The American Voice: When We Talk About Realism

“We need more weird plays.”
– Annie Baker, from an article in The Village Voice

A lot has been said about Annie Baker since her work first appeared on New York stages, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that a lot will continue to be said about her writing over the years.  Her work has played all over the U.S. and internationally, every production surrounded by interviews, preview articles, program notes, college lectures, panel discussions and reviews, each one an attempt to articulate that uncanny mixture of wonder, elation and despair we experience when watching her plays.  Having just spent the better part of my day in an internet rabbit-hole that a Google search about Annie led me down, I’m sitting down to write my own little piece about her, perplexed by what folks have said.   Philadelphia Weekly: “If the goal of realism is to imitate life on stage, The Aliens is one of the most realistic plays to come along in quite some time.”  An associate professor at Amherst: “Theater artists like Baker, perhaps now more than ever, seem committed to replicating and reenacting… [offering] an apt occasion to address the proliferation of ‘real-life’ based reenactments, our desires for realism, and the forms that promise to deliver it.”  Time Out New York: “[Baker’s] heartbreaking works of staggering focus have actually rescued realism from the aesthetic scrap heap.”  


The style “Realism” emerged in the theater in the nineteenth century as a distinct ideological movement, a reaction to the exalted, sensational plays of the Romantic era, and is perhaps best exemplified by Ibsen’s Ghosts or Doll House.   But over the years, the meaning of the word has slackened when applied to theater, become so imprecise that it has essentially lost any dependable meaning, sloppily and haphazardly assigned to any theater that employs three walls and some furniture;  just as “absurdism” is assigned to anything weird and “tragedy” assigned to anything sad.  (And anyway, aren’t other modern movements like expressionism, impressionism and surrealism just as much in pursuit of reflecting how we “really” are?)  To categorize Annie Baker’s work as “realism” is to make assumptions about her intention that, to my understanding, are left of the mark.   If anything, her work more closely resembles naturalism (which, despite how it’s often defined, is not just Realism-plus), drawing characters driven by irrational, subconscious impulses, a whole set of causal principles bubbling beneath the surface.   But all of these words – realism, naturalism, and the like – are meant to be tools, not labels.  The distance that a play falls away from a style is far more interesting than how closely it resembles a style.  That’s where we learn about where a writer really lives.   Annie’s work is best taken on its own innovative, idiosyncratic terms; when it’s posited that her goal is to simply “imitate life,” I want to leap up on the nearest coffee table in my muddiest boots and protest.


Because, though her plays employ detailed, life-like stage designs, and though her characters speak in well-observed patterns, the properties of her plays, when you look at them, are actually very weird, erratic, subversive.  They question our reality, rather than affirm it, making our lives seem more complicated and astonishing, not more knowable.  In her program notes for Marin Theater Company’s production of Circle Mirror Transformation this past summer, Annie writes that her aim was to write “... a naturalistic play that paid such insane attention to everyday detail that everyday detail would become defamiliarized and incredibly strange.”  Her interest and considerable skill reach far beyond “replicating,” beyond “imitating life,” beyond photo-realism.  If you press the seemingly concrete semblance of the here and now far enough, the laws that hold together our perception of reality begin to break down.   Take a high-resolution photograph of a human face and zoom in on it down to the pores which, as you continue zooming start to resemble mountain ranges, topography of an alien planet, and then beyond that to where they become an infinitive, massive geometrical pattern.  There is a point at which scrupulous attention to detail begins to reveal not understanding or order but greater mystery, wonder, beauty, despair; in close-up, the world becomes less recognizable. In The Aliens, KJ asks:  “Picture the letter J.   And then picture another J.   Sitting next to it.   And I say to you:  J is the same thing as J.  But how do you prove that?”


Time in an Annie Baker play bends and warps as she gently insists that we pay attention to strange details that we may have otherwise, in a more tautly paced and logical work, overlooked.  The silences that fill the room in her plays, it seems to me, are not the real-life pauses of contemporary speech, but moments in time stretched out past comfort so that we might begin to see far beyond what the normal pace of our lives allows.  We become painfully aware of the great distances people must travel simply to communicate.   We stop and pay attention to the spinning of a hula hoop; to the random movements of an ordinary exercise ball when it’s sitting alone in an empty room; to the life-span of a sparkler on Independence Day; to the sticky trash left behind on the floor of a movie theater after the movie is done.  We hear a character’s compulsive repetition of the word “ladder” until it no longer sounds like any word we’ve ever heard before.  We zoom in on five Vermonters laying still on the floor and trying to count to ten until the awkward struggle feels epic and impossible. “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life,” wrote Viktor Shklovskly, famously.  “It exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.  Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”


While I’d shake a stick at anyone who categorizes her work as realism and doesn’t look more closely at the way these plays really operate, the invention of her writing – the relentless dissection and loving scrutiny of people, space and time – is a clear pursuit of what’s real.  But reality is fragile, a carefully held balance (as any madman can attest) that is always susceptible of tilting one way or another, taking us into some unfamiliar new territory.   Annie Baker’s plays, as they flicker before us like the light from a projector in her new play, are a loving reminder of this.

Adam Greenfield, Director of New Play Development
December 2012