By Marc Jampole
As New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff details in “To See or Not to See? A Season for High Art,” New York City theaters—Broadway and off—are currently offering an unusually large number of productions of what many call “serious” drama, which means plays that tackle serious subjects in nonconventional or experimental styles or belong to the “canon” of classic world literature.
The language of serious theater is often elevated, sometimes strange. The characters portray both positive and negative traits. The endings are often unhappy or ambiguous. Serious theater tends to make viewers think about deep philosophical or social issues. Among playwrights considered to be authors of serious works are Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams and Berthold Brecht, all of whose works are in production in New York City at this time.
And how does Itzkoff describe this amazing cornucopia of high dramatic art? “The current theater season has been a veritable snob’s paradise.”
A snob’s paradise!!
To understand just how anti-intellectual this statement is, we have to review all three meanings of the word “snob” given in Merriam-Webster’s (or any other standard) dictionary:
1. “Someone who tends to criticize, reject, or ignore people who come from a lower social class, have less education, etc.”
2. “One who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors”
3. “A) One who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior; B) One who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste”
Snobs criticize those they think beneath them. Snobs fawningly imitate and chase those considered socially superior. Snobs have an offensive air of superiority. Snobs are thus among the most distasteful and despicable people in the world.
Who would want to be a snob? Yet “snob” is the first word that comes to mind to a writer about culture when describing those who like serious theater.
Admittedly, serious theater engages our intellectual faculties more than light theater or most musicals do. Sometimes serious theater is hard to understand. To call serious theater an intellectual pursuit is accurate.
But why is someone a snob by virtue of liking serious theater or preferring it to light theater?
It’s just another of the almost daily examples of mainstream media criticizing intellectual pursuits. Reporters and pundits go out of their way to say denigrating things about intellectual activities.
That it’s a cultural reporter who should find excitement in Beckett and Shakespeare who is delivering the blow against these authors, and by implication against intellectualism, is also nothing new. In the recent past we have seen a sciencewriter imply that brilliant people have no common sense and an education expert say people don’t need algebra. Mass media editors like nothing more than finding and then funding a self-flagellating expert who will denigrate his or her intellectual discipline.
Calling serious theatergoers snobs is a throwaway line in an article which focuses primarily on the business aspects of having so many productions of serious theater in town over a short time frame. For example, he discusses the marketing challenges of the Pig Iron theater’s production of “Twelfth Night,” which follows by a few weeks the closing of the acclaimed Elizabethan-style version imported from London with Tony-winner Mark Rylance.
Itzkoff, the culture critic, does not consider the cultural implications of the seemingly sudden return to serious theater—that audiences may be tired of the flash and glitz of Broadway musicals or that a new generation of theatergoers is now discovering the joys of Odets, Albee and Ibsen (three other “serious” playwrights whose work has popped up on New York stages in the recent past). Did the trend start in the hinterland or has New York become the last American bastion of classic drama, much as it has for serious post-bop jazz? There are so many approaches that Itzkoff could have taken to exploring this sudden and wonderful outcrop of serious theater. But he decided to write about the one topic held above all others by mass culture— making money.