No “Great Works” Will Emerge From This Pandemic

Or maybe they will. Who knows? Who cares?

The Washington Post’s theater critic, Peter Marks trotted out this creaky old draught horse yesterday: Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a pandemic. So who knows, he wondered, what great works of literature are currently slouching towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born?

“In perilous, isolating times, we hunger with a special zeal for great work by artists who can capture the experience for us.”

Do we, though? Mostly, I find myself hungering for being able to run basic errands without feeling like a mental patient. Or not feeling like I’m committing manslaughter when I ask friends “Hey, do you want to get together?” I don’t hunger for anything, because the delivery serfs bring me all my food. And I certainly don’t hunger with a “special zeal”. I thought it wasn’t cool to eat zeal anymore. Is it still on the menu?

This crap “pandemic masterpiece” idea first popped up in March, as hospitals in Bergamo and New  York City began to fill with wheezing, desperate people. On March 17, the New York Times published an essay: “someday, we’ll all look back on this and write a novel.” Will we, though? I’ve written some novels, and I certainly find myself thinking about writing a novel these days. But mostly, I just do my basic work, play online poker, walk around the neighborhood, and get annoyed by people on Twitter.

Also, I wonder, what exactly will these great works be about? Marks offers up a creepy preview in his piece:

“Until the theaters and performing arts palaces reopen, we’ll continue to get small spoonfuls each week of what art is yet to come. A Washington company, Theater Alliance, for example, just completed a mini-festival of plays of Black protest, original playlets online that included stories about the impact of police shootings on the Black community. On Nov. 12, Theater of War, a group that typically dramatizes Greek tragedies to spark conversations of contemporary issues, will feature Bill Murray and Tracie Thoms in a digital evening of “Poetry for the Pandemic.” The work of Joshua Bennett, Mahogany L. Browne and Juan Felipe Herrera, among others, will be recited.”

My gosh, an online evening of Poetry for the Pandemic starring Bill Murray! That really has the popular touch, doesn’t it? Let me give you a preview of what most of the great pandemic works to come will say: Donald Trump is bad, people died, a tragedy in five acts. That’ll be $125 for a balcony seat, please.

I’m wondering what exactly Marks is expecting. Do we really want an evening of dramatic pandemic monologues by Anna Deveare Smith or Roger Guenvuer Smith? Wouldn’t it be better just to forget all this? There’s a reason why there’s not a ton of material from and about the period of the Spanish Flu, or the Hong Kong flu: Because pandemics are awful, but also stupid, and we all just want to get on with our fucking lives already. If you want the catharsis from a script about ordinary people experiencing the COVID-19 world, let me point you toward new episodes of The Conners, which is doing it pretty well. That’s enough for me. I don’t need the COVID version of Angels in America.

Gritty pandemic

The culture of COVID-19 has been the worst in human history: Tiger King, charity celebrity-soaked Zoom readings of 80s teen comedy scripts, YouTube videos of people wrestling in Target over mask-wearing, garbage streaming shows about “social distancing”, and endless shrieking fear online. This Twitter feed from The Washington Post spells out pretty well what the “great works” of our time are: Hubie Halloween, Gritty memes, and The Drew Barrymore Show.

Eager awaitings

Marks imagines that some writer somewhere is re-reading the works of Henrik Ibsen to create his or her pandemic masterpiece: “We who eagerly await the next big thing from one of the great imaginations of our time will have to contain our impatience. We have to sustain ourselves with the belief that the great work has begun.”

Maybe he’s referring to this amazing-looking Michael Bay movie, “Songbird”. The scene where John Slattery gets a lap-dance from a PPE-wearing hooker looks especially poignant.

It’s also possible that George Saunders or some other establishment-approved genius is perfecting their novelistic shot to the heart of our pandemic era right now. But I have my doubts. And even if they are, who fucking cares?

You know what I “eagerly await”? Going to a bar and listening to some shitty-ass garage rock. Seeing a movie where a superhero throws a bus through a skyscraper. Eating a bowl of ramen in a restaurant without wondering if everyone around me has a deadly disease. And going to see some crappy, pretentious piece of theater in person so I can complain about it afterward. I don’t care if it’s a pandemic-inspired masterpiece or not.

Also, let’s face it, the great artistic work of the pandemic era has already appeared. Here’s the poetry of our time, from the Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion hit ‘WAP’:

“Yeah, you fucking with some wet-ass pussy
Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet-ass pussy
Give me everything you got for this wet-ass pussy”

Indeed.

Indeed. 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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