“It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature, should so commonly be considered together with it, or as a branch of it. Among these misfortunes we may reckon the depreciation of Fantasy. For in part at least this depreciation is due to the natural desire of critics to cry up the forms of literature or imagination that they themselves, innately or by training, prefer.
“And criticism in a country that has produced so great a Drama, and possesses the works of William Shakespeare, tends to be far too dramatic. But Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy…this is, of course, partly due to the fact that the producers of drama have to, or try to, work with mechanism to represent either Fantasy or Magic…though done with some ingenuity of lighting, disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.
A reason, more important, I think, than the inadequacy of stage-effects, is this: Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. To introduce, even with mechanical success, into this quasi-magical secondary world a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or tertiary world. It is a world too much. To make such a thing may not be impossible. I have never seen it done with success. But at least it cannot be claimed as the proper mode of Drama, in which walking and talking people have been found to be the natural instruments of Art and illusion.”
So I’m on my annual Tolkien kick — The Lord of the Rings is the first book I read by myself, and I’ve re-read it at least once a year since I was six years old. I’m convinced that he was the greatest author of the twentieth century, and that maybe the critics will catch up with him in the twenty-first.
The above excerpt comes from a famous essay by him, called “On Fairy-Stories.” Speaking as a writer who’s devoted the vast bulk of his career to the creation of fantasy for the stage, I’ve joked that my plays have all been part of a kind of protracted argument with this essay.
When I was a teenager growing up in Rochester, my favorite theatre was Jeune Lune. I’d hitch a ride up to Minneapolis every chance I could get (and any chance I could find someone willing to make the two-hour drive), to catch whatever their latest show was.
I remember watching a young, hapless Luverne Seifert being bounced between three contemptuous French clowns in The Three Musketeers, a foam ass-crack and what seemed like a dozen doors opening and closing at once in Honeymoon China. I remember watching knives arcing through the air above me in The Kitchen. I remember a flying cardboard cut-out of a car in Red Harvest. I remember Steven Epp’s Tartuffe, twisting quick as a snake, snatching an apple with his teeth, and a Golem that was seen more in shadows than substance. I have a recollection of an angelic voice emerging from a living pile of pink feathers in their first opera, The Magic Flute, and one of a roll of toilet paper unraveling in The Government Inspector.
I have a clear image of a giant stone head rolling its eyes comically in The Green Bird, and a Hamlet, ankle-deep in a pool of water, with a knife perched, almost listlessly, over his wrist. I remember a grieving father, spitting grief and vitriol, at the end of Medea; two old men stepping in unison in The Seagull; a Figaro who barked like a dog. I remember watching Carmen wrapped in sheets of cloth, and watching my parents watch The Ballroom, a retrospective of the same years that they’d grown up in.
I remember watching The Miser clutching fistfuls of dollar bills to his chest in his own coffin, and the wily servant of Don Juan Giovanni, Sganarelle, screaming a long, breathless monologue, of all the things that terrified him about his country. Above all I remember Gulliver: A Swift Journey — because everybody has to have a favorite — a dizzying whorl of visual and verbal invention that still ranks among the most life-changing theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.
Now, I have no idea how accurate any of those recollections are — because the great blessing, and the great curse, of our medium is how damn ephemeral it is. It’s a blessing, because those images have passed into the landscape of my mind now. It’s a curse, because they’ve just announced that that’s now the only place that those images will exist. This May, I had the opportunity to fulfil a childhood dream by performing on that stage for a Fringe fundraiser — and I’m glad I got the chance, because it looks like it was my last one.
Somewhere along the line, they became a local institution, and we all stopped going to see their shows. Criticism of their work became quite popular, and I’ll confess I found myself raising an eyebrow at dozens of decisions I saw the company making in later years.
But they came along at just the right time to have a profound effect on my own formation as an artist. Lord knows, I’ve seen plenty of theatre since then, and plenty of shit that makes what they did look tame — but they were among the first to introduce me to the breadth of what our medium is capable of. There’s a degree to which the kind of theatre I write is in the shadow of what they tried to achieve, and for that I’m in their debt.
Another artist whose shadow I inhabit is Tolkien, and though my admiration for him runs, if anything, deeper — he was wrong about theatre. And I’d argue that that’s due to the limitations of what he was exposed to — he referred to the “failure of the bastard form, pantomime,” and he was absolutely right to do so.
But he never saw Jeune Lune, and there’s a vast array of tools for creating fantasy on stage that he never conceived of. Not tools of mechanical invention, but of physical, vocal, and visual transformation. At their best, they succeeded in creating that “tertiary world.” And in a national theatre that’s so obsessed with navel-gazing psychology and politics, the creation of a theatre obsessed with the landscape of the imagination, and the countless nuances found there, is an achievement worth remembering.