Monday, October 31, 2005

Risking Truth

George Hunka over at Superfluities has a nice post about theatre criticism, and what theatre artists should be doing in order to raise the level of theatre criticism. He concludes:

I'm not saying at all that most theater artists don't take their task seriously, but when I look at the me-too-ism of so many seasons previewed in the last issue of American Theatre, where comfortable ersatz-Ibsenite realism continues to be all the rage (so long as there's a children's theater program to go with it, as well as a familiar Shakespeare like A Midsummer Night's Dream and a Christmas Carol adaptation), I wonder if we playwrights, directors and actors wouldn't benefit by paying heed to Michael Coveney's call to critics: "... let's hear it once more for experience, knowledge and seriousness. ... What is needed is a new group of younger critics [here, read artists] who will combine the enthusiasm of the aficionado with the rigour of the informed taskmaster." We should take theater more seriously and take more risks ourselves. It has to be new, dangerous and affecting to us before it can be new, dangerous and affecting to our audience, whoever they are. Every time we do a show, we should ask ourselves: "Is this new to me? Am I risking something personal here? Am I raising the stakes for the theater, the audience, for my collaborators, for myself?" This means taking to heart much of what SpearBearer suggests when he urges us to reconsider not the "theater" part of a "life in the theater," but the "life." Doing that, the theater might take care of itself.

I really like the idea of "experience, knowledge, and seriousness," as well as the combination of "enthusiasm" and "rigour." What I'm not certain about is how George got from that to "danger" and "risk." I have nothing against danger and risk, mind you, but at the same time I don't see them as synonymous with "experience, knowledge, and seriousness." I've been reading Mark Edmundson's marvelous book Why Read? Edmundson begins a segment called "Truth" with the following:

"Literature and truth? The humanities and truth? Come now. What could be more ridiculous? What could be more superannuated than that?

"We read literature now for other reasons. We read to assert ourselves, to sharpen our analytical faculties. We read to debunk the myths. We read to know the other. We read,. sometimes, for diversion. But read for truth? Absurd. The whole notion of truth was dispatched long ago, tossed on the junk heap of history along with God and destiny and right and all the rest. Read for truth? Why do that?

"For the simple reason that for many people, the truth -- the [Emersonian] circle, the vision of experience -- that they've encountered through socialization is inadequate. It doesn't put them into a satisfying relation to experience. That truth does not give them what they want. It does not help them make a contribution to their society. It does not, to advance another step, even allow for a clear sense of the tensions between themselves and the existing social norms, the prevailing doxa....I believe most people who go to literature and the liberal arts out of more than mere curiosity are in this group, demand other, better ways to apprehend the world -- that is, ways that are better for them. And the best repository for those other ways are the works of the poets...and of the painters and composers and novelists and historians. Here one may hope for a second chance, a way to begin the game again, getting it closer to right this time around."

Perhaps the risk we need to take is expressing the truth as clearly, powerfully, and deeply as we possibly can. Perhaps we can use our "experience" and "knowledge" (and dare I add "wisdom"?) to express this truth. I suspect that there isn't an artist who doesn't feel he or she is expressing truth, but maybe simply setting that as our goal (tape it to the wall next to our computer?) would remind us of our purpose as artists.


George Hunka said...

I don't know about that "truth," Scott, as something that we as artists are the sole bearers of, or whether that's even the way in which "truth" inheres in our experience. Is it not in the process itself rather than in anything we can tape up on the wall next to our computers? And isn't the theatrical communion a process of experience, by its very nature ephemeral--something that can't be written down?

If our theater does not do BOTH--adhere and explore traditions, as well as adhere and explore ourselves, to go places where we haven't been experientially, to think thoughts we've been afraid to think or express (and in this is the risk)--it will be dead and remain so. Our technique forms the discipline we need to communicate these otherwise formless, and therefore sloppy and self-serving, messages. Truth? I don't think so. A new way of thinking about ourselves, a new process with which our consciousness can contemplate the world? Much better.

My recent play was the most successful of my career so far, and a large part of that was that I revealed far more of myself than I had in my previous work--a risk, and it paid off (not that I can expect that every time).

Alison Croggon said...

Not "The Truth" (which surely is dubious, especially in art, where certainty guarantees banality) but truth or truths. And then the allowance that truths in art might be expressed through lies, or fictions. (Since when was Shakespeare, for instance, telling the "truth" about history?) Theatre's truths are emotional; it's what you mean by a truthful performance. And shaping those feeling truths requires, if they are to be accurate, a great deal of intelligence.

Danger in art is relative - it's not usually life threatening - but like George says, part of its seriousness has to include risk. "Seriousness" (which I'm all for) can be replaced by its safer cousin earnestness, and let's face it, there's nothing more deadly than earnest art...