This past Thursday, RiOT [productions] opened a new play by Seth Tankus called “Rosemary,” which I directed. It’s a hard play with loud music, abrasive characters, and a tragic ending. It’s not for everyone.
As the director of the show, I admit that I am attached to the show. I chose to direct it, so I am biased toward the writing and plot. That said, as a dramaturg and theatre reviewer, there’s lots I can criticize about the production overall. Regardless, I am proud of the work put into the show and I think it is worth seeing. Overall, audience members from parents and friends to random people we don’t know to fellow theatre artists have said that they like the show.
I’m not surprised that we got a negative review on the website “Drama in the Hood,” but I am surprised by the content of the review. “It is a truth universally misunderstood by young people that watching a play about self-destructive behavior, devoid of any character development, is interesting” is a classic but thoughtless and condescending way of dismissing the content of the show. “The characters never have any psychic development, they are the in the same stuck place at the beginning of the play as at the end, and watching 90 minutes of self-destruction at close range was excruciating” – this is the point, and it should make you reflect on your own life. Are you stuck in a place where you are not psychically developing? Maybe you should do something to change that, unlike the main character of this show. “The author needs to add some hope of recovery, so that the audience can actually care about what happens on stage” – there actually was a moment of hope, which reviewer Marie Bonfils didn’t notice, which makes me question if she was actually paying attention to the content she was reviewing. That moment of hope involved characters Rosemary and Jeremiah meeting and falling in love. Now, the show is a tragedy, so without spoilers, I’ll let you fill in some of the blanks. Does that mean that RiOT, or Seth, or I, or the cast, or anyone else who has promoted the show is saying that there’s no such thing as hope and that we should give in? No.
This show stands in a much larger context of play development history. In many ways, it takes its cues, not from modern tragedy like “Death of a Salesman” or “subUrbia,” but from the tradition of Theatre of Cruelty, which used abrasive noises, words, and actions – and sometimes literal, physical abuse of audience members – to force the audience to question their very reality. Per Wikipedia: “The Theatre of Cruelty (French: Théâtre de la Cruauté) is a surrealist form of theatre theorised by Antonin Artaud in his book The Theatre and its Double. ‘Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle,’ he writes, ‘the theatre is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.’ By ‘cruelty,’ Artaud referred not to sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, austere, physical determination to shatter the false reality that, he wrote, ‘lies like a shroud over our perceptions.'” That book was published in 1938, when WWII was ramping up, the effects of WWI on art in Europe were still deeply felt, when the exhaustion of the Great Depression was felt worldwide. Artaud’s world was not unlike our own: fearful of the coming war and unseen terrors, tired from spinning its economic wheels, and steeped in class warfare. Theatre of Cruelty wanted to wrestle a complacent middle class audience out of its stupor of happy endings (in melodrama and musicals) and make them understand that they were as responsible for their surroundings and their unhappiness as anyone else.
Now, things I would criticize about the play? Maria Bonfils is not wrong about the stereotypes involved. It’s obvious to blame an alcoholic teenage mother for later abusive actions or victim mentality, the inability to get out of surroundings, lethargy and ennui and drug use and foul language (although I would say that if specific words in a given language offend you, you should watch George Carlin’s 7 Words). This is a theme that made a recent appearance in a lot of Generation X era material, from Eric Bogosian’s “subUrbia” to MTV’s hit “My So-Called Life.” Gen X is notorious for its cultural ennui and carelessness with drugs. So yeah, the actual format of the story might be a little dated. Does that automatically make it pointless?
There’s a play, which was made into a rather famous movie, called “A Taste of Honey.” This is one of my favorite plays, ever, hands-down, and I had the opportunity to direct it some years ago. “Rosemary” reminds me very much of that play, and in very literal ways – teenage motherhood, alcoholic parents, physical and emotional abuse, poverty, drug use, abrasive music, disjointed scenes, foul language, a gay best friend. The play was originally performed in 1958. So these themes have been with us for, well, a long time.
Maybe it’s just taking too damn long for the complacent upper-middle class to get off its ass. That’s why we have to keep making this kind of art.
“Rosemary” is inspired – but not based on – real events. Reality is a cold bitch. People are murdered for no reason, for lots of reasons. People use drugs for lots of reasons. People abuse and are abused and that creates a cycle of viciousness and hurt. To show these real feelings onstage, with characters who do not change or grow into something specifically better (I’d argue that Rosemary actually does change, for the worse) is not to say there is no hope in the world. It does not invalidate the show. It does say that these are problems and we need to notice them in ourselves.
I think Marie Bonfils’s review actually show how effective and affecting the play is, because she was clearly disturbed.