FOR MANY participants in the contemporary arts scene, the primary role of the theater is to indoctrinate its audience into the joys of socially acceptable thought through socially acceptable acting styles.
If that is the proper role of the theater, Baltimore's Center Stage has succeeded admirably this year, because the seven dramas presented to season ticket holders have been both remarkably well-acted and politically correct. Some patrons believe, however, that a theater should have a broader artistic and aesthetic purpose.
I have attended Center Stage for 20 years and have seldom gone away disappointed -- even though like most regular theater-goers I occasionally disagree with the selections and interpretation. Disagreement began more than 20 years ago when a production tried unsuccessfully to make Shakespeare's comically grotesque Caliban, from "The Tempest," a socially conscious street preacher. Disagreement continues in 1992 when, in an unnecessary, unaesthetic and overtly sexual scene in Shakespeare's "Pericles" -- this year's theatrical sop to that master White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male -- theater-goers were regaled with a simulated lesbian rape, apparently the "in" thing for stage effects.
Overshadowing all were "Pericles'" dominant themes of incest, pandering and wandering. Like television this season, Center Stage seems committed to remind its audiences that incest, like most social problems, occurs when errant white males abuse their families and their societies.
Political correctness becomes comically doctrinaire at Center Stage. Poor Torvald in Ibsen's "Doll House" was another example white European males so benighted by their own actions and egos that they are oblivious to their environment. And of course they are totally unable to understand women or much of anything else until it is too late.
Not that drama cannot be poignant and relevant. Take Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!," a remarkably intense and poetic drama with three actors -- two black men and one white woman -- that presents the ironic context of anachronistic learning. The two students struggle to memorize the disjointed facts of 19th century male literary tradition while the real competition for survival swirls around them in South Africa. The dramatic action rightly questions why the white power elite does not learn about sharing and compassion from the very literature that the Anglo-Saxon-based educational system requires African black and Afrikaner white alike to read.
Take also Paula Vogel's "Baltimore Waltz." It is enacted in part in real life by the Maryland playwright and her brother, who are in and out of the Johns Hopkins Hospital AIDS Treatment Center and other locales in a gently humorous and moving study of the interaction of AIDS patients. Sex and AIDS, AIDS and sex.
If Center Stage wants to focus properly on such legitimate dramas as Fugard's and Vogel's plays, however, why does it have to beat the drums of political correctness everywhere? The season opened with Ugo Betti's revolutionary socialist "The Queen and the Rebels," an antiquated, propagandistic anachronism inspired by discredited communist rhetoric. The language resembles a late '60s college campus teach-in.
Or "Police Boys," another current play of which playwright Marion McClinton said in a recent interview: "The issues the play is raising can be looked at solely in their own right. The play isn't just about gangs and violence. Hopefully, it's about where it comes from." Guess where. And the performance is followed by a teach-in from the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Never mind that we are subjected to such teach-ins from morning to night on television, in public schools, in college classrooms and on talk radio.
But there is much to be said for laughter, and Center Stage will conclude the season by leaving the audience laughing with Moliere's "Misanthrope," a proper testimony to European male curmudgeonry. Moliere graces the stage with the gift of laughter and art. So do some advocates of social reform in drama and in life. Unfortunately, this does not happen often enough at Center Stage.
Some theater-goers bring their own reluctant humor to downtown Baltimore, smiling sadly not at the social evils that abound on the stage and in life, but at the politically correct direction of a theater where social preachment takes precedence over the free interplay of aesthetic and philosophical diversity, which in other eras has been the lifeblood of art.
Ray Stevens teaches English at Western Maryland College.