Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Boy, the Things That Happen...

Boy, the things that happen when you don't have a chance to surf the blogs for a few days. I peek in at Don Hall's Angry White Guy in Chicago and lo and behold, I find that Don has been talkin' smack about me! In his post "Wallowing in the Misery of the World," Don takes issue with my short post below entitled "In a Nutshell."

He starts by making nice, saying how much he digs me. I dig Don, too (gosh, I haven't said "dig" since I was wearing my cool bell-bottoms!)-- I'm a product of the Illinois State University theatre department, and I developed a lasting love of the Chicago theatre scene (far more interesting and dynamic that any other in America, in my opinion) and the Chicago personality, which Don exemplifies and I also share, having grown up a few hours north of Chicago myself. We both have a tendency to enjoy argument, and we provoke quite a few by stating our opinions rather bluntly. Don's blog is passionate, and committed, and reflects a politica stance that I totally agree with. Keep it up, Don!

But then, like so many of my blogging friends (God love 'em), he takes issue with me! Can you imagine?

He writes that "there is a subtle disconnect that Scott and I have - Scott is looking for, lobbying for a return to less angry, less provocative theater and I'm dedicated to provocation in the even simplest of entertainments. Where Scott seems to want a bit more disgresson [note: I don't recognize this word -- is it a combination of discussion and aggression? Because if it is, I like it -- SW] and less avant garde screaming and cursing, I'm looking for more In-Yer-Face Theatre and less "Annie Get Your Gun". So the battle lines are drawn, of course. Mimicking my post below (have you read it yet? What are you waiting for?), he writes: "I do tend to think that artists, along with the rest of the world, have fallen a little too much in love with being accepted and validated to the detriment of being truthful and of some genuine use to the rest of the culture." He then follows this reversal with a short scene between a TV writer who wants to be provocative about the Hitler and the Nazis but is being "encouraged" (by the show's sponsor and producer) to stop focusing on the ugly parts of history. So ends the text.

Round Two.

I think it is illustrative of the current cultural situation that whenever a discussion of this nature is enjoined (and this isn't just Don, but many artists with whom I have engaged) only two poles can be imagined: In-Yer-Face Theatre and Annie Get Your Gun. For reasons that escape me, when I propose the creation of theatre that engages an audience in a manner other than assaultive, many otherwise imaginative people suddenly find their minds dancing with visions of their last community theatre visit and nothing else. Why is that?

Surely theatre history provides us with manifold examples of generally acknowledegd masterpieces that reside on neither pole: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Racine, Moliere... well the list is endless. In fact, the artist-as-attacker is a pretty recent concept, for all its dominance in the imagination of contemporary artists.

For the record, I am not advocating theatre as after-dinner mint (although I enjoy such theatre, respect the skills that go into its creation, and think there is a place for it in the world). What I am advocating is intellectual complexity, as opposed to intellectual melodrama. I don't think people are easily divided into distinct camps of saints and sinners, heroes and villains; nor do I think that ideas, values, and beliefs are able to be divided in a similar manner. Nor do I believe that thinking in such a way serves the world or the arts in any particularly useful fashion. I also believe that theatre that engages in ideas does so through persuasion, and I have never been of the opinion that bashing somebody on the head (or sensibilities) has ever been too persuasive. If it was, the guys I teach at the prison would be rhetorical wizards. Persuasion is a lot more difficult.

As far as Don's scene is concerned, I hardly see myself as Fred Coe, "all cigars and bluster." Nor do I think, along with Fred's stenographer Alice, that "if people saw more uplifting things on television, things like racism and war would eventually be wiped out, you know?" It takes a little more than that. But I also don't think that if people are assaulted on television (0r on the stage) things like racism and war will eventually be wiped out. You know. Again, it ain't that simple.

And if Abby Mann, the writer in Don's piece, is the mouthpiece of the artist, then I'll pass there as well. In defending his work, he justifies it with ideas that have all the depth of a child's plastic pool: "If we are not aware of history, it threatens to repeat itself. Do you understand this? There are hoodlums who deny the genocide the Nazis perpetuated. It is my duty to tell this story. It is your responsibility to listen." (Could we declare a moratorium on the old saw that if we forget history it will repeat itself? Would that it were true. I'd stop teaching young artists theatre history and count the minutes until the Shakespeare and Aeschylus made their reappearance. Or is it only bad things that get repeated?)

