Don't harass me about seeing my movies too late -- I'm a step ahead of you on that one. I never get to things on time. My latest much-too-late viewing was Lars Von Trier's Dogville. The movie has stuck with me, not only because of its content but the fresh and bruising way it used theatrical techniques to tell its story.
In fact, the thought that came immediately to mind as I saw the chalked outlines of Dogville's geography on Von Trier's soundstage, and then plunged into the skulking corruption of the townspeople as they trash the grace offered to them by the arrival of a stranger into their midst, is Thorton Wilder's Our Town. Or, more precisely, Dogville was the Our Town that Wilder wanted to write but didn't (or didn't know that he wanted to write).
I say this after also having watched, johnny-come-lately, the Spalding Grey/Eric Stoltz 1988 production of Our Town (also produced for television in 1989). The way that production was done made me hear the play unencrusted, made me hear it without the Paul Newman-esque Americana rotundities, made me hear the bare toleration Wilder had for the banalities and clichés that people willfully took up and misshaped into something they called "beliefs" and "principles" but which were nothing more than re-arranged prejudices and peeves. If he had been bolder in following the sounds in his ear and his heart, following the Brechtian principles that he found important and fundamental, he might have ended up with Dogville.
I know Von Trier was trashed by many critics for a supposed anti-American slant marbled into this work (from what I have heard, he has never visited this country), but the piece did not need such a slant to still dress down the self-serving righteousness that current American leaders and their sycophants and quislings use to gut progressive principles and ideals in service to a banal theocracy and an unchristian Christianity. All Von Trier did was take the platitudes that Wilder's denizens of Grover's Corners use to justify themselves and stretch their logic forward until conformity and "right-thinking" led to scapegoating and exploitation.
We need overtly political theatre in these times, and here in New York, we've gotten a lot of it lately, including a new piece out by International WOW called The Expense of Spirit, about the toll taken on a family by the suicide of a solider in Iraq. But the strictly political needs to also morph into the existential and moral, sail upon the broader seas of justice and injustice and the corruption of the soul when that soul can exercise unearned power with impunity (such as President Bush and his cohorts feel they have the right to do in these dark days). It needs to slip into a more depth-charged language that echoes the big narratives that haunt our cultural and spiritual memories: Prometheus, the Bible, Shakespeare. Our Town hints at that; Dogville refuses to hint at anything and exposes it all.
As we fight our political battles, of course we need to keep in clear sight the strategies and tactics of our local habitation, the issues that we can leverage into progress and redress. But we also need to have underneath these local and daily concerns that placental store of old stories and resonant language that can also help us track and cleanse the human capacity for self-deception and targeted cruelties. Theatre can do this as no other art form can because on the stage one can have the cosmic and the canned soup sit side by side and find each other in the other, all done in real time with real sweat and with consequences that can rasp our complacency like the tips of nails. I do not talk about doing theatre that makes us "good" but theatre that can "better" our unfinished humanity because the more we remain unfinished, the truer the truth that someone somewhere will have to pay dearly for it. Dogville hurt, but it hurt so good, as most growing pains do.