Pop Culture Icons in Contemporary Drama

The development of celebrity culture, according to DePaul University Sociology Professor Deena Weinstein, is an ancient tradition given a new media-age outlet. “When we lived in small societies, we could gossip about people we know. Living in the metropolitan area, we don’t know very many people about whom we can gossip but we all feel we know celebrities,” Weinstein says. In a society in which isolation abounds, with increasing numbers of people working longer than average workdays and living away from their families, people are becoming more and more disengaged. Talking about the starlets of Hollywood provides a shared web of connections and a sense of intimacy that post-modern society otherwise lacks.

Some contemporary playwrights have turned their imaginations to this phenomenon. The dreams and allusions represented through celebrities are ample subject matter for live theatre, one of the few arts based on an immediate, present sense of connection and community.  Brandon Ogborn’s play The TomKat Project focuses on Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s relationship, exploring issues of obsession with celebrity and the needs that it fulfills. In Sheila Callaghan’s Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake), a mother and daughter live in a dilapidated house that is falling apart as a dark ghost from their past reappears, alternately taking the form of Justin Timberlake and Harrison Ford. Lucas Hnath, familiar to Studio audiences as the author of Red Speedo, explores the mythology surrounding Walt Disney, who has arrived to read a screenplay about his last few days on earth, in his play A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney. British playwright Mike Bartlett, lauded playwright of Cock, raises the stakes by imagining a coup to reinstate British monarchy, in which a scheming Kate Middleton enables Prince Charles’ rise to power as King Charles III, written in Shakespearean verse no less.

What these playwrights have in common is a preoccupation with the mythical status that celebrities gain and the deep emotional needs that their presence fulfills. By merging reality with illusion, they allow us to explore the dynamics of identity, ingenuity, and style—without ever picking up a tabloid.

—Elizabeth Dinkova