe irrelevant data to their work and art, but How the World Began, Catherine Trieschmann’s poised dialectic, now playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater through January 29, is notable because, in New York, it attempts to take a stream of conservative thinking seriously. The story of a high school science teacher, named Susan Pierce, who runs up against young-earth creationist beliefs in a rural Midwestern community, is patient and searching. The characters also include a troubled young accuser and a well-intended gossip, acting in loco parentis.
Real strength and discipline is needed for a writer to dramatize such contending Red and Blue cultural forces (especially given a climate where writers must tell liberal stories without being overtly political). The lead, a feminist single-mom-to-be and ex-New Yorker, is an outsider to Plainview, Kansas (reverse such propositions, and you’ll get an idea of what Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart were probably feeling as they encountered liberal media blackballing). Trieschmann, who has written a likeable central character–played by the fine Heidi Schreck (with strong support by Justin Kruger and Adam LeFevre)–tries to be as evenhanded and nonjudgmental as possible, for as long as she can, which is noteworthy–and rare.
David Hare, the leftist English playwright, did include a neoconservative interventionist in The Vertical Hour (one of his plays about Iraq), as portrayed by a liberal actress, Julianne Moore (she will also be playing Sarah Palin in a movie called Game Change). We know Palin has also been mocked by Tina Fey, a liberal comedienne. Meryl Streep, yet another liberal thespian, has recently opened in the film The Iron Lady as Margaret Thatcher (most definitely not a liberal). One day, a conservative actress is going to ask why these parts couldn’t go to someone who doesn’t have to do so much research–it’s not that artists can’t portray the feelings or positions that aren’t their own, however. The larger question is: Where are the conservative artists in today’s drama (beyond David Mamet); if they are being represented, where is it being nurtured and in what incubators is this being accomplished? In playwriting circles, we hear about how works by women may not receive the attention that those by men do; we question whether there is enough minority representation, too (groups largely seen as being part of the Democratic base). A John Updike of theatre or a Flannery O’Connor, staples of American literature (and conservatives), we don’t hear a lot about.
One reason why it matters is audience. In a depression, can people concerned about a healthy, vibrant theatre be so choosy about who buys their tickets? More philosophically, will a writer one day turn around and think that they had been writing propagandistically (maybe completely unintentionally but according to the dictates of the market and their times)? What would writing in the arts be like if conservative voices were heard? For example, it is not against the law to accept young earth creationism, even if it does seem rather dusty (many, from the past, believed in a version of it including Isaac Newton and maybe even Shakespeare). It gets a little trickier to dismiss as we move to the wars between Intelligent Design and Darwinism (interestingly, How the World Began tells us Darwin “studied to become a clergyman in the Anglican Church”). No matter about anyone’s political or religious affiliation, however, both theories have areas to contest (Intelligent Design–because we can’t prove an observable creator–and Darwinism–because the stages of species evolution can’t always be established).
What Religion, Science, and Education can fail to acknowledge, as we move into the culture wars, is that some of their positions may not be true in all cases and over time. The movement of atoms, based on Isaac Newton’s mechanics, for example, (he was also a Christian) is typically taught as electrons acting like planets, rotating around a nucleus (the sun). Even though the current thought is that atoms and molecules function more as clouds, most people start their understanding the old, traditional, dusty way. Currently, we are understanding that there may be a particle which moves faster than the speed of light, which would contradict Einstein—we don’t even know what kind of repercussions that would have because it hasn’t been discussed much lately (perhaps on purpose?). When people have invested years, careers, and lives in certain disciplines, it can be difficult to hear there’s more to a presumed answer.
It can be problematic to understand that conservatives could be part of the answer to theatre, too. Even if you don’t picture your average New York theatergoer as a conservative, what about the people who visit New York and see a show? What about the shows who might have a life around the nation (and elsewhere) after New York? How is our theater becoming non-exclusionary? How are we asking Americans of varying political affiliations to see much beyond musicals? Maybe, just maybe, funding would be easier if people felt safer about how their beliefs appear on the stage. In a play like How the World Began, the message may ultimately be that atheists can be more tolerant than Christian fundamentalists—but, if that’s the takeaway, we have to see the proposition proved through behavior, demonstrated through the text. As it stands, we aren’t sure we’ve witnessed the last straw regarding Susan’s tenuous teaching position—and there is drama to be had as she is surrounded, stripped of her authority and isolated and stifled–no matter how painful the emotional territory. As economically efficient as it is to have written the play as a three-hander, the audience can’t witness, participate in, and integrate the attempted path to justice–or lack thereof–in the situation. We don’t know who Susan can go to for advisory protection and what her counter-plans might be to save her job. From the opposing side, we don’t get a clear picture of who holds the power in the town regarding what we’ve come to believe is a trivial, if unintentionally biased, mistake from a good, new teacher.
How the World Began continues a strong tradition of commercial properties, such as Inherit the Wind, The Children’s Hour, The Bad Seed, and The Crucible. You’ll want more happening beneath the surface of her work, but Trieschmann is a very clear writer; she works with precision and skill. The last scene is successful in describing how a person could see a God of retribution in the world today—but the teacher herself has become a gallant victim. No matter where the country veers, or anyone’s commitment to accommodation–or the challenges to increased complexities in our drama–no one’s asking anyone to fold. Daniella Topol directs.
© 2012 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo of Heidi Schreck; Credit: Carol Rosegg Photo.