Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Taking Aim At Isherwood

The blogosphere is taking aim, and with reason, at Christopher Isherwood's recent article on political theatre in the NY Times. Garret Eisler, George Hunka, and Isaac Butler each do a fine enough job dismantling Isherwood's woefully broken-backed article (did two different people write the first half and the last half of the article? [I refuse to call it a think piece]) that one is tempted to simply write "ditto" and save the effort it takes to write. As one who teaches theatre history, I am baffled by Isherwood's idea that people go to the theatre solely for "entertainment," and even more inexplicably that "entertainment" is the equivalent of "pleasantness." Is The Oresteia pleasant? Yet thousands of Greeks flocked to see it. Is there anything pleasant about Macbeth or Titus Andronicus or Doctor Faustus or The Duchess of Malfi? Yet the Elizabethans were there en masse. Is there anything jolly about Phaedra or The Cid? Yet the French filled the halls of Louis' theatres to see them. Of course, one could go on and on listing "unpleasant" plays that were wildly popular, but the point is made. I think that Isherwood underestimates the truly human need to confront the pain of life together.

Of course, in Part 2 of his essay, Isherwood proceeds to undo everything he wrote in Part 1, so it is hard to know what to think.

But very often the issue of "preaching to the converted" comes up when discussing political theatre, and in fact George asks, "But if the people who form that society don't show up for the performance, who is confronted? If agit-prop is performed in an empty theatre, is ti still agit-prop?" My quibble to that question might be whether political theatre and agit-prop are synonymous -- the latter might more usefully be defined as a subset of the former. But let that go. The dismissal of theatre that preaches to the converted is a topic I encountered just this morning in Jill Dolan's brilliant Utopia in Performance.

Dolan speaks about having Holly Hughes perform her Preaching to the Perverted (her one-woman show that examines her experience as a member of the NEA Four) at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes:

"Hughes remains an activist artist, who performance work and public presentations insist on examining culture and politics through art. She was eloquent in her meeting with my class and in her public interview. She deconstructed the notion of 'preaching to the converted,' an issue that already concerned my students, who feared that political work reaches a too narrow audience of people already persuaded to think progressively. How, they wondered, could more people be persuaded, so that performance and its potential for social change wouldn't be ghettoized far from the notice of those who perhaps need to see it most? Quoting theater scholar David Roman and performance artist Tim Miller's writing on this issue, Hughes proceeded to shake up some of these notions by suggesting that 'conversion' is always unstable, that people are never, finally, converted to anything; there's always ambiguity, ambivalence and doubt. Performance, Hughes insisted, is a renewal of faith, and progressive politics are always faith-based."

In a footnote in which she provides the citation for Tim Miller and David Roman's "Preaching to the Converted" in Theatre Journal 47, no 2 (1995), she also notes Vicki Patraka's interview with performance artist Robbie McCauley, in which McCauley says about preaching to the converted:

"I think that criticism is a cop-out. First of all, how much fo the converted know? And things resonate, ripple out. This is not to say that you do not work constantly for audience development; we need to grapple with ways to expand audiences. But we don't need to put that problem in the way of doing the work, making our work clear and beautiful for our audiences. The whole issue is just a block."

To be fair, Isherwood says just that:

"“Preaching to the converted” is the dismissive epithet easily hurled at plays that air a social ill in front of audiences predisposed to share the playwright’s view. But why shouldn’t theatergoers draw the same kind of sustenance from the collective experience of theater that congregants do from sermons at church? We all have spiritual lives of some kind, beliefs that are articles of faith more than reason. And they are nurtured by a sense of common feeling, the knowledge that we are not alone in our perceptions, whether they consist of general religious tenets or specific moral stances on social or political issues."

But he precedes it with this declaration, as if to put this thorny question finally to rest:

"Can art save the day? More specifically, can theater rouse the populace from a sense of numbed anxiety? Can a stage play change minds, or help channel passive beliefs into active commitment? Short-term answer: a resounding “Nope.” Long-term answer: a less resounding if hardly less dispiriting “Probably not, alas."

