The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation. — Stella Adler
I was reading an article about the 2014 film “Selma”, a Black rights film. The director was saying that the release of his film could not have been more timely, with the latest round of civil unrest regarding violence against black people in America. The Black Lives Matter movement had by then caught the attention of American and world media.
He did not claim to have designed the film to coincide with the tumult, but his statement was it was an honour to have a piece of art that that ‘meets this cultural moment’.
Meet. This. Cultural. Moment. Unpicking the phrase is a wonder in itself. It makes Art an active ingredient in culture, not a considered creative afterthought. It drives to the idea that art can and should have a conversation with the present moment.
That all sounds right, and sounds like a reasonable and really essential thing. But it isn’t. Because the moment it takes to write about this moment means that moment has already gone. Writing for the Zeitgeist is a tricky mission and a dubious one for a few reasons.
A script written in response to a “now” situation is a wet ink script. There are authors who say yes! to that idea. They love the notion of a spontaneous reaction to a current situation. Immediacy is everything. And there certainly is a place for wet ink theatre— political protest being one of them.
Imagine how powerful a piece of politically seditious theatre claiming for Catalan independence performed in the very public, very populated pedestrian street of Las Ramblas in Madrid might be right now (not to mention dangerous for the actors involved). The situation in Spain as at the time of writing this post is a tinderbox of nationalist fervour on both sides. Performing a wet ink script in this situation would be a testimony to the might of theatre. And possibly a bad idea, given that feelings are high.
This sort of theatre delivers raw emotion, clouded by emotion even. The facts can take a back seat to the sense of the moment. Wet ink script can be highly didactic, biased, angry, unresearched, ill-considered and short-sighted. And it can be spot on and brilliant and galvanizing. I think about Steve Colbert in The Late Show delivering his almost nightly wet ink ‘theatre’ tirade about what Trumpet or his mates have been up to today. It’s terrific stuff, and thank God there are people like Colbert delivering it.
There is something to be said for hindsight in theatre, however. The wisdom of perspective. A dry ink script. You’ve had time to think about what happened in a given Zeitgeist-now-Oldgiest. As a writer, you are able to be more interrogative. You have the opportunity to hone the words, shape the best possible narrative, consider the truth in retrospective terms, deliver the lessons learnt (which without question, will be a lesson that we humans have dealt with over and over again before, anyways) But the danger is of course that you will lose the cultural moment.
So what does this amount to? Your writing must meet the cultural moment or it is Old News? (wet ink) Your writing must be able to connect to the Zeitgeist but only after there is time to fully consider the themes and events you are writing about or it will be shallow? (dry ink) Or is Writing to Meet This Cultural Moment a happy coincidence that should be celebrated if it happens, when it happens? (accidental ink?)
It’s hard to write for the Zeitgeist and get it right. In fact, I would not advise any writer that they need to expressly seek to write for it. It is a forced objective and smacks a lot of commercial intent rather than creative intent. But certainly, I would allow the momentum of things happening around me in the news, in society, in politics, in world events influence my work.
Thing is, you don’t necessarily have to write about what is happening now to be actually writing about what is happening now. Selma is a story about Black civil rights movement in the USA. In the 1965. It strikes a chord now because the theme is the same today, much to America’s frustration. The issue of racial equality is an enduring one, as old as the issue of humanity itself. To write about it is a universal theme. And this is the best a writer can be- meeting cultural moments in a potent but universal way that go beyond the Zeitgeist. The truth doesn’t change with the times.