Friday, October 21, 2005

I lied -- I have free internet in my room here in Denver. So I'll be checking in...

Allison Croggon leaves an intriguing comment:

The "classics" - depending how they're done, and which ones you're talking about - tend not to be very healing. They leave the world torn and open and unresolved. (Obviously, I think classic=tragedy). On the one hand, they might give the world a formal shape, but on the other, what they expose is raw woundedness, irresolvability. How does taming the Eumenides "resolve" the crimes, say, of Iphigenia's death, Agememnon's murder, Orestes' matricide? Something, to paraphrase Beckett, plays itself out, and that is all.

I'm with Isaac - artists who think they are bringing an audience "meaning" are being very above themselves. Surely that is an ultimate vanity? Who are they to impose healing when the world is full of fractures? Moreover, if theatre is supposed to make the wounds heal, then isn't it being a kind of aneasthetic? I thought art was about waking people up, and that this is its peculiar joy - to be aroused to grief and sorrow, without which joy cannot exist. That's the only "meaning" that theatre, or any art, can offer. I do think there is a hunger for it, because most entertainment is about anaesthesia, this false resolution that is ultimately about keeping people as passive consumers.

Let's start with the question about The Oresteia: You're right, taming the Furies doesn't resolve the preceding murders. But that isn't what the play is about. It is about resolving the never-ending cycle of revenge that forms the moral and ethical foundation for the Greek society prior to the creation of the trial-by-jury system. The play, then, is a celebration of the creation of a more rational way of dealing with conflict. In that sense, the community is healed, even if Iphigenia, Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra aren't. Resolving something doesn't mean all the preceding pain is erased, it is just that that pain is put into some sort of larger context where it has meaning.

In response to the second comment, isn't the mere act of being a playwright -- of writing down words that are acted on a stage in front of an audience who shells out hard-earned cash to hear them -- the ultimate vanity? Doesn't doing that imply -- in fact, overtly assert -- that you have something to say that is worth listening to, that is better than what you get in real life? If you are an actor, and I have to cough up $25 to see you, you'd damn well better be a better actor than my Uncle Ned who recites lines from Shakespeare when he's in his cups. I think if you are going to step on a stage, you damn well better have something worthwhile to say, and being disingenuously humble about it isn't honest. Be proud, and make sure you earn your money (and more importantly, make sure you earn the time I give you when I wacth).

As far as the sentence: "if theatre is supposed to make the wounds heal, then isn't it being a kind of aneasthetic?" Let's change the words of this sentence to see if it makes sense: "If doctors are supposed to make wounds heal, then isn't being a doctor a kind of anesthetic?" Would it be better if doctors let patients remain sick, suffer, and die because that's more like what life is like, and, wouldn't the patient's family benefit from experiencing a little grief and sorrow? The issue is defining what a doctor's or a playwright's function is -- I say that at least part of it is healing. Not lying, not pretending sickness is health -- a doctor isn't healing if he pretends that illness is health -- but dealing with the illness in such a way that it might help the patient get better.

Finally: "I thought art was about waking people up, and that this is its peculiar joy - to be aroused to grief and sorrow, without which joy cannot exist." First, you assume that your audience is asleep. This is the problem with most contemporary artists -- they think they're the only ones who are awake, simply because they're making the most noise. If they spent more time with non-artists, I think they would find that most people are awake, aware, and hungering for wisdom, beauty, profundity. (A sidenote: what if we, as artists, defined our role not as waking people up, but rather as "making people more interesting"?) In the second part of your sentence, you again assume that your audience doesn't experience grief and sorrow in their lives, and again I refer you to Real People to find out what they experience every day. Also, you have only half the equation: if it is true that you must be aroused to grief and sorrow in order to experience joy, then the opposite is also true: that you must be aroused to joy in order to experience grief and sorrow. The fact is, we need to have the entire gamut of experiences in the theatre, but we need to provide it with an attitude of generosity, care, and connection.

When I had my appendix out a year ago, the surgeon had to cut me open to remove it -- this hurt at the time, but I felt a lot better thereafter. But he didn't cut me open to remove my appendix, and then stick me a few times on the arm to punish me because he thought I wasn't living up to my potential. But artists sometimes like to stick the audience just because they think they're waking them up, and ultimately, that isn't right.


Freeman said...

My thoughts on this over at my blog...

"Ultimate Vanity"

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scott - thanks for your interesting response. I guess it's partly horses for courses. I cherish the irresponsibility of artists - the fact that, unlike doctors, no one is going to die if their artwork doesn't achieve itself. (It's only art). Give me Jarry any day over an earnest docudrama about the Iraq War - Jarry has much more to say about the irrationality of power and he's also funny.

The only responsibility any artist has - and I really do believe this - is to their artform. However, I comprehend a fair bit in my take on what that responsibility then means. Peter Handke says that a writer's ethics are in his style, and that's a fairly complex statement; it's not as simple as art for art's sake, because aesthetic judgments are also, in complex ways, ethical judgments as well: the whole business of representation is fraught with difficult moral questions.

I have often had this experience of being "woken up", of art making me feel more alive. That is why I continue to believe that it matters. Am I being patronising to myself by saying so? I hope not. I am certainly not making assumptions about people generally - if art engenders sorrow and joy, it can only do so if we know these things in our own lives. (I do have a real life too).

The Oresteia celebrates the beginning of Athenian law, certainly, the imposition of rationality over bloody (feminine) irrationality. But I simply cannot see how that later imposition of law gives the preceding pain "meaning". The pain and crimes remain recalcitrant, unresolved, irredeemable, outside the law. And I think what you remember most about the plays is not the Eumenides in their grove, but the murders of Cassandra and Agamemnon, Orestes' madness...the same way that what you remember about Hamlet is not Fortibras' neat reassertion of order over all the corpses, but the mad disorder which precedes it.

Matthew, I never said it was sheer vanity for an artist to write: though to think that they can heal the world does seem to me an enormous hubris. As well as, in certain literal ways, plain wrong - as Auden says, "poetry makes nothing happen". On the other hand, art has that demand Rilke acknowledges: "You must change your life". There is a vanity in the desire to make art, in every sense, which must be acknowledged, as much as its generosity. I have always liked Beckett's statement of intent, which seems to acknowledge that futility and also a kind of reckless ambition - "to fail as no other dare fail".

Humour and last laugh said...

I read your blog in parts. it is good!