Something's Gotta Give, by Henry Greenberg / by Lily Greenberg

One thing that I've loved about sharing my writing on this site is the conversations that have risen as a result. Henry would often send long messages to me in response to one of my pieces, but it caught me off-guard when my brother wanted to contribute a piece of his own to the site. I was surprised, but equally delighted. Of course I said yes, and here we are a few drafts and many exchanged emails later. Without further ado, here's a piece for which I cannot take credit, a brilliant bit of writing by Henry Greenberg:

 Henry in the flesh, right after his graduation from Baylor University

Henry in the flesh, right after his graduation from Baylor University

Something's Gotta Give: Wrestling with Tired Form

“The thing that everyone in the business is thinking, but no one wants to say is this: the form has been exhausted. The standard pop format we know and love of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus is done, and can no longer sustain the creative impulses of new musicians.”
“So where do you think music is headed?” I asked, thirty minutes deep into music biz shop-talk with my dad.
“I don’t know,” he responded. I was picking his brain for thematic and logistical content for a play I’m writing.
“We need a new form, and it must be radical.”

This conversation happened at a serendipitous moment. Not because of where it intersected with the shaping of my sperm cell of a play, but because my father’s hypothesis was in opposition to my most recent experiences with familiar artistic forms. I’ve recently been pleasantly surprised by fresh creations in the bounds of traditional structure. And not just in music, but in a variety of mediums.

I just finished watching the first season of a series called, Catastrophe. It’s a new show on Amazon Prime, starring twitter-famous Rob Delaney and Irish comedian Sharon Horgan, and it’s a rom-com. Yes, the notorious romantic comedy; the pop song of storytelling. Your whole body cringes as it rejects the Dove-wrapper inspired dialogue. Your ears want to Van Gogh themselves when the emotionally manipulative string-section comes flying in during the break-up scene. But just as you’re about to finally start Mad Men, you look down to see that you’re cradling your pillow and it’s damp? Oh shit. You’ve been crying for upwards of 20 minutes, and by God, you like it. Before you know it, the narration suddenly re-appears to tell you what our romantic heroine has learned, and now you’re too tired for anything else, even Jon Hamm and his Fort Knox of a jaw-line. Then you wake up the next morning and look down to see you’re soaked again, this time, in shame. The momentary sensual ride has yet again distracted you from the inevitable downward spiral of guilt. So you go to work and lie to Karen about your previous night’s Netflix rendez-vous and use calculated phrases like, “great-writing” and “character-development” and “cigarettes” to describe your thoughts on the pilot of Mad Men. Then back to your desk, wondering if Fool’s Gold has a sequel.

We’ve all been through it.

Yet, my time watching the six-episode first season of Catastrophe was filled with all the sensual highs, and none of the shameful lows. As far as the set-up goes, it couldn’t be more traditional. It’s about an American man and an Irish woman who have a one-week fling in London while he’s traveling on business, and surprise of surprises, she gets pregnant. So he moves to London to try and make it work with the help of their kooky best friends, even though they hardly know each other! Comedy!

But Catastrophe is both funnier and has more heart than any other in the genre I’ve come across. Here's a clip that gives a great taste of the palpable chemistry that acts as the backbone of the show; a rom-com necessity that is unfortunately lacking in most: 

I had the same experience in reading a play by the title of Bad Jews. If you’ve ever taken a playwriting class or read/seen more than say, five plays, then you are aware of the dramatic structure of the family drama. It takes place in one home, the characters are usually fighting over a family heirloom of much importance, there are secrets that aren’t revealed until after intermission, or right before, and it ends with a thematic question or statement about America today. Bad Jews is this. Exactly this, but even when I noticed, I didn’t care. A great taste of the play comes from Liam’s scathing monologue about his uber-Jewish cousin Daphna and the decision to change her name:

 “I know she wishes she were this like barbed-wire hopping, Uzi-toting Israeli warlock superhero: Daphna; but actually Diana Feygenbaum grew up in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, in an armpit town doing swim team badly and hysterically sobbing when she didn’t get picked to be cheerleader, in her closet, with the door closed—that’s a true story by the way, and her screenname, when we were younger, her like AIM screenname, ok, was PrincessDiana88. She’s as Israeli as Martin van fucking Buren, but she thinks because our grandfather survived the holocaust and because her disgustingly hideous hair probably grows the same as it did for all other women in the history of our family who suffered, that somehow means she’s suffered, too, but the truth is, PrincessDiana88 has suffered about as much as, as, as this fucking, this pillow.”

The mark of a great play is that it gets done everywhere, and this upcoming year, Bad Jews will be as pervasive throughout America as the dark, hilarious, crackling dialogue is throughout this play.

So why are Catastrophe and Bad Jews different? Why do they feel so fresh? Is it just the combination of honesty and imagination? All the art I consider to feel cutting-edge has those elements. But that doesn’t satisfy the question of why these stories feel brand-new in the tattered robes of their age-old form. Is it that the stories are so good that they rise above their given structure to where it works as a structure should? Unnoticed?

That questioning has intersected with my discovery of the theologian Richard Rohr, who the editor-in-chief has discussed at length on this very site. Rohr speaks often about how as humans, we tend to use unhealthy, dualistic, binary vision in our approach to living life. Lily summed it up nicely in her piece Independence Day, “We construct boxes to make sense of the world, to define our surroundings.” But to move past this, according to Rohr, we must deconstruct. We have to rip open and question every square-inch of our environment, our affiliated groups, our life, so that we may critically assess. The deconstruction is only the middle-step, though. The key to enlightened living is to reach the third step, reconstruction, and begin to re-see our environment.

Maybe what I’m encountering is artists who are working at a reconstructed level. They see the problems with the constructs of their given medium, they probably went through their time of deconstruction. In comedies that’s often being aloof by way of self-referential jokes, meta-dialogue, and the shitting-on of lesser works in the same medium. In plays it’s often, well, this. Now, they’ve come out on the other side with a re-constructed view of their medium, finding specificity, beauty, and possibility in every cog and gear. Maybe what we’re tired of is not the structure, but artists using structure as a crutch, a construct.

Maybe my dad is right. Maybe we are in desperate need of a new form for pop music. Or what if we just need more artists working at a reconstructed level; creatives who see their given medium with the enlightened third eye? I like both options. While I wait, I’ll finally start working on my new play. I think it’s gonna be a rom-com.