When the lead theater critic of the nation's newspaper of record, The New York Times, extols a play about do-it-yourself abortion, three things become clear: the poverty of contemporary criticism, the poverty of contemporary drama, and the weakness of liberalism's argument for choice.
Taking the last first:
* Choice as liberalism's argument for abortion is easily subject to abuse; after all, murder is a choice, too. Which is what the two teenage girls in this play -- Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel -- are engaged in, and giggling while they murder. Choice is good, but when it impinges on another life -- as here, on the life of the fetus -- serious moral examination is required.
In this play, there's none. There's just the need to get rid of an annoyance. The girls do what comes to hand: "Punch me," says the pregnant girl. The critic elaborates:
"The two girls don't know the protocol for sitting on someone's stomach for medical reasons. So they improvise, awkwardly and goofily, with one planting her rump on the midsection of the other, which leads to both of them convulsing into giggles. The girl being sat upon laughs so hard that she wets herself."
After various exertions onstage, the critic writes:
"Be warned: [The] scene, which portrays the ultimate result of Amy's search to end her pregnancy, is almost unbearable to watch. [The actors] rise beautifully to the challenge posed here, which is a tough one on many levels."
How profoundly corrupt, how profoundly sad. In this context, there's no rumination on the implications and gravity of choice, nor reference to the embryonic child -- his or her character, capacities, dreams. And the prevailing frame that pro-choice advocates now use, that abortion be "safe, legal and rare," doesn't figure here either. One has to wonder: Played out in this manner, is this what choice hath wrought?
* As for the poverty of contemporary drama: After several generations of playwrights "pushing the edge" deeper into human pathology and leaching their dramas of moral content -- playwrights like David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter -- we now have their artistic grandchildren: conscience-free and impulse-driven. How sad, how... undramatic.
For that matter, if the essence of Drama is conflict, then a play in which two central characters want the same thing -- as here: abortion -- and who encounter no obstacle in their quest, as is also the case here, then such play is inherently undramatic and is instead spectacle. Where is the dramatic conflict? Not understanding her material, Ms. Siegel took a moral question and made it into a mere relationship play, the default mode for much contemporary drama. And the critic does not challenge her choice: "It is not -- repeat not -- an Abortion Play in capital letters, in the solemn, soapy manner of many a made-for-TV movie." Where is the critique? I don't want soapy either, but solemn would befit this subject.
Several generations of playwriting workshops have drummed off the premises the plays addressing moral questions. But moral questioning, of self and of others, makes for riveting drama. See: Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, Arthur Miller's The Price. I would argue our anxious and unhappy age could use more of what workshops, and some critics, pejoratively label "morality" or "issue" plays.
* As for the poverty of contemporary criticism: Critics are a culture's gatekeepers, exerting great sway by opening or closing the gate to artistic output. By giving the thumbs-up to heedless spectacles such as this play, Mr. Brantley further blurs the moral line and discourages the playwrights of conscience. Oh, the critic does admit to a "clammy, premonitory chill" at the do-it-yourself abortion performed onstage: Clammy premonitory chills are what happen when a moral boundary is breached.
Anything-goes liberalism, conscience-free artists and critics: All are symptoms of a culture and a nation in decline. I wonder, though, do these artists and critics even notice the downward tilt?
I say all this as a playwright, a feminist, and a liberal -- a liberal who protests liberalism's licentiousness. Principled action -- in policy, in the arts, in criticism -- is the only way to reverse America's decline.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, has published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is working on a play titled "Prodigal." Her forthcoming book of commentary, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is due out soon. An earlier book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009.