Anyone who follows my blog knows that I’m no stranger to being down on things that are critically acclaimed. However, for the most part, I try not to begrudge whatever the critically acclaimed things the success they have. Usually I can chalk it up to difference in taste and move on.
However recently I saw a stage production (kindly called an opera) that got four stars and a prominent review from the Chicago Tribune.
This made me really angry.
I reviewed the production in question- Orpheus and Euridice by Ricky Ian Gordon- for a school publication and you can check it out here if you’re so inclined. I’m more measured in my critique there, but the basic gist of it is that this opera is amazingly boring. There is no story to be found in it. Or rather, there is a story but it’s told in the “this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened” format. And it’s absolutely mind-numbing.
This ‘opera’ managed to take what’s arguably one of the most haunting and tragic stories in mythology and turn it into a stew of insipid lyrics and cardboard characters. It made absolutely no effort to develop the story. Yes, there was unique staging and admittedly gorgeous spectacle. But there was no story. Just endless operatic narration with no life to it at all.
Now, there is an argument to be made that the setting should get consideration when evaluating the merits of a play. For those of you who didn’t click my actual review (why didn’t you? It won’t bite), the setting is an indoor pool and it’s handled beautifully. But setting and spectacle alone should not be enough cause to overlook the significant flaws in the telling of the story. Even as an opera, this production disappointed. The main singer was incredibly skilled, yes, but she had atrocious material to work with and she was the only singer. It’s rather disappointing to go into a show expecting storytelling through song and multiple characters and instead get a lone balladeer.
But truthfully my biggest gripe with the high rating Orpheus and Euridice received is that it seems to indicate a really troubling trend in the way we tell stories. And that trend is that we’ve… kind of stopped telling them.
I’m mostly referring here to critically acclaimed things. The stories that are touted by the critics and the academic forces in the world generally have nothing actually happening in them. They might be a depiction of life or an extended character sketches, but very rarely are they stories. And even when they are stories, they barely qualify. They’re stories about nothing, or how a certain event shows that life is really meaningless. Often in such stories the interactions dance around a main point and never tackle it, and though certain issues of human nature are brought up, they are never fully faced.
I hate that.
I hate the tendency in acclaimed literature to write about nothing but the banal aspects of life. Or rather, I hate that such aspects are presented as banal. You know who wrote about boring everyday people? Flannery O’Connor. Leo Tolstoy. William Shakespeare. Yet their tales are anything but boring because they know that people- even the boring everyday ones- have worth. They weren’t afraid to confront the fact that people face issues far greater than the daily drudge of grocery shopping- sometimes while grocery shopping. They weren’t afraid to examine the internal issues, both spiritual and philosophical, of what it means to live well and be human. Most important, I think, they weren’t afraid to examine the consequences of the choices made in pursuit of living.
A lot of critically acclaimed fiction seems to be content depicting only the act of living. And I think in good fiction, there has to be more. Yes, I think that learning how to live well (morally speaking) in the everyday is incredibly important. But depicting scenes of one person moving through the world without taking anything from it does nothing to help that learning.
Fiction needs to be more concerned than it is with what happens when someone tries to do something to or in the world and faces the repercussions. That’s why the opera failed. It depicted people moving through life in nothing but pantomime. It did so beautifully. But is that really all that that opera should be doing, especially when it can be doing so much more?
That ultimately is why I’m disappointed in the review the production got. I want shallowness to be held accountable, especially when it’s being presented as something profound. I am sick of movement being presented as meaningful action. Above all, I want our stories to really grapple with what it means to take action and struggle with reality.
Maybe then there would be more thought about to do after we set down the book or exit the theater doors.