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  • Scott Carter Cooper

Meretricious

Meretricious 1 ) of decorations, literary style, etc.) showily but falsely attractive 2) of or befitting a prostitute. -- Oxford American Dictionary


Meretricious 1) of or relating to a prostitute : having the nature of prostitution <~ relationships> 2 a tawdrily and falsely attractive <the paradise they found was a piece of ~ trash –Carolyn See> b “superficially significant : pretentious <scholarly names to provide fig-leaves of respectability for ~ but stylish books –Times Lit Supp.> syn see gaudy – Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary


I have been spending a fair amount of time this summer with Norman Mailer. Always a problematic figure, and even more so today, Mailer does have a great deal of merit as an artist, chief among his attributes is his clear-eyed image of himself. When deciding to spend time with a particular writer – be they fiction, play or poetry creator, I like to first read a biography to get sense of context for their work. Oftentimes I’ll read more than one. For example, a couple of years ago I read a series of biographies on the creators of West Side Story. The last in the series of biographies was for Arthur Laurents. His reputation in the other biographies borders on the horrific, and this included Jerme Robbins, generally considered a social monster. Toward the end of his life, Laurents was clearly concerned with his legacy and published a series of autobiographies clearly intended as mea culpas and explanations for who he was. In the great pantheon of American literary figures, Laurents was clearly aware he stood outside looking in, and held more than a bit of resentment for the other creators of West Side Story, all of whom are cloaked in an immortality Laurents will never share.


But I digress.


Mailer is an odd duck. I’ve hardly scratched the surface of his catalog of work, but throughout one word surfaces often. Meretricious. It is a descriptor Mailer abhors and fears will be attached to his work. There is justification for these concerns.

As an antidote to the latent homophobia and blatant misogyny in Mailer, I took a break from him and read a new-ish biography of Oscar Wilde. I’ve read many Wilde biographies and the Matthew Sturgis book isn’t bad. Easier to read than the still definitive Richard Ellman, it does bring a bit of a more modern take on Wilde’s life, particularly skating just up to the line of labelling Wilde a sexual predator and highlighting his attraction to boys in their mid-to-late teens. Wilde never had an intimate relationship with anyone his own age, much less an elder. With one obvious and tragic exception, the power dynamics of Wilde’s sexual history are monstrously imbalanced. That said, the scales are more than balanced by his experiences with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde paid the price for his sex life.


But again, I digress.


I’ve been weaning myself from social media and find that complete removal is not practical or sustainable if I want to know what’s going on in the Chicago theatre. Things are evolving so quickly, the only hope of staying current is by checking in on Facebook. And while the results are negligible, Facebook is a necessary evil when it comes to publicizing, if not documenting my own work.


But, God, Facebook is a sewer.


Recently Chris Jones wrote another eulogy for “Chicago Theatre,” which inspired a number of discussions on several different pages that my Facebook feed was unable to escape. One credible polemicist points out Jones’s elitist position and his clear disinterest in anything that will never waft its way to New York, and preferably Broadway. It’s a fair point that has been made repeatedly for at least a decade. An approving nod from Jones may increase ticket sales – vital for storefront theatre – but the likelihood of any nod at all is just slightly better than winning a lottery. Unless there is a connection to Broadway or Hollywood, Jones is more likely than not to be unaware of… really anything.


This galactic blind spot renders Chris Jones irrelevant in any significant discussion of the state of Chicago theatre.


And everyone knows it.


And yet the bandwagon fairly drips with comments from people who should know better, people who should have better things to do, clutching their pearls over the inequities of theatre. Some of these people are or have been in positions to do something about it and have done precious more than attack Chris Jones. It’s like watching a bevy of princes swatting at the shadow of a gnat. There’s no point in telling the prince that the gnat is over there, when the purpose of the swatting is really to show off the flourish of the swat. If the prince really wanted to be free of the gnat, he wouldn’t waste his time flailing his arms, he’d get a can of Raid.


I’m not suggesting Chris Jones be exterminated. He serves a purpose for those people whose theatrical interests don’t extend beyond Steppenwolf. If it makes them feel au currant to listen to a performance prefaced by an acknowledgement that the theatre sits on the lands stolen from Native Americans – and then to do absolutely nothing about it (either the patron or the theatre) so be it.


I’m saying that to complain about the decay of Chicago theatre on Facebook and to take no other step to rectify the situation may be… meretricious.

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