Regarding Issues of Updating Some of My Plays: Beyond Therapy, Laughing Wild, A History of the American Film, Baby with the Bathwater, Betty’s Summer Vacation, Sister Mary Ignatius…
Many of my plays have references to popular culture and personalities from the period in which they are written. And as time has gone by, some of these references seem dated or aren’t recognized by current audiences. And I’ve been asked from time to time to “update” these references so the plays seem more current.
And in several instances I’ve tried to do that, but have found that the attempts have not been satisfactory. Either the “updates” have frankly not been as funny as the original references; or sometimes they’ve been too tied to our current time, and you wonder why the characters don’t talk about other events and personalities from the current time.
So here’s the short version of my request and advice: I think these plays are best done set in their original periods.
The core of these plays still seem relevant to me: Beyond Therapy is about the struggles of people trying to find relationships; Laughing Wild is about the difficulties of being alive in general, especially in the intensity of cities; Sister Mary Ignatius… is about the dangers of authoritarianism – otherwise known as strong willed people imposing their beliefs on others (and presenting beliefs as facts); Baby with the Bathwater is about how hard it is to be a parent, and how even harder to be a child; and A History of the American Film is about how the archetypes in movies express the inner dreams of Americans, and how those dreams started to go sour in the mid-60s and 70s.
(Wow! So that’s what those plays are about. I don’t usually analyze themes that way.)
And within those plays, if there are references that the audience doesn’t get, I think back on myself as a child watching the movies of the 30s and 40s on television.
There were lots of references I didn’t get in those films, and yet I could glean their meaning by the context and by the way the characters spoke of them.
From Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and Auntie Mame (1958) I learned that “restricted” was the code word used to indicate that Jews were not welcome or allowed in certain hotels and clubs.
From Mrs. Miniver (1942) I learned that “the Blitz” was the terrible bombing that the British endured on their homeland during World War II.
From A Man’s Castle (1933), Golddiggers of 1933, and My Man Godfrey (1936) I learned of “shanty towns”, where penniless Americans lived in dilapidated shacks (or “shanties”) during the Depression (a slightly more complex version of the homeless people who live in cardboard boxes in our day).
From My Man Godfrey I learned of “scavenger hunts”, a game where people had to race to see who would be first to find everything on a list of weird items (things like a waffle iron, a gorilla suit, a sword – all odd non-sequitors). In My Man Godfrey the flighty heiress (Carole Lombard) had to find a “Forgotten Man” – who ended up being Godfrey (William Powell), an educated man now a hobo living in a Shanty Town.
(Note: both scavenger hunts and Shanty Towns figure significantly in A History of the American Film.)
I contend that it was part of those films’ value that I learned about the times in which they were made.
And it is my contention that the plays I list above have information about the times in which they were written that is of value, and should not be thrown away by attempts to update somehow to the present.