Friday, December 10, 2010


The Times today has an appraisal of Ed Schmidt's farewell to theater, "My Last Play." While the conceit -- a playwright ends his career in a monologue performed in his actual home, marking the earnestness of his declaration by allowing audience members to depart with one tome from his library at the end -- might be somewhat affecting, the self-reverence of the enterprise is decidedly not.

Two years ago Ed Schmidt, a New York playwright, got word that his father was near death in upstate New York. He bundled his family into the car and drove north, explaining to his young children on the way the sad fact that Grandpa might not recognize them when they got there. As it happened, they arrived minutes too late; Willie Schmidt, a former history teacher and camp director, had died, probably as they were parking the car.

That night, seeking solace, the younger Mr. Schmidt read the final act of his favorite American play, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” That’s the one in which Emily Webb, a woman who has died far too young, revisits her family kitchen on the morning of her 10th birthday and discovers the agonizing truth about how little value people place on the quotidian moments of their lives.

Mr. Schmidt, a sturdy, pleasant-looking man of 48, explains all this near the start of his new play, a solo piece that he is performing for 12 theatergoers at a time in the living room of his ground-floor apartment in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. “Our Town” failed him, however, he says. He felt no better, and that’s when he made the leap: If great theater is no use to him in a moment of crisis, then it’s not worth spending his life trying to create it.
The death of Schmidt's father is, of course, an event most deserving of empathy. His decision that theater has ultimately as a significant art form, however, is one that is only his business and no one else's. And then there's this:
After a recent performance one exiting theatergoer, evidently distressed and irritated, worried aloud that Mr. Schmidt was woefully depressed.

“He shouldn’t be telling this to us,” she said. “He should be telling it to a therapist.”
For years I have reduced my theory of how theater, personal experience, and especially identity politics fit together to one phrase: theater isn't therapy. While I usually have to do some bending of a particular work to apply this critique, I have yet to encounter a work that so completely embodies the example. Until now.

Mr. Schmidt, I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry that you feel theater failed you in your moment of need. But for the love of all that is holy, to charge people money for your therapy session is insulting, and confirms the worst suspicions people outside the form have of those who practice it.

You do make a fair trade of a book of your library for their ticket. There's that. But here's hoping your title is indeed a promise.

[NYTimes, My Last Play]

[UPDATE: Within the first three paragraphs on the play's website, he compares himself to both Shakespeare and Moliere. Never mind -- he's a self-important blowhard who deserves obscurity. Good riddance to bad rubbish.]

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