Recently I typed the words conservative playwright into a google search, much to my surprise and pride I found that I had become the second leading conservative playwright in the world, after David Mamet. That’s right, the second entry was a recent interview that Christian Toto at Breitbart conducted with me after my play 501(c)Me went up at the Republican Theater Festival. As thrilled as I am at my meteoric rise I was left with one overwhelming thought at my new position in the pantheon of right wing dialogue slingers, basically the thought was: this is completely absurd. To date, I have written all of seven ten minute plays, while all have been produced, the vast majority of the productions were by Blue Box World, the theater company of which I am the Artistic Director. My work as a playwright has only been published once, has never been reviewed, and I’m not even one of the 500+ playwrights that Adam Szymkowicz has interviewed in his blog. So how could this be? How could the all knowing Google algorithm put me second among searches for a conservative playwright? The answer of course is that there are very, very few of us. A recent Howlround blog post by Daniel Jones asked why this is, I recommend checking out his post (it also appears on the first page of a search for “conservative playwright”), and would like to suggest a few reasons why I think conservative playwrights are so rare.
- Conservative Apathy
I think by far the most blame for the lack of conservative theater in the US falls on conservatives themselves. Just like elections, culture has a ground game, and just like elections conservatives are really bad at the cultural ground game. The cultural ground game is played out at small and midsize theaters all across the nation, the crucibles of artistic invention that produce the latest movements in the art form. The absolute dominance of liberal positions in this playground of ideas has very real repercussions for the conservative movement. Take the example of the recent Spielberg biopic “Lincoln” written by Tony Kushner. Back in the late 1980s when regional theater was discovering and promoting Kushner’s very liberal work, conservatives had no idea that 25 years later, it would be Kushner who would help define the first Republican president for a generation through a blockbuster movie. But that’s how it works. When conservatives bemoan the liberal bias on TV and movie screens they fail to understand that the writers, producers and directors of that work did not spring up out of nowhere. If conservatives are not actively engaged in culture’s ground game, they will never catch up in the larger and more popular media. This is something that Andrew Breitbart understood very well, and a lesson we need to learn from him.
- The Vessel and the Driver
Wittgenstein wrote that “language is not only the vessel of our thoughts, it is also the driver”. The same can be said of the current mode of theater production. The Non Profit theater system is not a neutral vessel which can carry a theater artist’s ideas, it is very much a driver. It begins with the basic supposition that theater is important and the government is responsible for its survival. These two constructs have a profound impact on the work that is created. A basic conservative principal is that whenever possible the government should stay out of people’s lives and decisions. In a sense, conservative theater artists have to violate that first principle just to get on the playing field. Even if a conservative playwright is willing to make that deal with the devil, they are then in the position of pitching plays that undermine the basic ideals of those grantors they are pitching. After all, if an individual or organization is giving tax money to theater, they are clearly comfortable with the government having a large role in theater.
3. School ties that Bind
Beginning in the mid 20th century, a major change occurred in the theater universe. The “trade” of theater which had up until then been learned through apprenticeships and practical experience, became the “profession” of theater, learned at very fine graduate schools. Today almost every major University has graduate acting and playwriting programs creating a two way liberal traffic circle in the form. Along with the traditional conservative lamentations about students being influenced by liberal professors, these programs invent teaching jobs for theater artists. Every year these programs graduate thousands of theater artists for whom there are no jobs in actual theater. So few of these artists can make a living at theater, that many of them wind up right back at educational institutions to make their living. In this closed economy there is no pressure to adapt, no pressure to appeal to broader audiences. In a recent interview David Mamet said “You know, provocative doesn’t mean taking some universally applauded position and standing up greatly for it.” But of course that is exactly what happens in classrooms and therefore theaters across the country.
I’m sure there are more reasons for the liberal hegemony in theater today, but I think these three are pretty big ones. Don’t get me wrong, I am not eager to give up my vaunted position as the second most important conservative playwright in the world, I might even write another 10 minute play one of these days to help secure my position, but I do think a little more competition would make things more interesting.