A World of Excuses: The Oregon Trail

I’ve read the postmodernists with some interest, even admiration. But when I read them, I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he’s not talking about something abstract. He’s not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It’s something very concrete. It’s you and me talking. Making decisions. Doing things and taking the consequences.

Robert Solomon in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life

I’ve spent the last two years in quarantine from theater. No theatergoing. No reviews. No social gatherings. It is not the first time I’ve put the theater on hiatus. It is however the first time it’s been forced. Over the past two years the opportunities have been few to see live theater, even fewer to enjoy it.

Whenever I return from a theatergoing hiatus, the first thing on my mind is to re-establish matters of fact. Who is producing theater right now? How many theaters? How many plays? Where are they being produced? What plays? Without that, it is impossible to get a handle on where capital-T Theater is in contemporary America.

As part of my most recent fact-finding mission, I have had my last two theater experiences in Tacoma and in Federal Way — far from what Seattleites would smugly refer to as the center of theater in the Pacific Northwest. This might seem immaterial to some. It is not. In my experience, both the faults and the graces of prestigious LORT theaters endowed with money and resources transmit to small “regional” or “community” theaters — but especially faults. Visiting under-the-radar theaters clarifies quickly what the radar misses as well as what it accepts as normal.

The production of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail at Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way tells me several things about Seattle theater.

  1. Theaters value acting over writing.
  2. Playwrights envy television and film script writers to the point of cribbing not only their tropes but their devices.
  3. Portraying emotion on stage is fundamentally embarrassing in American theater.
  4. American playwrights have not gotten over postmodernism.

I find the script for The Oregon Trail downright obnoxious. The way that the author insists on handling time like it’s just another movie with flashbacks and flashforwards categorically fails for me since, you know, I’m in a theater and I’m expecting a play. If I want montage devices, I’ll go watch Battlefield Earth. Beyond its obviously faux-cinematic structure, it is substantially problematic as well, committing as it does two of my cardinal sins of playwrighting: the deus ex machina and the You Must Care presumption.

At the end of the play where the two timelines converge, the playwright has clearly written themselves into a corner and so — poof! Witchcraft. No, seriously. In an otherwise naturalistic drama about yet another uninteresting bourgeois character, the protagonist enacts a ritual, burns some sage, and bam! Instantly in the next scene that same character the audience has been led to believe is hopelessly dour now magically has all the answers to give to another character about that character’s own suffering. That both are female-bodied, light-skinned, privileged bourgeois characters does not make it worse or any better. The device is so absurd and inorganic that it could have been the two most interesting people on earth and it would still offend me.

Concerning the second sin, I believe the playwright here has asked me to accept that every single scene in the play is important simply because it happens to a bourgeois female-bodied character. I draw this conclusion based on the utterly static quality of the protagonist’s arc. The protagonist has no real choices given to her by The Game which is of course embodied by a male character. The choices offered by The Game are routinely rejected by The Game itself, forcing the protagonist to do whatever the playwright says. So why should I care what happens? But since everyone in the audience of course gets all the in-jokes and references from having played The Oregon Trail computer game themselves, they must surely sympathize. After all, the game is so difficult and frustrating it makes one feel powerless, and thus whatever happens to the poor powerless middle class female simply must be the fault of The Game itself, and one simply must sympathize with her sorry plight.

To put it politely, this is crap. On the simplest structural level, if there are no choices and not even the appearance of choice, there is no drama. But on the moral level it is even more vulgar. It is an insistence that because one does not determine the initial conditions of life, the universe itself, and everything within, that one is forced to do exactly what one does. This is the old claim that “society made me what I am,” the ideal response to which is Otto’s in Alex Cox’s Repo Man: “That’s bullshit, you’re a white suburban punk, like me.” Indeed even within the play itself one can see what nonsense it is.

Jane’s sister starts out as an artist (a violinist). Surely this is even less of a starting point than Jane gets from The Game, where at least Jane gets to play. Her sister does not even get to “play the game” of Oregon Trail, yet she has an apartment and a job. Furthermore, when The Game does give Jane real options, she chooses the worst one available, as she does with Billy. That’s not the fault of The Game; that’s completely on her. But of course, even this is rigged. The audience knows she’s going to choose the worst thing because the alternatives the playwright “offers” are undramatic and even less interesting than the obvious outcome of answering a text from a middle school flame as an adult.

The actors who are uniformly pleasant and even occasionally brilliant have done their level best to conceal the fundamental flaws of the script, but there is no way to make it much better. Sure, they can play for laughs — Americans love laughing in theaters, even when they’re watching something as bleak as Sarah Kane or Harold Pinter. But they can’t make the play into what it is not, and it is not responsible.

I sound very down on The Oregon Trail. And I am. But The Oregon Trail is far from unusual. I’ve seen a couple dozen plays with exactly the same sentimentality and presumptuous fatalism, yet those plays are greatly praised and rewarded. American playwrights over the past two decades, perhaps even the last three, tend to resort to sentiment when they are afraid of the reality of genuine emotion. This is clear in the plays of Donald Margulies and Tracy Letts no less than in The Oregon Trail yet middlebrow critics everywhere praise their genius. Just as clearly, playwrights resort to fatalism when the consequences of having to choose are either incalculable or unbearable.

But I’m tired of sentimentality and fatalism. I’m tired of art without emotion or worse, with foregone emotions, completely filtered and made to order like a tech bro with an Uber Eats menu. I appreciate awkward emo youth filled with gloom and alienation as much as the next person. I reject the fundamental dishonesty in telling me that this gloom and alienation are inherently dramatic, or that drama can be evoked simply by allusion. Drama, too, has to include responsibility, you and me talking, making decisions, doing things and taking the consequences. Otherwise dramatists are simply adding to the world of excuses.

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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