Theater As A Meritocracy

The very concept of merit is increasing under attack as Social Justice Warriors argue that the myth of a meritocracy is used to justify a history of exclusion and elitism. Considering that theater is an arena for high achievement, high standards, and high art this attitude is self-defeating. If we abandon the notion of high achievement and high status then what is it that makes the marginalized want to take to the stage? It can’t be to get their message out there since the theater actually has a very small audience. Any political strategist will tell you that reaching 500 people a night with your message for a few weeks will not have any effect on an election.

The theater has cultural cachet. It has cultural prestige. People go to the theater to perform their cultural duty. They expect to see something the critics approve of. A serious play with high literary value or a musical that everyone is talking about. Nobody is going to go to the theater to do their political duty to see what the marginalized have to say, based solely on that criteria. When your justification for a show is that it is our turn now there is no promise of cultural prestige. Theater is inherently devoted to exceptional value and a demand that it ceases to be so devoted will merely destroy theater.

That being said, high merit can be an empty criteria used to exclude those who don’t fit in. When the cultural gatekeepers cannot put their finger on what constitutes talent, literary merit, worth, or high achievement then we might very well suspect them of being frauds. It is not that hard to articulate what makes a play a good play. For example, Shakespeare’s plays are valued because he had a sharp wit and many of his characters are witty. The audience enjoys the verbal sparing of witty characters. Shakespeare was also a poet and could express ideas very eloquently. Audiences have enjoyed his eloquence for centuries because it gives just the right expression for heightened emotions.

Poor writers and social critics might be excused if they fail to see the merit in Shakespeare given the fact that he is worshiped as a god of the theater. There is often a great reluctance to speculate about Shakespeare or to analyze his fine qualities except in the language of bombast and puffery. Shakespeare is pronounced the greatest writer who ever lived yet nobody will make the case for the greatness of his writing. The theater community is often guilty of promoting a production with such hyperbole. It is mindless boosterism and ultimately fails to convince the public of the enduring value of theater. Of course, it is a theater critic’s job to evaluate new productions and testify to their best qualities, but honest theater criticism is dying out. When all you hear are the shills you are likely to become cynical.

The failure to appreciate the true value of great dramatic writing is tragic. I would argue that there can be no great art without great appreciation for art. Shakespeare is not a great playwright for people who cannot appreciate Shakespeare. For them he might as well not exist. If the Social Justice Warriors get their way and the professional stage becomes an endless procession of ethic minorities who need some attention, then you will be left to your own devices. Most theater goers will shun this travesty and cut theater completely out of their life. However, for those who have a real sense of drama, there will always be nostalgia and the simple literary pleasure of reading a great play. It will have to be staged in the theater of their imagination and they will be restricted to old plays, but at least they will have that. Without a genuine appreciation for fine drama nothing will guide you to where it may still exist. Without a genuine need for fine drama you will quickly give up when nothing is readily available instead of searching to the ends of the earth. When great theater disappears from our culture it will also disappear from your life unless you are inclined to strive to seek it out. The lives of many cultured people will be greatly diminished but the true aesthete will still find his art wherever it can be found.

Although we may curse Social Justice Warriors for what they may do to theater, ultimately we should pity them because they value politics more than the theater and that is a consequence of seeing so little in theater. In other words, they are unable to appreciate theater and that is the true cause of their impoverishment, not a grand conspiracy of  the elite.

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