The fact is the Nazis existed. And so did the Resistance. Auschwitz existed. And so did Viktor Frankl. The world is complex. To focus on one aspect of it to the exclusion of the other flattens our perception in the same way as closing one eye affects depth perception. Works of true genius embrace both aspects of experience: we are horrified by Macbeth's brutality, AND we feel his pain when his wife dies. He is not a cardboard cut-out.

Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, writes about the difference between characters and types. "The cognate fact," he writes, "is that in the drama before Shakespeare there are no characters, only types. Literature presented great figures made distinct from one another by a well-marked trait or two, but not rendered unique by complexity. This is not to say that before Shakespeare the persons in the drama were unlifelike 'cardboard.' They were by no means abstractions as in medieval plays, where 'the Vice' is one of the actors. But they were single-tracked in their headlong roles, the shifts in their actions being due to the actions of others, who were similarly conditioned by mutual buffeting. The conflict enabled the playwright to portray the human passions in their variety and fatal consequences. This was enough for ancient Greek drama, the the Elizabethan , and the French classical to hold the spectator breathless. But we cannot say that we know Oedipus or Phedra as we know King Lear, or Lady Macbeth. The latter are as various as we feel ourselves to be, the others not; in types there are (so to speak) no irrelevancies. How does Shakespeare create the roundness of character? By throwin light on new aspects of the person in successive relations. Polonius as a courtier is obsequious, as a royal adviser overconfident, as a father to this daughter callously blind, as a father to his son, endearingly wise. The grand result of this method, this multi-dimensional mapping, is that since Montaigne and Shakespeare, plays, novels, and biographies have filled the western mind with a galaxy of characters we know better than ourselves and out neighbors."

When I talk about theatre, I am calling for the same approach Barzun describes in regards to characters to be applied to ideas as well: a multi-dimensional mapping that reflects the complexity of life.


John Branch said...

If you're going to write plays, you'll have to develop a particular approach. Don Hall would presumably try to write the kind of plays that he wants to see: something in-your-face, confrontational, provocative. And the same thing applies if you're going to produce plays. But if you're going to talk about plays, don't you (we) have to recognize that same complexity that Scott sees in life? There are provocative pieces out there, and there are all sorts of other kinds as well.

I know this doesn't seem to say much, but sometimes I wonder what the purpose of such discussions is. What are we trying to decide?

Chasing the Spark said...

Mr. Branch,

I think that we have these dicussions because we are perpetually asking ourselves why we do this and what good is it anyway. If the only purpose of theatre to agitate then maybe I should quit, or if there is only room for bombastic musicals maybe there's no place for me. I don't thnk all discussion is meant to end in a decision.

I think that all Scott was saying in his earlier piece is that there seems to be an angry bent to what's going on in his theatre world right now, and why is it that it seems that's all most people find to be valid?

Don R. Hall said...

Round Three

John Branch said...

Chasing the Spark: Thanks. Good answer. I've got a rather practical orientation right now; I'm trying to write a play, and I'm thinking about one that I'm reading, so my focus is on small-scale matters. But talking about what we do and why has its place.

Joshua said...


For someone claiming we need less provocation, you're pretty damn provocative.

Chasing the Spark said...

This whole discussion is really more about form than about substance.

In the "Round Three" link that Mr. Hall added there is discussion of all the heavyweights (Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Moliere et al) and the political nature of their work. What I think is missed is that all that politics was tucked into a tasty pie to be digested later.

What passes for political theatre currently (that I've met) tends toward the Hammertastic insultfest rather than anyone taking time to CRAFT something with a message. Which is all I think Scott is asking for. (Scott I apologize for putting words in your mouth if indeed I have)

Don R. Hall said...

If the discussion is about the craft of provocative theater - now, we're talking.

I wholeheartedly agree that an awful lot of political theater is just plain crap. I also would submit that there is morethan enough crappy theater, provocative or not, to last a lifetime.

As I wrote in Round three, some fling shit just to fling shit - others fling shit to get things started, but follow it up with some skill.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

barzun is wrong. complexity didn't start with shakespeare. read euripides.