Director John Langs: Classic Themes and Forms Have Undeniable Power
Director John Langs: Classic Themes and Forms Have Undeniable Power

For director John Langs, both the universal themes of classic texts and the vehicle delivering the themes make them relevant; more than relevant, they make them potent.

When I talk to young writers, I tell them that if they want to be remembered in the future, they should think about a classic structure for their works.
— John Langs, director

“A classic is a piece of writing that amplifies an undeniable human truth,” Langs said in a phone interview on Dec. 2, 2015. “They tell us who we are, what we are, and they bring feelings alive in us. They’ve done that for centuries,” he said.

Classics tell us about our history, and if we stray too far from our own history, then as the saying goes, we’ll be doomed to repeat our failures, according to Langs.

Langs used “An Iliad,” a modern work based on Homer’s poem about the Trojan War, to make his point. The play exposes the effects of violence and war, the glory of battle, and the despair of loss among families throughout a country and between brothers in arms. “These are absolutes of human nature,” he said.

Director John Langs at the back of the American Players Theatre during a rehearsal of
Director John Langs at the back of the American Players Theatre during a rehearsal of “The Seagull.” (Emily Penick)

As a 17-year freelance director, Langs has made his career working primarily in regional theaters across the country. In 2011, he co-created and directed the original musical “The Shaggs,” which was nominated for Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk awards. This coming January, he will officially take over as artistic director for Seattle’s ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.

Potent in Form

For Langs, it’s not just the theme that is universal and deeply felt. The structure of classical plays has a delivery system that’s been proven. He believes a well-made play connects with us consistently with an impact that is undeniable, and in the most elegant and elevated way.

Aristotle, considered the first theorist of Western literature, believed that a tragedy should take place in only one setting, happen during only one day, and have one storyline. He based his theory of unities on the famous Greek play by Sophocles, “Oedipus the King.”

Plays built along these lines are stripped of extraneous plot and characters—hence their power.

Langs considers some 20th century plays—American works by Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—as classics because they possess these same qualities. Their themes are universal and their structure, with rising tension along a single action, hearkens back to the Greeks.

Jim DeVita in an APT production of
Jim DeVita in an APT production of “An Iliad,” directed by John Langs. (Zane Williams)

Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” follows this structure with tremendous impact, Langs says. As is clear from the title, the play happens in one day. It all takes place in a family home, and the action revolves around the devastation to the family caused by addiction.  

It is distilled and unrelenting. “Like peeling an onion, you’re getting closer and closer to the power; you’re not let off the hook and the intensity continues to build,” he said.

“I often cajole my playwriting students to go back to the structure of classic plays,” said Langs, who also teaches budding playwrights at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts every year.

The way a playwright uses language is another structural element that adds punch to a play’s effect. The language of a classic play is organically thematic. “Every line carries the DNA of the whole.”

John Langs directing in The Allen Theatre at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre. (Truman Buffett)
John Langs directing in The Allen Theatre at ACT – A Contemporary Theatre. (Truman Buffett)

For this reason, the meaning seeps into listeners without their necessarily being aware of it. For example, in “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare employs 100 uses of the word “haste.”

“All the action revolves around the passion and rapidity of young love. I doubt there would be a play if the pace of the action were slower,” Langs said. All the metaphors, every image has a forward trajectory, and everything is rushing on to something or somewhere else. “If you dissect any line you will find speed and haste.” Thus, for all the beauty of young love, clearly the audience will feel its foolhardiness too.

If the structure of a play is not well-crafted, Langs doubts it would survive. Nor would it retain its relevancy. The vehicle must be as powerful as its subject matter.

“When I talk to young writers, I tell them that if they want to be remembered in the future, they should think about a classic structure for their works,” Langs said.

If playwrights today, like their great 20th century American predecessors, look to the beginnings of Western theater for their themes and play structure, they will tap into mechanisms that work and endure.

In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see ept.ms/LookingAtClassics

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