Thursday, July 8, 2010

Merrily We Roll Along

“I’m going to work like seven devils.” - Richard Niles
Merrily We Roll Along, Kaufman & Hart
In October, 1936 the Cleveland Play House produced Merrily We Roll Along, Kaufman & Hart’s hit 1934 Broadway comedy. If you can call it a comedy. I mean, it’s hilarious, but it is dark, too. It is not, however, a “dark comedy.” The production was a great success for the Play House, playing to sold-out houses.

I had never read it before, never seen it, never really read about it. I know about Sondheim’s musical, which I now really, really want to experience, because I love Sondheim more than I love George S. Kaufman.

Who gets to come up with an idea first? The structure of this play is novel, and yet very, very tricky. Put simply, every scene happens in reverse chronological order, from a fancy post-show opening party in New York in 1934, to 1927, then 1926, 1925 and so on, and we end at a college graduation in 1916. We see characters as adults at the pinnacle of success, or after a fall, and watch the decisions they made to get there, the compromises, the mistakes, the love and anger, the hard work, and the easy breaks.

In reaching back in time, it is too easy to make the knowing gag. I could write a play right now about 1936 that is one, big knowing gag. We know how history has played out, and by having someone say something ignorant, or unknowable, we all groan or laugh or worst of all, smirk. That doesn’t happen in this play, it’s one big open wound. There are plenty of “don’t open that box!" moments, but that doesn’t make us feel smug. Because we know we would have done the same thing. It makes me sad.

There is a point in Red when Rothko, with intense incredulity, asks his young apprentice if he seriously believes that in 100 years anyone will remember Andy Warhol. It’s a cheap joke. It’s supposed to illustrate Rothko’s tunnel-vision, but it only makes him seem, to us, clueless and stupid. See how fun that is? You are smarter about art than Mark Rothko. Good for you.

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