Take My Zeitgeist, Please

August 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

So many plays today, on and off Broadway, are small, character-driven dramas, the kind that let the actors show their chops. Jesse Tyler Ferguson in “Fully Committed,” Jeff Daniels and Michellle Williams in “Blackbird.” Perhaps America in the post-Bush era is becoming more inward looking, more cautious about external adventures, more attentive to problems at home. I mean, that’s the kind of bullshit interpretation favored by some op-ed writers and bloggers. They take some trend in popular culture as a reflection of an all-encompassing spirit of the times (in German, Zeitgeist). And why not? After all, popular culture is by definition popular. It must strike a responsive vibration in the psyches of lots of people.

Ken Levine has a different take. He’s a sitcom writer (Cheers, Frasier, The Simpons . . .), who blogs  (every day!) mostly about the entertainment industry.  Working in the biz, he is highly sensitive to the non-Zeitgeist constraints on what does and doesn’t wind up in the cultural stream.

He wrote recently (here) about “Fully Committed,” which he saw on Broadway. He must have gotten to the theater early because apparently he read all of the Who’s Who bios in the Playbill – offstage people too, not just the cast. Maybe that’s what people in the biz just do, read the entire Playbill. Or maybe it didn’t take him all that long to read the bios for the entire cast (n = 1) so he kept reading. The bio for the writer of the show (Becky Mode) reminds Playbill readers that since 2001, this play has been “one of the ten most produced plays in the United States.” Wow. Is this ranking a clue to the Zeitgesit? Does the popularity of “Fully Committed” reflect a 21st-century concern with full commitment? Or with trendy restaurants?

Not according to Ken Levine. He thinks it’s about the economics of theater.

It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. . . . The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write . . .

This reminded me of Wendy Griswold’s classic 1981 article about American novels in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some culture analysts saw in them a “femininization” of American culture starting in the 1890s. Before then, American novels were more about masculine and uniquely American concerns (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). The more sentimental novels read by Americans (mostly women) came from British authors, not Americans. But towards the end of the century, American writers began to pay more attention to domestic matters.

The feminization idea is consistent with other trends in American society. But Griswold shows that the change had much less to do with a shift in the Zeitgeist than with the enforcement of international copyright laws. Prior to 1891, American publishers did not have to pay royalties to a foreign author. They could reprint titles by British writers very cheaply (a copy of A Christmas Carol, which cost the equivalent of $2.50 in England went for six cents in the US). American authors were fully capable of writing sentimental fiction, but publishers preferred the cheaper imports. American novelists turned their efforts to subjects and genres where British writers couldn’t compete  (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). Then, once copyright laws guaranteed royalties on both sides of the Atlantic, British “feminine” fiction lost its economic advantage, and publishers issued more and more sentimental work by American authors.

I don’t know. Maybe the spirit of the times in the US did change in the late 19th century, with religion and middle-class women feminizing the culture. Searching for the Zeitgeist is a game anyone can play. Or you can take Deep Throat’s advice and follow the money.

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