THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – November 10, 1997
Why should playwrights go to the trouble of inventing stories when they can recycle celebrity lives?
WHEN E. L. DOCTOROW’S “RAGTIME” was published, in 1975, it incited months of “Whither fiction?” chatter. The novel used well-known historical figures as characters––a device that, at the time, passed for formal innovation. This recombinant literary DNA, a conversation piece twenty-two years ago, is now so pervasive that we hardly notice it. Today’s serious-fiction best-sellers brim with real celebrities—Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Lenny Bruce in Don DeLillo’s “Underworld,” for instance. In the movies, biographical portraits are flourishing, in two flavors: flamboyant sinners (“The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Howard Stern’s “Private Parts”) and living saints (the Dalai Lama is the subject of two bio-pics).
No medium, however, has become infatuated by real people so suddenly and so thoroughly as the theatre. Shakespeare wrote his histories, and New York seasons have always had a new biographical show or two: Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain, or, back when there were beloved politicians, a hagiography of a beloved politician—“Sunrise at Campobello,” in the fifties; “Fiorello!,” in the sixties; “Golda,” in the seventies.
But lately it has become a craze, with ten or twelve a year—so many that by now there are overflowing subgenres. The categories include Giants of the Turn of the Century (“Camping with Henry and Tom,” about Ford and Edison; Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” co-starring Einstein); Queens of the Mid-Century Manhattan Beau Monde (“Tru,” “Master Class,” and “Full Gallop,” about Capote, Callas, and Vreeland); Sexual Freaks in London (“Stanley,” about the erotomaniacal painter Stanley Spencer); and, hybrid of hybrids, Freakish Sex Queens of the Turn-of-the-Century London Beau Monde, featuring “Vita and Virginia,” about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf; “Gross Indecency,” based on Oscar Wilde’s sodomy trials; and David Hare’s forthcoming “The Judas Kiss,” also about Wilde.
This week, “Defying Gravity,” a play about the Challenger disaster, opens. Next week, it’s “Jackie,” a show about Mrs. Onassis, followed by a Broadway revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and a musical version of Doctorow’s “Ragtime.”
The glut represents the convergence of several long-running cultural trends. In the first place, one-person plays are cheap to produce. Then, there’s simple celebrity obsession—the same Zeitgeist that propels People drove the eighties book-publishing fad for biographies and now gives theatre audiences an unembarrassed taste for shows about Patsy Cline and John Barrymore. It’s also a late-stage postmodern crossbreeding of reality and entertainment: from Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Tom Wolfe’s novelized journalism, and agitprop plays like “The Chicago Conspiracy Trial”—artifact plus production value equals art—to “The World’s Deadliest Swarms,” Court TV, “Pop-Up Video,” and CNN’s special theme music for its Diana-death coverage. With nonfiction being produced and consumed as entertainment, the theatre is reciprocating. Contemporary audiences, conditioned by the hyperrealism of movies and TV, do not easily suspend disbelief when presented with the stylized unreality of live theatre. Playwrights and producers now end-run that problem: instead of suspending disbelief, these shows use “real” characters to fortify belief.
“The Capeman,” Paul Simon’s imminent Broadway musical, is about a real Puerto Rican teen-ager who stabbed two white kids to death on Manhattan’s west side in 1959, two years into the original Broadway run of “West Side Story.” It may be the first instance of Broadway imitating life imitating Broadway imitating life. By the time “Capeman” opens, in December, we will have read and heard a great deal about the actual killer and victims. In this Oliver Stone age, the historical-accuracy debate has itself become a P.R. tactic, a form of pre-marketing. “Not everything in the play happened,” Simon said at a recent private performance of songs from his show, “but it is more or less true. I remember the story from when it happened, but I can’t remember exactly what I remember.”
For the last couple of decades, almost every creative field has seemed to be locked in a cul-de-sac, compulsively recycling past glories, and biographical plays are of a piece with this chronic retromania. For a producer, a show about a real person is tempting as a trick of oxymoronic alchemy—a play with the sentimental familiarity of a revival and the virgin excitement of the never before seen. The main character is a pre-sold brand. (The same strange dynamic is what has just turned the rejiggered “Candle in the Wind” into the best-selling single of all time.) “There’s a hole,” says one well-known impresario who has worked on biographical shows. “People writing truly original stuff—those people just aren’t writing plays anymore.” The director Gregory Mosher says, “It’s a tremendous problem to write a new story. Writers sit down and say, ‘Nope—that’s already been done.’ ”
Of course, as a replacement for make-believe, biography is apt to be a short-lived gambit. In the book business, straight biography, after its run in the eighties, is pretty much tapped out commercially. “It’s a hard category,” one leading literary agent told me. “Seven, eight, even five years ago, it was different. But we’ve run out of interesting people.”