What's with all the plays about plays?
May 9, 2010 8:48 PM   Subscribe

What's with all the plays about plays? Theater related question inside.

A year or so ago I my wife and I got a subscription to a local theater which puts on performances of plays/musicals. Prior to the theater my experience in plays was limited to basic pop culture. The one thing that has struck me each and every time we go is how many of plays and musicals are about plays and musicals. My wife, who has more theater knowledge than I do, tells me that this is a common occurrence and not just limited to what our local theater performs. As an example, some of the shows we have seen with this characteristic: Kiss Me Kate, 42nd Street, Noises Off, Chorus Line, The Producers, Arsenic and Old Lace (to a lesser extent, main character is a theater critic and references shows often).

I know other mediums often references themselves (movies about movies, songs which mention songs, etc), but it seems like theater takes this to a whole other level. I know a lot of old movies were about movies (perhaps more accurate to say 'shows about shows'), but that seems to have died out as time has gone on.

Anyway, my question is why is the subject or backdrop of so many plays/musicals a play/musical? Bonus Q: Any good papers/links on self-reference in theater and the fourth wall, post-modernism or philosophy in general.
posted by derivation to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In musicals, doing a "musical about a musical" is a really easy way to get some good songs in there without having to worry about working them into the plot. Sort of a cheap technique, but an oft-used one.
posted by brainmouse at 8:54 PM on May 9, 2010

Similarly, staging a stage is a lot cheaper than trying to make a realistic set of a house, which is why not only is it a common topic but also very popular with smaller theater/amateur companies.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:01 PM on May 9, 2010

They always say you should write about what you know. See also: how many protagonists in novels are writers.
posted by pompomtom at 9:10 PM on May 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Playwrights are naturally going to be people who find the subject of 'plays' fascinating, as are the people who run theaters and decide which plays to put on.
posted by Simon! at 9:11 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The keyword you want here is "metatheatricality." I did a quick GoogleBooks search and found the following references, which might get you started:

The play within the play: the performance of meta-theatre and self-reflection By Gerhard Fischer, Bernhard Greiner (Rodopi, 2007)

Drama and the postmodern: assessing the limits of metatheatre By Daniel K. Jernigan (Cambria, 2008)

Theatricality Ed. Tracy C. Davis, Thomas Postlewait (Cambridge, 2003)

And there are even more studies out there of metatheatrical elements in ancient Greek drama and Early Modern revenge tragedy.
posted by ms.codex at 9:35 PM on May 9, 2010

I disagree that it's a question of cost--the staging of a backstage area, for example, is going to be no cheaper than any other set.

Indeed, to expand on what ms.codex said, the general principle here is known as "postmodernism". Part of that development in the arts is a tendency to use the art to comment on the art. In addition to novels about writers (I'm talking to you, Stephen King), consider how many movies are about Hollywood and movie-making.

A final, additional reason is that audiences tend to perceive the artist's life as a glamorous one, so it's a natural subject for narrative art.

Is it relevant to note that "Shakespeare in Love" is playing in the background while I write this response?
posted by dbarefoot at 9:41 PM on May 9, 2010

Best answer: Probably familiarity does have a lot to do with the popularity of plays within plays, but there is a lot more to it than just that, Most of the plays you mentioned use the play within as a frame, the excuse for telling a story. Plays work really well for that. The whole commitment to staging a corporate work of art brings together very diverse personalities and separates them from the rest of the world for a valuable amount of time. That is a very handy thing to have happen when you need to present something and desperately need some kind of structure to contain it. Sure you can do the same thing in a real estate office, or on some random road, but that takes a greater mastery to create characters that are different enough and yet have enough in common to develop tension.

(John Barth does interesting, and I think wonderful, things with framing stories. That's fiction not drama, but many of the tropes and reasons are common to both. Hey, it is all storytelling.)

The play within a play isn't something new at all, it was practically a requirement in Elizabethan drama, and almost all of Shakespeare's plays use the trope (yes Shakespeare did have tropes, I'll have to check OED or on line to see if he had the word.) Taming is the only time he used a framing device though and it had little to do with the play. Other times he used it for foreshadowing or to break the action or to play to the groundlings a bit. Once he used it to make a king freak out.
posted by Some1 at 9:54 PM on May 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

To give another example of metatheatricality that predates postmodernism, Gilbert and Sullivan's Victorian operettas Thespis and The Grand Duke both have plots that hinge on actors taking over the roles of people in the real world.

I agree with Some1 that plays as an excuse for telling a story work particularly well. Rather than looking at novels about writers and movies about movies, it might be more enlightening to look at novels about plays and movies about plays. Think about why the play within the narrative exists within those stories, and see if it's for the same reasons, storywise, as the metatheatrical narratives you've seen.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:17 PM on May 9, 2010

We used to have a saying in journalism, "When there's nothing to write about, journalists start to write about each other."

