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Satellite photos of Great Burnham Wood

Benjamin Rosenbaum has an interesting note about the past’s future, wherein he complains about (to simplify beyond recognition) stories that are set in the future, but it’s the future of 1985, a future without (or largely without) GPS and social media, or rather a future with a feigned ignorance of those things. There is a deeper point, and a wider one, but to go off on my own tangent…

A world with GPS and social media is a world that (it seems to me) is very difficult to tell stories about. Everywhere around the plot, and all through it, you have to ask yourself: why didn’t he just text her? Why don’t they link to a picture of the Mysterious Stranger and ask their friends if they know him? Why don’t they use the app to find out if it’s poisonous? Why doesn’t he look at her recent calls? Why don’t they just Google it?

The obvious answer to that is to set things either in the past or in a future that is lower-tech than our present. I think the dystopias and post-holocausts that have become so prevalent are derived from our present day anxieties and millennialism—but also because it’s an easy solution to this plot problem. In The Wikkeling, for instance, there is a vast network, but (a) it only shows what The Man wants you to see, and (2) it’s broken. That’s better than the another book I recently finished, Floors, which simply ignored the existence of mobile phones or the internet altogether, while having fantastical advances in things like holography, controlled magnetic levitation, and, um, stuff. There were good things about Floors, and there were bad things about The Wikkeling; I’m just thinking about this GPS/social media thing. And, because that’s the way I am, the theater.

My Best Reader and I are working on a playscript which is set in the present day, and I am finding the mobile thing difficult. Two or three of the people involved would be very connected—texting and tweeting and so on—and I want to work it in as a plot point, or at least as a series of jokes. It does, for instance, allow two characters from different class and social circles who would otherwise have never met to have a history together. On the other hand, nobody wants to watch an actor thumb-typing for minutes on end. And as it’s a farce, there will be times when the plot relies on imperfect communication; a properly written and read tweet would screw everything up by unscrewing everything up, as it were. And texted crosstalk isn’t funny on-stage. Nor is Damn You Autocorrect. And the cheap tricks—accidentally swapping phones so that the wrong person gets the text, or sending the text to the wrong person, or the reply-all thing—are all cheap tricks, and obviously so. Deadening. The easier cop-out is to set the thing in 1985. Or, as Mr. Rosenbaum says, to collude with the audience in a feigned ignorance of the last twenty years, a refusal of now.

So. Here’s my question for Gentle Readers: Can you come up with examples of plays set in the last twenty years that Get it Right? At least partially? Any aspect of it, of course, but mostly I’m thinking of the plot-point problem where the audience thinks why don’t they…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I am very interested in the answers you receive. I unfortunately have not seen a lot of plays set in the last 20 years, so I am no help. But I do think that the problems thus posed are not any greater than those posed by the introduction of, say, the telephone -- playwrights must have been very irritated at the idea of conversations which you could only show ONE SIDE OF, until someone had the idea of introducing some convention whereby different speakers could be, say, at different sides of the stage, nominally in different locations. And of course if you are creative you can think of lots of fun things to do with conversations we only hear one side of.

It seems to me that one major decision is, which parts of life are you performing on the stage? This is a decision any play must make; certain hours and settings are always elided. So the question is, does the typed communication take place onstage or off? If it takes place onstage, you obviously must dramatize it, just as you would do with a letter. Naturalistically, someone can read a letter aloud for a plot-justified reason (just as someone can yank a smart phone away from someone else and insist on reading the last few text exchanges aloud for the amusement of gathered friends). Non-naturalistically, letters and texts can be dramatized however - monologues, a chorus, a speaker. You can establish a convention where characters speak aloud what they're texting to each other. This is an advantage of theater over cinema, right? Cinema is much more bound to naturalistic presentation, while theater audiences can learn and then parse any convention -- consider musicals! which always look sort of absurd on the big screen... And actually, a convention whereby texts and tweets are sung would not be such a bad one.

