Ain't Cultcha Great by Ken Ludwig
Article for Show People Magazine
Who knew that Mel Gibson and I had so much in common? Is it our dashing good looks? (I wish.) Those multi-million dollar salaries for our latest projects? (I’m still wishing.) Our devotion to Sponge Bob Square Pants? (Unlikely.)
No, the fact of the matter is, we’ve both just created new works involving the Passion of Christ. Mel has produced and directed a new (highly controversial) movie about the Crucifixion entitled The Passion. My next show on Broadway is an adaptation of the 1932 Hecht-MacArthur play Twentieth Century. In Twentieth Century, a maniacal stage director (played by Alec Baldwin) desperately needs to get his former lover and leading lady (played by Anne Heche) into his next Broadway show because he’s down on his luck and her name sells a lot of tickets. The trouble is, she won’t sign up unless the play and the role are good enough. So what does he come up with? Mary Magdalene in the Passion Play! The same story that Mel just filmed! Talk about relevant. I’m on the cutting edge.
But wait, the saga continues. I read recently that Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian impresario who used to produce big musicals, has just produced a new movie entitled The Gospel of John about – yup – Christ and the Crucifixion. So while Mel and Garth have just produced matching “cruciflicks,” I’ve been busy adapting a play about a director putting on – what? – a cruciplay?
This amazing similarity in artistic destiny suggests to me that Mel, Garth and I are part of a trend: the combination of high culture and popular culture in a single work of art.
Mind you, I’m not saying this is a brand new idea. Look at Roy Lichtenstein with his comic book images hanging in the Met. Or J. Seward Johnson, whose latest sculptures riff so playfully on Renoir paintings. Or for that matter, the mechanicals putting on an earnest but naive version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But new or not, trend or not, it only recently became apparent to me that I’ve been doing this sort of thing – combining high culture and popular culture – for years. (And until now quite subconsciously.)
Lend Me A Tenor is a boulevard comedy about an opera company doing Verdi’s Otello. To this day I’m proud of talking Victor Garber into wearing tights, a ruff and black makeup while singing in Italian.
In Moon Over Buffalo, a down-at-heels acting company is performing Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives at the same time (literally, as it turns out). And in a coup of meta theatre worthy of Pirandello, I was lucky enough to get Carol Burnett, the greatest television comedienne of all time (in my humble view), to play the zany actress who is playing Roxane, then spouting Shakespeare. I have fond memories of Carol – being the good sport that she is – sinking her teeth into iambic pentameter, then looking at me with one of those looks she used to reserve for Harvey Korman and saying, “Ken, you have got to be kidding.” (Robert Goulet, who also starred, said something similar but unprintable.)
Two of my latest plays continue the high culture-popular culture dichotomy. In Leading Ladies, two Shakespearean actors who are down on their luck are touring the Amish country, performing scenes from Shakespeare’s plays in the local Moose Lodge.
My other new play, Shakespeare in Hollywood, which was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and just had its world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, is a backstage comedy about the filming of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Warner Brothers Pictures in 1934. It shows us Jimmy Cagney spouting Shakespeare while Jack Warner’s brothers yell at him for producing the film in the first place. (“But fellas,” he cries, “this Shakespeare stuff ain’t all bad! I read some this morning and there are parts in English!”) High art. Popular culture. My play was inspired by the abundance of movies that have come out recently based on Shakespeare’s plays. One of them was Hamlet starring … you got it … Mel Gibson. Will life’s ironies never cease?
Now comes the Big Question. What is it about the combination of high culture and popular culture that is so electrifying? (“Shakespeare in Hollywood shocks millions!”) Well, interesting.
1. IT’S FUN! The kind of fun people want to see. And we need fun, right now especially.
2. Great works of art are innately illuminating, rich, educational and worthwhile for a thousand different reasons. By couching high art in the world of popular film or screwball comedy, we make Shakespeare and opera and, yes, the Bible, accessible and user-friendly. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I watched a student matinee the other day of Shakespeare in Hollywood. Not only did the kids and their teachers whoop and holler – but afterwards, one of the kids came up to me and said, “This Shakespeare stuff sounds pretty cool. I’m gonna go read some.” (Honest to God. That’s what he said.) Doors are being opened here.
3. It makes us feel like Derek Jeter.
Let’s face it: us theatre people are sick and tired of hearing about the crowds in Yankee Stadium numbering 58,000 people for a single game while we sit around performing our guts out in Brecht and Beckett for 50 lost souls in a converted garage. Even on Broadway it’s maybe 900 people on a good night for a straight play – compared to fifty-eight thousand customers watching David Wells scratch his crotch.
Why can’t we get that kind of a crowd for theatre? The Greeks did. So I have a brilliant solution.
We should broadcast our shows every night on the radio and have play-by-play and color commentators commenting as the shows are being performed, just like in sports. This could generate great excitement, especially for plays by Chekhov where it’s really needed.
It might go something like this, as Tim McCarver and Jim Palmer give us the play-by-play on The Three Sisters starring Carol Burnett, Robert Goulet and Lynn Redgrave (together again after Moon Over Buffalo).
Tim: “Jim, we’ve got a helluva day for this match-up, don’t we. It’s sunny out, 75 degrees, with a nice cool breeze. But of course we’re all locked in this dark little room, so it doesn’t matter. But wait, here comes Miss B playing Masha. Or is it Olga? I can never quite keep ’em straight.”
Jim: “Tim, I generally just check out the numbers on the backs of their costumes. That usually keeps ’em straight for me. Whup – there it is, number 43, she’s playing Olga.”
Tim: “I’d say she looks nicely rested and ready for a good show. Now wait a second, here comes her first line, let’s listen …… Yes! Oh man, that was clear as a bell and just beautifully articulated. Heck, I felt like I was right back in Mother Russia with that one.”
Jim: “And did you see the way her hand gesture put a spin on the line? I don’t think any of us were expecting that!”
Tim: “And holy cow, what an opening line that Anton Chekhov wrote. “It’s exactly a year ago that Father died.” Is that a great way to open a play or what?”
Jim: “Just terrific, Tim. Though I’d say we shouldn’t look for a lot of laughs tonight.”
Tim: “Well that’s right, Jim. It’s gonna be a two-hanky night, if you ask me. Now while the clock strikes twelve, let’s take a minute to check the line-up. In addition to Miss B, we’ve got Bobby Goulet playing Vershinin – and I hear he’s in great shape tonight; and...Hold it now, the audience just broke into applause. Somebody’s coming through the French doors … yes! it’s Lynn Redgrave as Irena, and does she look hot tonight!"
Jim: “Tim, I think you mean hot in the sense of a middle-class Russian woman whose life is destined to end in wasted solitude and oblivion.”
Tim: “That’s exactly what I mean, Jim. But wait a second! Listen! Lynn just said her first line. She said: “Need we bring up all these sad memories!” Did you hear that?! I have never, ever heard that line delivered like that. Oh my God, the place is going nuts! The audience is on their feet screaming and cheering! They’re doing the wave! It’s spreading through the entire theatre and out into the street! Ladies and gentlemen, this is theatre at its very best!”
I agree. Now all we need is somebody to walk up and down the aisles during the show selling beer and hot dogs and we’ve got it made.