In other words, when you have no story, an easy way to fill space is to write about the coverage of the story.

I suspect this happens in all forms of media.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:23 PM on May 9, 2010

Theater has a particular romance above many other art forms. It is an old art form, older than novels and films. It is an intimate art form, performed mere feet away from the faces of the audience. It is an art form you can't seriously get into for the big bucks. It requires a bit of nutty passion to be theater person. Mamet has a quote about theater whose exact words escape me - something about how the theater is like a church, for better and for worse, sacred and ritualized.

As such, I think plays-about-plays have a particular thematic and emotional oomph that even stories-about-writers and movies-about-movies don't have.

(I also think there are far, far, far too many plays about plays, but what do I know.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:27 PM on May 9, 2010

The playwrights are "quoting" Shakespeare, who used a play-within-a-play in Hamlet. If the Immortal Bard did it, they reason, why shouldn't I?

It also allows theatregoers to feel smug about themselves when they recognise the references. This is structurally the same thing as somebody noticing a reference within The Simpsons, except when you're watching The Simpsons you're normally at home and can't chuckle a stage laugh, to announce to all the other patrons how cultured you are, that you got the esoteric joke.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:57 PM on May 9, 2010

There's also a functional reason for doing it: getting the audience to suspend their disbelief. When you're watch a bunch of actors on stage begin to 'act' in a play that's taking place within the play, it's easier to believe in them as real people when they stop 'acting.'
posted by one_bean at 11:55 PM on May 9, 2010

Following on from one_bean: it can also be a device that deliberately provides a 'twist' - to keep the audience intellectually stimulated, I suppose.

I've seen more than a couple of plays that start out, and you're watching the drama & working out the characters, and then all of a sudden it's *cut* and a 'director' walks on & tells the people that they're doing it all wrong & they suddenly stop being the original characters that you thought they were, and instead they're actors playing actors & you have to start out all over again working out who's who & what's what.

It's a bit like any TV drama that includes a dream sequence, only you don't know this until the character wakes up and you're all DAMN THAT WAS JUST GETTING INTERESTING!
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:21 AM on May 10, 2010

Best answer: The first thing that came to my mind is L'Illusion Comique, by Corneille. But the wikipedia "Story within a Story" page has a whole section devoted to play within a play. I would say that the idea definitely belongs to the Baroque aesthetic. And of course, the idea is also present in Shakespeare's As You Like It.
posted by nicolin at 5:41 AM on May 10, 2010

I disagree that it's a question of cost--the staging of a backstage area, for example, is going to be no cheaper than any other set.

OTOH, I've seen stagings of Kiss Me Kate where one of the sets is just "raise the backdrop and show the back brick wall of the theater".
posted by smackfu at 6:47 AM on May 10, 2010

I also suspect that the audience for live theater is disproportionately made up of people who are or have been involved in the theater . They can identify with backstage drama and relive fond memories in a play about a play. This little bonus wouldn't be possible in, say, a police procedural.
posted by Clambone at 7:04 AM on May 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

The playwrights are "quoting" Shakespeare, who used a play-within-a-play in Hamlet

And not just in Hamlet, but in many plays - Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer...

That said, it isn't so much that contemporary musical writers are trying to be hip and reference Shakespeare. In the case of the musicals you mentioned, brainmouse is exactly right. The hardest part about writing a musical is trying to write songs that are both interesting and could potentially 'stand alone' (keep in mind that pop and musical theatre used to be indistinguishable) while at the same time fitting into the plot of the show. The easiest way around it? Make the musical about a musical. You see this all the time, in little ways like the end of the first act of Rent or Merrily We Roll Along to much grander meta-ness, like Chorus Line. A more commentary-esque version of this technique might be something like Follies (sondheim's).

The other thing to consider is that, frankly, musical theatre writers often don't know about a whole lot other than the theatre, and they write what they know.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:48 AM on May 10, 2010

I'm sure some of it is just writing what you know and therefore ending up with a show about putting on a show (the whole Rooney Garland "Hey, kids, let's put on a show" meme), but there is a long tradition of great playwrights, who have no trouble finding subjects for drama, doing it too: Mamet, Stoppard, Pirandello, Sheridan...

Playwrights seem fascinated with character and the weird process of actors becoming someone else and creating a new reality. Having plays within plays, actors being actors being characters, critics ending up on the stage, seeing what happens offstage, and so on gives them a wonderful way to play with their craft, twist meaning and reality, explore the essential nature of what they do and so on.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:58 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

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