No Damn Picture is Worth It: Time Stands Still

Photo by David Hsieh.
Photo by David Hsieh.

There is a moment in Donald Margulies’ play where a rather inebriated Jamie rails against a hit play that claims to portray life accurately in the Middle East. Bemoaning the fact that the play simply places the sufferings of others into a tidy pageantry that makes the liberal theatergoing audience of NYCNY feel less guilty about their plush lives, he ends with the observation that “we end with the favorite pastime of Lefties everywhere, preaching to the converted,” and notes that the Assads and Ahmadinejads of the world are not getting the message because they aren’t at the theater.

The cynicism about theater is well-founded if foolish–sermons to the converted are, after all, given every Sunday in churches across the world yet no one finds this a failure of religion. More subtly, however, one might note that the field of photojournalism shares precisely the same flaw. It parades endless images of suffering for that same largely liberal audience of people who are made to feel guilty about their lives while giving them no real power to change anything. Furthermore it’s just as clear that the Assads and Ahmadinejads of the world are not interested in such photo-essays–largely because they are busy creating their own images of reality to deliver unto the masses like so much Holy Writ via their state-owned media (q.v. Niki Akhavan’s book, Electronic Iran).

This seems like a fertile subject for an intellectual theatrical piece about ethical and political practice. Yet that is as far as the argument ever goes in ReAct Theatre’s production of Time Stands Still. It isn’t that Mr. Margulies isn’t capable of probing the argument. He is more than intelligent enough. It’s rather that he finds it somehow less interesting than the allure of interpersonal dynamics.

Even the author himself identifies the problem near the end of the play: this is a redux of Days of Wine and Roses. But in JP Miller’s teleplay the stakes for both characters are certain, the motivations clear, and the conflict even clearer. When, at the end of Days of Wine and Roses, Piper Laurie looks out the window at the flashing bar sign, horrified by her loneliness and self-destruction, her husband offers one reason for her to try to stay sober: their daughter. In having to choose between seeing a “prettier” world of eternal drunken stupor and the “dirtier” world of her daughter and husband, she blankly replies:

Photo by David Hsieh.
Photo by David Hsieh.
“I’m afraid I’m not that unselfish, Joe. Better give up on me.”

Therein lies the problem with Time Stands Still. All of Mr. Margulies’ characters, with the occasional exception of Jamie, are selfish, and the alleged protagonist is beyond selfish into self-centered. Sarah is uninteresting as a person. She is a famous photographer who has survived a fatal explosion. She is harsh, snippy, petty, and self-righteous, with exactly one moment of vulnerability in the entire piece.

Selfish people with no redeeming qualities are awfully drab dramatic material unless they are a piece of a greater argument. There is no greater argument here. Mr. Margulies never argues the morality of Sarah’s work or Sarah herself. Rather he creates simple dichotomy: the bourgeois life of Richard and Mandy’s May-December romance forms one dyad, and the turbulence of a Dog Days of August partnership–I dare not call what Sarah and James have a romance–forms the other. The conflict is supposed to come from the lure of comfort and a quiet bourgeois existence with children–children are always the biggest excuse for becoming a boring bourgeoisie–compared to the promise of an exciting career on the front lines.

That “exciting career” of photojournalism is a fiction of the 1960s, stemming largely from the mythology around Magnum Photos and especially the attempts of Chim and Robert Capa to turn the photojournalist into a type of Romantic hero. This mythology exudes from the play, most obviously when the author invokes the most notorious Capa story of all: the myth that Capa’s D-Day negatives were ruined by a darkroom assistant who turned up the heat too high and melted them. The eternal story of the heroic photojournalist against the small-minded, the wars, the world, the laws of physics themselves.

But the Capa myth is bullshit. The temperature necessary to melt the emulsion on those frames would have nearly incinerated them outright. As it all shakes down, it appears far more likely Capa himself screwed up the negatives, and in fact ran from battle, then blamed the loss of the negatives on the assistant because it made him seem more like a tragic hero–precisely the myth at work in Mr. Margulies’ play.

