Saturday, November 15, 2008

Our coming "coalonoscopy"

Jacob Leibenluft, Ben Elgin, and Jeff Biggers argue here, here, and here that the idea of “clean coal” is absurd. If it is, where does that leave West Virginia?

Even in good times, coal is a blessing and a curse. The industry provides 42,000 well-paying jobs in a state that doesn’t have nearly enough and coal severance taxes pump $400 million a year into West Virginia’s state government assuring solvency at a time when other states are staggered by deficits and debt. But, coal’s benefits come at the price of environmental degradation, floods, tops blown off our mountains, and broken bodies.

In short, coal provides us with a livelihood while killing us, a paradox to which West Virginians are long accustomed if not reconciled. But, aware that the price of oil can go to $150/barrel and buoyed by President-elect Obama and nearly all Republicans singing the praises of “clean coal” as a key component in achieving “energy independence” (another idea that many experts consider absurd), a lot of West Virginians are willing to renew our vows with the promise of coal, however flawed.

After all, we’ve known for a long time that nothing good comes from coal without exacting a steep price, a deal we’ve always accepted. But, as the costs of coal are nationalized and internationalized, we shouldn’t be surprised if our fellow citizens choose not to accept the deal. And, if they don’t, what then? No more coal industry?

I’ve wondered before what West Virginia would be like had there been no coal. Would we be Vermont with a twang? A place where cow burps produce more greenhouse gasses than power plants and the internal combustion engine? Would Abraham Lincoln have seen a place with few economic prospects and, instead of declaring it a state, decided West Virginia was better suited to be a national park?

But, virginity is not recoverable. Of course, neither is the coal industry going to grind to a halt over night. So, where will that leave us? Probably where we’ve been – lurching along year to year with our coal dreams that are equal parts aspiration and dread.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Of Incest and Authenticity

A few years ago the artistic director of a major theatre told me that, if I wanted my play, RAIN IN THE HOLLOWS (since retitled CLAUDIE HUKILL), to be produced in New York, I should change the play’s setting from the hollers of West Virginia to the west coast of Ireland. He even offered suggestions about how the play’s dialogue might be tweaked . . . no major revisions, mind you . . . to lend it the necessary “authenticity”.

What the artistic director was less clear about was why a change in setting unaccompanied by any change in the play’s substance should make theaters and presumably their audiences more receptive. On reflection, I think it’s fairly clear that he felt RAIN IN THE HOLLOWS, a play that employs magical realism to explore the nuances of family relationships, would be more “accessible” to audiences if it were set in Ireland.

Why should that be the case? Well, Ireland unlike West Virginia has produced a stream of playwrights over the last century – Synge, O’Casey, Friel, McPherson, and others – who have written highly nuanced works in this vein, so perhaps audience members, although most of them have probably never set foot in Ireland, are able to relate more readily to the “Irish peasant experience” than they are to the equally distant, but rarely staged, “Appalachian mountain experience”.

That’s the polite way to describe it. There is, however, a darker interpretation that goes like this. Audiences either can’t or don’t want to identify with characters whose lives, which they associate with ignorance, provincialism, and bigotry, they look down upon. In other words, audience members might not be able to get past their caricatured notions of Appalachian hill people to find their underlying shared humanity.

Whichever interpretation is more accurate, the episode reminds us that the mere mention of place can evoke in audiences waves of emotions, images, and preconceptions . . . a phenomenon that good playwrights use to imbue their plays with color, texture, and context without having to devote pages of dialogue to tedious description – what playwrights call “exposition”. That’s a good thing, but it’s a good thing that can have a distressing consequence.

Calling upon peoples’ preconceptions also means calling upon their prejudices. In fact, by willfully employing audiences’ prejudices, playwrights, whether intentionally or unintentionally, validate them. An example is seen in the frequently produced play, THE SPITFIRE GRILL, in which a young woman recently released from prison travels to a remote lake town in Northern Wisconsin to start over. When we hear that the crime for which she was briefly imprisoned was murder, we are also told that she killed her own father at whose hands she was the victim of incest.

Normally this kind of revelation is, as my mentor and fellow playwright Ernie Joselovitz would say, a hand grenade that a playwright can’t simply roll out in the middle of the stage and leave unexploded. INCEST! My God! The audience wants to know! But, if that’s not really what the play is about and the playwright needs to get off the topic and move on, what does he do? The playwrights of THE SPITFIRE GRILL (James Valcq and Fred Alley) add a line explaining that the young woman is from West Virginia.

Why does that simple piece of information bring closure to the issue of incest . . . defuse the hand grenade so to speak? Because incest is what audiences expect to happen in West Virginia. No further explanation required and, in fact, the playwrights give us none. Would further explanation have been required had the young woman hailed from New York, California, Florida, or other more presumably cosmopolitan places? Certainly.

I won’t go into statistics showing that incest is no more prevalent in West Virginia than it is in other places, but will merely observe that the writers of THE SPITFIRE GRILL didn’t feel compelled to look at the statistics either before dropping this little tidbit in the play. But, does this tiny exploitation of the preconceptions that audience members hold about West Virginia really do any damage? I don’t know, but I do wonder if THE SPITFIRE GRILL might have been seen by a woman I met in New York recently who, upon being told that I live in West Virginia, casually asked, “Why?”