What’s Next?  “Postmodernism! The Musical”?

This is apparently the season of the improbable stage production here in SoCal. Two much-acclaimed works of cultural criticism (each with ties to the journalistic tradition, but with very different results) have been set loose upon the stage in L.A. this fall. I saw one this weekend, which sadly maintains the self-congratulatory analysis-free (and solution-free) sensitivity to the plight of the oppressed of its originary text. (This production has also led me to the conclusion that the revolving set is the worst catastrophe ever to be visited upon the legitimate theater.) The other, which originated in New York last year, I haven’t seen, but am somewhat curious about. At least there’s something inherently theatrical about the original text, having performance as its subject, but nonetheless — can the critical import of the analysis of a performance be fed back into performance?

There’s something in this new trend, I think, that bodes well for the future of scholarship. No longer content with the mythical crossover book, which extends beyond its academic audience to reach a general readership, the scholarly author can now have as a grail the sale of stage (or, perhaps, even film) rights to her newest monograph. In fact, I am thinking of taking on as a new project the stage and/or film adaptation of other works of criticism. Any suggestions?


  1. Well, Harold Bloom is hot, considering the recent New Yorker piece – how about The Anxiety of Influence? That might be fun.

  2. Mmm. I’m picturing the big musical number with John Milton and the Covering Cherub.

    I’m also kinda thinking that Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble might make an interesting film. Or that could just be my lack of sleep talking.

  3. You know, it was only a few years ago when a certain medievalist friend and me cast all of the main parts of Paradise Lost (Gwyneth Paltrow as Eve, only if she uses her British accent, for example). Sadly, nothing to do with Harold Bloom can ever be filmed because Charles Laughton is no longer alive to play him.

    But I would like to get back to KF’s unhappiness with the book Nickel and Dimed itself. I thought it was an unflinching and long-overdue look at how 3/4 of America is living that no one wants to acknowledge. Ehrenreich (sp?) never offered the book as anything more than this, or am I being too forgiving of her original goals? Nevertheless, I certainly don’t see how it could successfully be mounted as a stage production without melting into some sort of icky finale using “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer.

    And does no one want to even contemplate Camille Paglia’s work brought to life?

  4. Hey there, CSA. I don’t discount the nobility of Ehrenreich’s goals in the book — though I guess the very nobility of those goals is part of the problem, as the play (and to a more muted extent, the book) suffers from a bizarre liberal twist on noblesse oblige. She does a good job of uncovering the actual difficulties of the lives of the working poor, yes. But the central message of the book (and especially the play) seems to me: “Look how sensitive I, Barbara Ehrenreich, am to the plight of the working poor.” Great. It’s awful. But what do we do about it? All Ehrenreich gives us, in the very last paragraph, is the very toned-down suggestion of future revolution, which she then tones down even further by suggesting that “we’ll all be better off for it.” We will? If the upper-middle class readers of this book will be better off after a class-based revolution, how can anything possibly change?

    This book (and again, worse, the play) struck me as being genuinely about class issues in the same way that A Beautiful Mind was genuinely about the mentally ill; both are designed to make their audiences feel good about their own sensitivity to the difficulties that the less fortunate face, so that we can continue to feel good about ourselves as human beings despite avoiding those unpleasant homeless schizophrenics in the street and underpaying our cleaning help.

  5. Ah, yes. When you put it like that, I completely understand what you are miffed about. I guess because I began with the premise that it was a book about class issues –thus, by extension it was going to be a treatise exposing horrid class issues while doing nothing about them– that I was not so troubled by its arriving at no conclusions. Instead, I thought she hearkened back to Studs Terkel, and that’s not a bad thing. Or is that now a bad thing and I am once again showing my ignorance as to what is currently deemed acceptable or not in that genre?

    I guess I just keep coming back to –brace yourselves– teachable moments. I thought the book was a teachable moment, a text that, because of its press, would expose a lot more people to the horrors of the working poor in this country. Like my classroom, I am happiest not when the class in toto understands a moment in Shakespeare (though those are wonderfully satisfying moments), but when one student actually thinks differently for the first time.

    When did I get this lame?

  6. CSA, I’m not so sure I’d call lame on your positive estimation of the “teachable moments” of Nickel and Dimed — which I might simply recast as “good points.”

    I’m of two minds on this book (jeez, when am I not?) — on the one hand, I understand the frustration expressed with the stunt at the heart of Ehrenreich’s effort — to the extent that she “performs” the role of a working-class woman without the burden of having to live that role, she allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking that the performance itself is laudable, and in fact threatens to obscure the complicated reality of many peoples’ working lives by stapling her own limited experience of these jobs on them. I remember that she got a number of letters in Harpers to this effect, from people who felt that their working lives were belittled by Ehrenreich’s portrait of them as meaningless and/or humiliating. The idea of a staged performance of the book certainly sounds like…well, like an obnoxious spectacle of the heroic smartmouth in the groanworthy Michael Moore vein.

    However….OK, I read only the sections of Nickel and Dimed that have been reproduced in magazines; so perhaps my view is overly constrained. But my impression was that, despite the validity of the above criticisms, I still found Ehrenreich’s argument salutary. To wit, her primary stated purpose was to challenge the assumptions about the physical and economic outlines of working-class life drawn by conservative “reformers” who have been preaching the doctrine of self-reliance and the reduction of government economic aid to lower-income individuals. This doctrine rests on the assumption that a well-behaved person, without addictions or crippling medical problems, who “works hard” will be able to earn enough to support self & dependants and, indeed, become upwardly mobile through savings etcetera; and that government assistance and regulation of the workplace is fundamentally damaging to the self-esteem and to the broadest opportunity for employment that these individuals have.

    And I think that, on the whole, the stuff of hers that I read was a well-timed rebuke — aimed not at the die-hard conservatives who make these arguments most loudly, but at fence-sitting middle-of-the-roaders who would prefer to believe in the truths offered by the Republican party (and increasingly by Clintonian biz-friendly Democrats), but who sometimes vote differently if a particularly pungent truth (like the difficulty of actually finding a permanent home on waitress wages) is rubbed in their faces.

    Along the way, she also had some good points for the effects on the family caused by hiring someone to come into your house and clean up after you. I took that as immensely valuable, considering that more and more of the people (me included) hire someone to come in and clean. We’re moving yearly toward a more thoroughly stratified society of owners, knowledge-workers, and service workers. This happens, Ehrenreich’s work reminds us, not just economically but socially and psychologically — my employment of a woman to clean my bathroom is my own personal contribution to the creation of a reality in which there is a real and lasting difference between the lives of her children and of mine.

    It’s true that her work is rife with distracting pronouncements, and doesn’t offer anything tangible in the way of solutions. But I found it, as a critique of increasingly popular political views to be valuable.

    OK, now someone explain why I’m the lame one…

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