NEW YORK — American theatergoers are getting serious. Many of the shows commanding top dollar for tickets, both on and off Broadway, aren't just fluffy affairs featuring Tarzan swinging from the rafters or showtunes based on songs by The Four Seasons. They're plays with topics ripped from the headlines: terrorism ("The Lieutenant of Inishmore"), military culture ("Guardians"), racial discrimination ("Defiance"), educational pedagogy ("The History Boys"), and even the Iraq war ("Stuff Happens").
These productions and others are part of a resurgence of theater's role as social commentator. That legacy traces its way from World War II through Shakespeare back to the Greek tragedies, when playwrights probed the hot-button issues of the day. The popularity of the current crop of "morality plays" is a reflection of the public using art to find answers to some of today's toughest questions.
"In troubled times, there are two interrelated instincts. One is escapism and the other is to use culture to grapple with anxieties and difficulties of the age," says Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public Theatre, which is currently producing David Hare's "Stuff Happens," a British import that the playwright describes as "a history play that happens to be based on recent history" - specifically the lead up to US and British attack on Iraq. Actors portray President Bush and his cabinet members in play, which includes portions of actual speeches. Hare claims that nothing in "Stuff Happens" is "knowingly untrue" as he speculates about what went on behind closed doors.
"We're finally coming out of a period in which culture, to a huge extent, avoided and escaped the reality of crises facing us," Mr. Eustis says. "There's a hunger for culture that speaks to what's going on and aims to clarify."
Audience members welcome the chance to see contemporary issues come to life on stage.
"I watch CNN all the time and I don't agree with the way it gives me news. I want to find out what really happened," says Missy Hargraves, a self-dubbed "almost political activist" and actor who lives in New York, after seeing "Stuff Happens." "[The play] gives us more insight into what's going on."
At the Public, an off-Broadway theater established by Joseph Papp 50 years ago, that kind of reaction is de rigueur. It suits what the theater calls Papp's legacy: "Creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas." That appetite for weighty fare has also reached audiences on Broadway, where ticket sales for plays has increased by 27 percent since 2000-01, versus just a 13 percent increase for musicals over the same period, according to a report by the League of American Theatres and Producers.
Shows such as John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," about abuse by a Catholic priest in the 1960s; Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," a black comedy about the gory mishaps of Irish terrorists; and even "The History Boys," another British import about the purpose of education, by Allen Bennett, fulfill theater's primary purpose - to entertain. But they also raise moral questions and ethical conundrums, reminiscent of the very foundations on which the art form was built. Consider, for instance, that in ancient Greece, it was each citizen's civic duty to attend plays, just as Americans are required to perform jury duty. These playwrights ask us to pass judgment on the issues that we are exposed to daily.
Critics may claim that these morality plays simply preach to the converted, that they present the same liberal leaning as the mainstream media. But according to one playwright, his role is not that of commentator but of a scrupulous behavioral scientist, dissecting the thought processes of those with opposite ideals. Peter Morris's latest play, "Guardians," involves two monologues, each based on a recent media spectacle: A journalist's explanation of the motivation for publishing staged photos of torture in a British tabloid is interwoven with a monologue by a character based on Lynndie England, the American soldier pictured in the Abu Ghraib photos.
"Drama allows playwrights and actors and audiences to take seriously what other people think - people who aren't necessarily like themselves," says Morris.
When the play ran in London, British critics gave Morris credit for not demonizing the female soldier. "I want her to feel more real or imagine my way into that position in way that TV doesn't allow ... to let people make up their own minds, rather than tell them what to think," says Morris.
Producers are often drawn to stories that seem relevant to the times. "I have to produce things that grab me," says Randall Wreghitt, producer of "Inishmore," billed as "Monty Python meets Quentin Tarantino." "Theater is a direct reflection of society. It's amazing to me that McDonagh wrote this play a few years ago. It grows more and more timely and I don't think it'll ever be dated."
For some, the resurgence of political plays is reminiscent of another era when a bigger war was afoot.
"You saw it in the 1930s, but a lot of those plays haven't lasted," says Morris. "The '30s were exciting in a way that all of sudden, all political lines seemed to be getting redrawn. Then it faded away in the age of big Broadway hit musicals." He says that "Guardians" evolved because, as global politics grew increasingly thorny, contemporary artists, too, were forced to become engaged.
"Not just with 9/11, but starting with the strange election in 2000 through the Iraq invasion, all of a sudden it felt like none of the old rules applied," he says. "Politics isn't just a matter of two nearly identical parties in a boring stalemate. Lines were being redrawn in ways that were never expected."
Information and tickets available at broadway.com
Doubt Walter Kerr Theatre 218 West 48 Street (open run)
Guardians The Culture Project 45 Bleecker Street (through May 25)
The History Boys Broadhurst Theater 235 West 44th St. (through Sept. 20)
The Lieutenant of Inishmore Lyceum Theatre 149 West 45th Street (through Sept. 3)
Stuff Happens Public Theatre 425 Lafayette St. (through June 25)