A Period Piece or Dated: Who Decides?

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Every play and musical is informed by three time periods: the time in which it was written, the time in which the story takes place, and the time in which it is being presented.  Those time periods will ultimately interconnect in a way that will determine whether the material is a period piece or just dated.  I have been ruminating on and squabbling about this variance since my college days.  While I don’t anticipate arriving at any definitive answers, I’ll make a few observations and pose a few questions at the risk of fanning the fires of the debate.

Time Out for Ginger, a successful if middling comedy from the mid-20th Century, may, at first glance, seem to be dated.  A period piece firmly entrenched at the advent of the Eisenhower era (it premiered the month he was elected in 1953), it concerns a girl who wants to play football on her high school team, and her supportive father’s uphill battle against the community at large for her right to do so.  No need to argue that a woman’s attempt to gain a toe-hold in an area deemed the exclusive domain of men remains timely (the glass ceiling-shattering DNC, anyone?).  And a man fighting the system, standing up to the masses for what he believes in, has never gone out of fashion.  So it would seem that, while the play is a period piece, its themes are not dated.  But wait.  Capitulating to her embarrassed sisters, one of whom is dating the captain of the football team, and her disapproving boyfriend, Ginger ultimately decides that it’s better to have a date on Friday night than to play in the stupid old football game.  When a story betrays its spine to trade on superficial social mores that have passed their expiration date, to me it becomes dated.  

Another barometer I use is how well the jokes have traveled through time.  A joke written in 1937 may not land today with the thigh-slap it did then, but that’s not my measure.  Is it a smart joke?  If so, you’ll get the gist even if you’re not familiar with Henry Wallace.  Does it illuminate something about the character who’s cracking it, or the character to whom it’s being said?  Or is it a puerile, ba-dum-bump toss off?  Stupid tends to date faster than smart, and by “smart” I don’t mean intellectual.  Smart has to do with where the joke is placed, who says it and under what circumstances.  And by “joke” I mean dialogue that is designed to get a laugh.  The words can be as nebulous as, “Well, thank you very much!”  

The so-called sex comedies of the 1960’s and ‘70’s are in a category all by themselves.  Neil Simon helped kick things off in 1961 with his first play, Come Blow Your Horn.  It follows a playboy taking advantage of the new sexual liberation and his envious, can’t-score brother who idolizes him.  Five years later Simon brought us, in a similar vein, The Star-Spangled Girl.  Many sex comedies came in between including Abe Burrow’s Cactus Flower, Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing, and Terence Frisby’s There’s a Girl in My Soup.  I think it’s safe to qualify all of these as period pieces, embedded within the sensibilities of the times in which they were written and are set.  But are they dated as well?  How many boob jokes can you get away with before it becomes tedious?  Boobs just aren’t as funny as they used to be.

In the case of There’s a Girl in My Soup, the title pretty much announces “Dated!”, doesn’t it?  But wait.  The play opened in 1966 in London where it rang up an unprecedented 2,547 performances during its seven-year run.  (Its record was later broken by two additional offerings to the popular genre, No Sex Please, We’re British and Run for Your Wife.)  It went on to enjoy a successful run on Broadway followed by a warmly received film adaptation so perhaps attention must be paid, right?  

The plot of …Girl… follows a lecherous, middle-aged, self-involved celebrity chef who falls for a 19-year-old hippie.  “My God, but you're lovely.” became the catchphrase of the moment when the film opened.  The plot is a by-the-numbers rendering of that old standby: boy meets, gets and loses girl.  But wait.  The denouement finds the leading man looking adoringly into a mirror and gushing, “My God, but you’re lovely.”  This narcissistic dip into self-aware satire may suddenly inform all that has come before, but is it too little, too late to save it from being dated?  Probably.