If you decide that the "online world" is offstage, that also offers lots of possibilities. The audience of course does not need to know everything. I can imagine great mileage out of one character onscreen madly texting away and refusing to answer the other present characters' questions about what he is doing -- imperiously holding up one finger while never taking his eyes from the tiny screen. And perhaps the audience never DOES find out what he was about -- there are only hilariously obscure references to it. Or perhaps, as with anything else that's offstage, it's implied by action or summarized in dialogue.

From a dramaturgical standpoint the problem you're talking about is the fact that we are constantly sending each other letters -- very many, very fast, very often (in a sense this is not so unlike upper-class Victorian London where the mail arrived 4 times a day).

We are very often -- most of the time, in fact -- engaged in things that would not be exciting on stage; drafting architectural plans, say, or sleeping, or reading a book. A play is thus always a collection of anomalous moments -- moments where we happen to be together, speaking interestingly about something interesting -- or else finds a way of dramatizing the essentially undramatic. Right?

I just spoke to the playwright I know here at the institution that employs me, and she said she was unaware of any play that gets that sort of thing right. There's Dead Man's Cell Phone, which I had thought of, but that is fifteen or twenty year old technology, and doesn't involve our ability to look up anything at any time. She was intrigued by the notion, though, both because of the plot device and the deeper question about our sense of wonder when we can look stuff up.

I do think there could be conventions for mobile internet use (projection is cheap now!) and we haven't settled on them yet, which makes it difficult for a playwright (or director) to speak the language of the audience, if you know what I mean. The thing I am worried about at the moment, in a practical way, is how we deal with the plot problems that come up when anything can be looked up anywhere, instantly. Or, rather, the plot problems that don't come up. As in the fellow who is lost in the woods, and you get angry over the nonexistence of GPS; I get cranky about the nonexistence of Google-for-mobile-devices.


I don't see a lot of contemporary plays, so I'm not in a position to comment on the issue based on any evidence about plays.

My sense was that The West Wing during the Sorkin years got cellphones and pagers pretty much right. The pilot includes an embarrassing moment when Sam discovers that he has inadvertently switched cell phones with the woman he spent the night with. I also remember in the final scene of one episode Josh's then-girlfriend grabbed his cell phone and dropped it in a pot of soup to prevent him from making a call that would have set in motion a chain of political events she did not want to see initiated.

As to plot problems--different technologies lead to different problems. If communication technology renders the tried-and-true conventions of farce too improbable to work any longer, the playwright of genius will discern the potentials for farcical error inherent in the technology.

As audience members, the theater would like us to forget for a while that we have cell phones. Don't talk, text, tweet, take photos, or look up the actors on ibdb. I wonder if that's harder to do if we see characters on stage making good use of modern technology?

Michael—there was a story last season about a theater somewhere (maybe LA?) that experimented with setting aside a portion of the seats for device-users. That is, if you were sitting in the special section, you could tweet away with the management's blessing; if you were not in the special section, turn it off. The management claimed that the layout of the theater meant that the twitterpates would not distract the rest of the crowd with their eerie glow and their twitching hands. And, of course, the management hoped that the word-of-thumb would result in more ticket sales. I don't know how that turned out.


I've been trying desperately to find an article I read or story I heard (I'm fairly sure this was either in the New Yorker, or on NPR) about an experimental stage production recently that included asking the audience to install a special app. Then the show included stuff that showed up in the app; I believe it was along the lines of seeing Facebook updates from the characters or some such.

One might turn Michael's point in a slightly different direction: if the action of the play is not compelling enough to keep the characters from whipping out the cell phone to text their friends, is it likely to be compelling enough to keep the audience from doing so?

I'd heard that trend was spreading, so it's at least perceived as successful. I suspect that like most marketing efforts, it's hard to know what really pays off. Personally, I hate it. I find the bright screens insanely distracting.

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