Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"I want me pap!"

Bartlett's only attributes the quotation to H. L. Mencken: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence [or taste] of the American people." It is certainly consistent with other Mencken barbs, although, for me, it will always take second place behind his observation about the folly of simple solutions to complex problems. Nevertheless, this morning I found myself free associating it with my "headline" quotation, one of Nagg's lines from Samuel Beckett's Endgame. The puns are running fast and loose, between Nagg's name and the implication that he is likely the father of one of the other characters; but Beckett could not have anticipated in 1957 that a later generation of New York theatergoers would form their own punning link to Joseph Papp.

Back when I was a student, Walter Slezak gave a talk at the MIT Lecture Series entitled "Show Business is No Business." It was from him I learned that going into the theatre was one of the best ways to go very broke very quickly. The fact that Joe Papp could keep his Public Theatre afloat for so many years made him a shining example of Mencken's law. Joe became the grand master of pap, giving theatergoers flashy packages of predigested pabulum guaranteed not to depress anyone with the slightest intimations of cognitive reflection. Some playwrights, like Sam Shepard, preferred sacrificing the promise of mass audiences to putting up with Papp's obsessions with watering down and slicking up; but Papp made the Public not only an institution but also a harbinger. If today's Broadway deserves the "vast wasteland" epithet that Newton Minnow laid on television in the Fifties, a lot of the blame can be attributed to the Papp legacy.

However, that legacy has expanded its scope far beyond what passes for theater today. Papp can also be seen as the harbinger of the way just about any content is now presented to the American people, particularly when that content is supposed to be "informing." This is probably most evident in the way news is now packaged and delivered; and every four years we see the news fed by a similar process in the great race to the White House. Mencken, himself, was a journalist. We may never know if he intended his remark to anticipate the undoing of his own profession; but, were he alive today, he would probably be among the ranks of those going broke through misjudgments of both their organizational superiors and the clients of those organizations.

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