And this:

"Does this mean that theater has a perceptible or quantifiable impact on the issues raised? As I suggested earlier, not necessarily, or not much. I haven’t rushed to the barricades, hand in hand with the fellow in seat G102, any time recently. But I have left the theater with a more vivid sense of the painful human cost of public policy or a deeper knowledge of the gritty specifics of a specific historical event."

This is a red herring. To charge any individual event, artistic or not, with causing people to rush to the barricades is nonsensical. It is, as McCauley notes, a block -- an attempt to dispirit those who care by undermining any sense of hope that one's actions might make a difference. If political theatre does nothing else, it can serve to recharge the reserves of courage and commitment required of those who would enact social change. The changing of minds is a slow process of building empathy, making arguments, and exerting peer pressure (and probably the latter is the most important). Political theatre can be a player in the first two, and can provide courage and persuasive power for the last.

An additional red herring is to bemoan the lack of "masterpieces" in political theatre. The first critical question Geothe propounded was "What is the work trying to do?" The purpose of political theatre -- what it is "trying to do" -- may promote the expression of a clear and powerful message over artistic issues. While it is true that a combination of political power and artistic power might lead to a production that would be able to reach beyond the "converted" to touch a larger number of "average" theatregoers, this does not diminish the usefulness of those works that do not. I am not a fan of the aesthetics of plays like The Exonerated or Guantanamo, but I do value their power to bolster outrage and moral fervor. There is no doubt in my mind that Weiss' The Investigation or Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer are much better plays, but every once in a while, when the chips are down, we need to trot out Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been to remind people that America has a history of political bullying and a tendency toward fascistic behavior -- even though Bentley's play is, aesthetically, a rather flat affair.

The problem lies, it seems to me, in "One Size Fits All" theatre criticism that wants to measure every production using the same critical yardstick. When that yardstick measures the inches of "pleasant entertainment," what goes unmeasured is a powerful giant whose practical effectiveness may tower over the Liliputian entertainments being worshipped as aesthetic gladiators.


Alison Croggon said...

Good post, Scott. And yes, quite: it's those tired expectations of what theatre is "supposed" to be that most madden me about so-called theatre criticism...there's something very repressive about those perceptions.

YS said...

We have to remember that these excellent observations of Scott's work both ways.

I think the last two movie reviews by Stanley Kauffman in the New Republic are a perfect example.

In his review of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, he admires Stone's restraint, but Mr. Kauffmann then dissents from most other critics in saying that "restraint," is not at all what should be wished for from Stone, the man who brought us the masterful, excessive visions of Platoon, JFK, Nixon, Wall Street, and Natural Born Killers.

Next, in Kauffmann's review of ,The Illusionist, he opens with the following:

The people who made "The Illusionist" presumably did not set out to jog contemporary judgment, but in a very pleasant way they have done it. For several centuries a prime critical criterion has been appraisal of a work's theme. Narrative or drama might be sound enough as such; but, we asked, what was the work's underlying theme?

Certainly that criterion still opens the most deeply rewarding aspects of many works, but "The Illusionist" reminds us that it is not always essential--that a good story, without much thematic resonance, can be enough. Legend tells us that when the crowd gathered at the New York dock in 1840 to greet the ship bringing the next magazine installment of "The Old Curiosity Shop", they didn't call to the crew, "Is the theme developing?" They called, "Is Little Nell dead?" The Illusionist has been made for the crowd on that dock, of whom in this case I am one.

I know it is film, but this is case of a good critic seeking structural and thematic experimentation, as well as mastery of craft basics.

Scott Walters said...

I had the supreme pleasure of having a class taught by Stanley Kauffmann. A more thoughtful, kinder, more gentlemanly man I have never met. When I read his reviews, I hear his calm, smooth voice examining a play or film with a quiet passion. The quotations you mentioned, with their differentiated criteria depending on the works themselves, demonstrate the subtlety of Kauffmann's critical mind. He doesn't have as many sparks and broadsides as, say, Robert Brustein, but at the end of the day I can trust Kauffmann's judgment.