Yesterday, in my Slog review of the wet-noodle American Buffalo at Seattle Rep, I said that David Mamet's strange (and strangely public) mission to become a successful conservative playwright was "a stupid move by its very premise—powerful drama is not built on the conservative impulse to defend conventions."
Slog reader Mack Sullivan takes exception with my quick and lazy generalization:
Dear Mr. Kiley,
Yesterday you wrote on the Slog that "powerful drama is not built on the conservative impulse to defend conventions." ... surely this can't be right: what about Aeschylus' Oresteia, which culminates in (among other things) a powerful defense of Athenian tradition? I'm not a conservative, so it wouldn't bother me if you turned out to be right (in fact, it'd tickle me), but surely any generalization which makes Aeschylus bad drama is a bad generalization.
Sincerely, Mack Sullivan
Good point, Mack.
I wasn't thinking about the Greeks, who lived in a slightly different universe when it came to their relationship between theater and the rest of life. But you're right: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and other Greeks wrote cautionary tales to defend conventions, the state, etc.
However! Those dramas were really built on deep, detailed descriptions of taboos being violated—upheaval porn.
They had to end with finger-wagging morals (don't do X or Y will happen), but that's not why we remember them. Their disruptions, violations, and rebellions ("you said what?" "you killed him?" "you fucked her?") are the good stuff, just like in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and other canonical stories that end with some obligatory tut-tutting about the restoration of order and normalcy.
American war movies (at least the iconic ones of the '70s and '80s) are in a similarly self-contradicting situation. Supposedly, they're about how "war is hell" and all that—but they aren't real arguments for pacifism or Switzerland-style neutrality. People go to see the guts, and revel in explosions. They're upheaval-porn, too.
So I'm not sure Aeschylus actually counts as a conservative playwright. But you make an interesting point, Mr. Sullivan.