Yet here is no real critique of this Romantic hero myth in the play. Nor is there any particular argument about what Sarah does as a photographer. One is supposed to accept that she is one of those genius war photographers who was in an accident and whose misfortune was large enough for the national news. This is all merely backdrop for a conflict that is closer to drawing room drama than it is to the thoughtful examination of morality, ethics, politics, and human responsibility that reviewers seem to think the play is.

Photo by David Hsieh.
Photo by David Hsieh.
But the play is no moral discussion at all. The discussion is only about whether or not one should become yet another middle American bourgeoisie who watches movies and raises children, which is all that Jamie really wants with Sarah. The conflict here for Jamie and Sarah both is to choose between settling down into a nice bourgeois existence and continuing to live with the constant fear of death. And that conflict isn’t interesting to me. It’s even less interesting when the outcome is absolutely and totally predictable. There is no point at which Sarah seems that she is capable of doing anything else but romanticizing her career. Sarah is not a photographer so much as a junkie, with a savior complex and a touch of colonialist condescension. Even Jamie’s only real motivation to settle into a bourgeois existence is fear, plus the jealousy he feels from seeing Richard’s relationship. The conflict these two share is not moral. It is merely interpersonal. It is, in the worst sense, psychodrama.

How much more interesting it would be to question the morality behind the practice of photojournalism, the way that liberal play reviewers across the country seem to think the play does. Margulies makes hints at that moral conflict through the character of Mandy, who repeats almost verbatim the comments on Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize photograph from the Sudan, but it’s not presented as an argument. Sarah gives her explanation and that’s it. There is no sign she ever has, or indeed ever would, consider an alternative point of view. She is completely unmoved by what she does, and invincible in her attitude toward “work” which implies that she should be the seeing the shrink and not James. No argument, no conflict. No possibility of change, no drama.

The one character who has suitable movement is Jamie. Brian Pucheu plays him with a fine reserve, and despite his powerful stage presence truly shares his energy with those around him, making them all better. If anything, Jamie’s character is all too sympathetic and never seems to be particularly flawed or weak. Mr. Pucheu seizes on this fact but does whatever he can to give the character something of the spine he desperately lacks at all the wrong moments.

Maria Knox has a superhuman task to make Sarah even moderately interesting (respectable is even more unlikely, and likable is impossible). She succeeds at portraying the character Mr. Margulies has written and has little opportunity to create anything beyond that. I cannot fault her for trying. John Bianchi is in similar straits. Richard begins as, and remains to the end, a cipher with no particularly interesting qualities of his own other than to provide the author with a plot catalyst who models the behavior of resignation and refusal to fight. Mona Leach is the only one who actually gets help from the playwright, who does with her what I wish more writers would do: put the good arguments into the mouth of the least likable character. She carries herself quite capably through the role, though I wish there were more for her to do because her arc as a character is flatter than a Dwayne Wade jump shot.

Time Stands Still purports to make analysis that it does not. Instead of it being an exploration of current events or moral conflicts or anything of the sort, it merely mentions them in passing as it makes its own merry way toward being yet another middle-class drama about the end of a relationship. Jamie’s comment about theater preaching to the converted is poignant but it also hides another fact. The theater itself, like photography, makes nothing happen. Not because of what Mr. Margulies has said about journalism, that its audience has “compassion fatigue,” but rather because it, like photojournalism, accepts its own disenfranchisement as a matter of course. As photography critic A.D. Coleman notes:

This disenfranchisement can take many subtle forms: succumbing to the lures of the fine print as fetish object and/or the “aesthetic appeal” of poverty and oppression; avoiding the demands of linear thought and thus the difficult inquiry into chains of events, causes and effects, all of which involve one in the rigor of sequential imagery and image-text relationships; indulging oneself in simplistic bleeding heart empathy with victims, thus assuaging one’s own guilt without forcing oneself to undertake the more difficult challenge of developing solutions to their victimization; preaching to the converted; ignoring the very audience that must be engaged and persuaded if change is to come.

What’s true of photojournalism is certainly true of this play about photojournalism, and the theatrical mindset from which it stems. And as Mr. Coleman notes, this self-inflicted impotence assures future generations of photographers (and playwrights) that they too will have the same “tradition” to follow. In truth, no damn picture is worth it, and no damn play either.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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