1965’s Boeing-Boeing, which also had a seven year run in London (where they have an annoying weakness for such trifles), concerns a swinging bachelor who finds himself engaged to three stewardesses and must scramble when they all end up in town at the same time.  Can a clearly dated play be elevated by an extraordinary cast?  It would seem so, if the 2008 revival is any indication.  Starring Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Gina Gershon and Mark Rylance, it ran for nearly 300 performances (the original ran a mere 23) and won the Tony for Best Revival.  It may be that the slamming doors of farce never get tired when well done, even if the story itself has become dated.  An exemplar of the genre, Noises Off, never seems to date even while landing a couple of good boob gags.

While Come Blow Your Horn is little more than a frivolous romp, it eventually finds the leading man questioning the fundamental spiritual and emotional emptiness of the playboy lifestyle.  Is that enough to save it from being dated?  Probably not, especially considering the plethora of stock yucks largely at the expense of pretty, vapid young women.  Star-Spangled Girl begins on a promising socio-political note as three pals are churning out a radical underground newspaper, sticking it to “the man.”  That backdrop may have ensured the play’s continued relevancy were it not dispatched with early in the proceeding in favor of two men fighting over who gets the girl.  Cactus Flower, from the man who gave us Guys & Dolls, exploits a suicide attempt in a stab at bringing gravity to the innocuous older man-younger woman cliché.  But simply tossing in a serious subject without elucidation does not keep it from feeling dated in its attitudes.

I cannot think of one play by the 20th Century American masters – Miller, Williams, O’Neil et al. – that is dated.  Because they deal in universal themes, often concerning the family unit, they remain relevant which is why they are still produced regularly.  For that very reason, this year’s Tony winning play, Stephen Karam’s The Humans, an investigation into one American family’s terrified psyche, will never become dated.  I’m not even sure it needs to become a period piece twenty or thirty years hence.  From the Great Depression through post war euphoria, the Camelot years and civil rights upheavals, the fears and survival mechanisms of the underclass haven’t changed much.  Perhaps tellingly, the published script denotes no time period, which leads me to wonder if the play is set on the night we’re seeing it.  

Is “dated” a dirty word, connoting “unenjoyable?”  Of course not.  Bye Bye Birdie may be dated but it’s still a lot of fun.  Conversely, O’Neill’s mask play, The Great God Brown, is not dated nor is it much fun.  So the in-conclusion I’ve come to is that “dated” is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.  I know a few guys for whom the skirt chasing antics of those old sex comedies would not seem the least bit dated.  Those same guys may well consider The Crucible irrelevant.  

Arthur Miller’s seminal play is a perfect example of how the convergence of timelines can inform a work.  His allegory of McCarthyism was written during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and first presented in 1953, hot on the heels of the blacklisting of high-profile suspected communists (and homosexuals).  The following year, Miller was denied a routine passport to attend the London opening of The Crucible, and was subsequently subpoenaed to appear before the committee himself.  Life imitating art?  Meanwhile, the play is set in 1692, during and drawing parallels to the Salem Witch Trials, the perfect metaphor for the play’s, and Miller’s, journey.  Last season’s award-winning, modern-dress Broadway revival seemed perfectly timed for this election season, as politicians traffic in fear mongering at the expense of perceived outsiders.  But when has that not been timely?  (This was its fifth Broadway revival.)  Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, summed it up with “…an endlessly revived historical drama from 1953 suddenly feels like the freshest, scariest play in town.”  It has received several film and television incarnations and Robert Ward’s opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1962.  It could never become dated., not because of the acclaim but because of its content and historical currency.

This is not to say that every play needs to invigorate the national discourse on something profound.  I happen to love Li’l Abner.  The benign, tongue-in-cheek sexism is too sweet and unknowing to be offensive (it’s set in 1956), and the political satire has stood the test of time.  The bottom line may be something as simple as, “Does it still entertain?”  I think of those old warhorses by Kaufman & Hart, which continue to delight 60, 70, 80 years later.  Sometimes a simple, overriding theme like, “To thyself be true.” is enough to keep a good play chugging through the decades.  Sure, the social mores of any bygone era may seem quaint today, but when rendered honestly, they can give us a little peek into the history of who we were.  

Photo: Paper Mill Playhouse