Boxing on D.C. Stages: A Critical and Pugilistic Inquiry
I saw this play from the '30s, Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, a few months back. Odets, an outspoken socialist, is remembered for his political parables, but here he turned inward to work through his heartburn about selling out to Hollywood. He embodied his ambivalence in the character of a young man gifted both in fiddling and in fighting. The latter pays better, but with the risk of ruining his hands for the former. Odets himself copped to the premise’s implausibility; taken as a metaphor, it’s as clunky as a phone made from strung-together tomato cans (cough). The production I saw unintentionally highlighted the problem by casting an actor who could neither play nor punch. I’m guessing it was his weightlifter’s physique that got him the part.
I have no idea how difficult it is to learn the violin. But I know there’s more to boxing than you probably think if you’ve never tried it. Brute strength doesn’t get you much in this game, and clenched muscles will actually hurt you. Boxing is about speed, accuracy, and stamina. A boxer is more akin to a dancer than to a bodybuilder; the movements—punches, feints, ducks, slips—are clipped and staccato. A boxer must be nimble and mobile, perched on the balls of his feet, never his heels. More than that, a boxer must develop the ability to keep his body relaxed while trapped in a 324-square-foot space with someone who’s sole purpose on Earth is to knock him out. So: Senses on full alert, adrenaline surging, muscles...relaxed. It’s a paradox.
Being a boxer is like being a performer, in that way.
A number of theatrical productions in and around D.C. have, uh, wrestled with the problem of finding suitable psuedo-pugilists in the last year or so. The University of Maryland did Shadowboxer, an original opera about heavyweight champion Joe Louis, in April 2010. The show addressed several of the Brown Bomber’s historic matches, including his 1938 first-round knockout of Germany’s Max Schmeling, a reluctant standard-bearer for the Third Reich. The Shadowboxer cast trained with the University’s Terps Boxing Club to make their stage fights, while highly stylized, still feel reasonably convincing.
Since then, boxing plays have been piling up around these parts like directors briefly attached to helming The Fighter. Scorched, which
Round House Forum Theatre staged last fall, is not about boxing, but there are boxing scenes in it, and the production prepped two of its actors for them. In January, Heritage-O’Neill Theatre did Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rod Serling’s 1956 drama about corruption in the sport. The National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly—the same folks behind the widely admired Black Watch, which played Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall for a week back in January—took that show’s demanding choreography even further in Beautiful Burnout, a boxing play by Bryony Lavery. Beautiful Burnout features elaborate drills and shadowboxing routines set to a propulsive electronic score by Underworld. It played a four-week run at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in March. The boxing was awesome; shame about the play, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. (I’m paraphrasing.) One local theater type who saw the show and shared that opinion is Studio Theatre’s Artistic Director David Muse.
Sucker Punch, the boxing-related play that’ll open at Studio next February, had its world premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre last summer. Set in 1985 on the evening of a real-life race riot in Tottenham, North London, the play follows two young black men, aspiring fighters both, who take different views of how to negotiate the racial tension of Margaret Thatcher’s England. Muse says the script requires three actors to perform boxing drills in various gym-set scenes. He’s not going to let those guys embarrass themselves, is he?
“Both for reasons of character development and physicality, we are going to look into having them train for a while before rehearsals begin,” Muse says.
Obviously, I support this move. I’ve never been a sports fan, but boxing fascinates me. (Full disclosure: I teach a regular boxing class and consulted, without pay, on the pugilistic aspects of Scorched, which is why I didn’t cover it as a critic.) It seems to me the ur-sport, a contest for physical dominance still governed by rules, but shorn of all that confusing, pompous bullshit—like the two-point conversion and the infield fly rule and time-outs and throngs of dudes with clipboards and headsets and grim faces like they’re orchestrating a goddamn moon landing instead of trying to move a stupid ball to one side of a patch of grass. Combat sports are inherently dramatic, because you don’t need any context to register what matters. Your Neanderthal brain understands. While many fights are won by decision, it’s still basically Thunderdome: Two-man-enter, one-man-leave. The stakes are in-built.
No wonder so many literary heavyweights have been drawn to the Sweet Science. Ernest Hemingway boxed, of course, as did George Plimpton (albeit primarily so he could write about it), Norman Mailer, and Budd Schulberg, who wrote On the Waterfront. Joyce Carol Oates didn’t box herself, but she is a lifelong fight fan. She fingered boxing’s dramatic frisson in her book-length 1987 essay On Boxing: “To watch boxing closely, and seriously, is to risk moments of what might be called animal panic—a sense not only that something very ugly is happening but that, by watching it, one is an accomplice,” Oates wrote.
At the Birchmere Music Hall earlier this month, singer/songwriter Aimee Mann performed a pair of new songs intended for a proposed stage-musical expansion of her 2005 album, The Forgotten Arm, which takes its title from a move her boxing trainer taught her. While one of the characters in her story is a boxer—also a smack-addicted Vietnam vet—Mann doesn’t foresee the boxing being a a major element of the story. “Boxing is always a little tricky because it’s very hard to not go to a Rocky place, where it’s all about the big fight and the big comeback,” she says. “That doesn’t really interest me very much. I think the idea that he’s a boxer is, for me, kind of a metaphor for the idea that he’s acting out past trauma.” (Mann, who has boxed recreationally, says she hasn’t trained in a few years now, partly because her coach has been busy—he’s Freddie Roach, trainer of Manny Pacquiao, who has acted out his trauma to win titles in eight different weight classes.)
While there have been good plays written around other sports, boxing’s intrinsic drama makes it a natural subject for dramatists. There are practical advantages, too: Few other sports confine the field of play to a space small enough to be reproduced on stage. (Indeed, boxing matches are often staged in theaters.) Of course, these same qualities that make boxing so compelling as a subject also make it tough to fake. A trained fighter shadowboxing looks so alien, so fluid, so close to weightless that you don’t need to know anything about boxing to tell whether he’s got the goods or not. Spotting a faker is as easy as, well, recognizing a bum note on the violin.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, this story incorrectly identified the company that produced Scorched. It was Forum Theatre.