Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Clurman and Enthusiasm

In preparation for a lecture on the Group Theatre, I have been reading Wendy Smith's fantastic Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940, and Harold Clurman's even-more-fantastic Fervent Years. Of the dozens of quotations that have me inspired, here is one that particularly resonates with what I have been thinking about and writing lately:

"To what human beings, one might ask, were theatre ideas to be valuable. First, to the theatre artists themselves -- to actors, since they were the theatre's crucial factor; actors were citizens of a community before they took on their dubious connection with 'art.' Second, theatre ideas were to be important to an audience, of which the actors were a focus, for it is the audience (seen as a 'community') that has given birth to its artists. The criterion of judgment for what is good or bad in the theatre -- be it in plays, acting, or staging -- does not derive from some abstract standard of artistic or literary excellence, but from a judgment of what is fitting -- that is, humanly desirable -- for a particular audience." (italics mine; from Fervent Years)

Clurman condemned the board members of the Theatre Guild: "They had this fixation on pessimism. If you felt BADLY and said life stinks! it STINKS! you were really an advanced person. There'e something about pessimism that gives people an aura of grandeur. If you think everything is hopeless and down and wretched and dirty, then you really are an exalted person. I've never understood why." (quoted in Smith, p 24)

"If theatre is an art, if it has any value beyond decorating the emptiness of our existence, it too, collective art thought it be, must have an analogous singleness of meaning and direction. It too must say something, it too must create from the chaos which is the common experience of its members, an expression that will have, like that of the individual artist, an identity and significance with which people, sharing the common experience, may sense their kinship and to which they can attach themselves." (italics original; quoted in Smith, p 7)

Clurman taught at CUNY back in the 70s, and a good friend of mine, Alvin Goldfarb (co-author of The Living Theatre and expert in Holocaust theatre), had classes with him. It must have been extraordinary! To warm your mind and soul through the heat of a man with a vision of what theatre should be, and who spoke those ideas in words of passion and intensity -- I can think of few things that could nourish the artistic heart more fully.

I am reminded of Jimmy Porter's plea in Look Back In Anger for "a little ordinary enthusiasm," and his frustration with the fact that "Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm." Clurman had enthusiasm, he thought, he cared, he believed. He was not afraid to look silly because of his passion, he was not afraid to not be cool.

Is there someone who carries on that tradition? I sometimes feel it when I read some of Kushner's essays. Are there others that you can point me toward -- other visionaries who are putting forward a passionate, committed vision of today's theatre that echoes Clurman's 75-year-old prophecies? If I wanted to inspire my young students with a contemporary vision of theatre's power and potential, where should I look? Is there anyone who has transcended the hip postmodern cynicism to propose something that can be believed in? Is there somebody who embodies enthusiasm?


Chasing the Spark said...

Mr. Walters,

Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Try my blog, Scott. It will give you a few pointers. There are very few hip post modern cynics mentioned there, and very many passionate, committed artists. Among those who think hard about what a theatrical community might be: Ariane Mnouchkine; Robert Draffin; Daniel Keene (whose upcoming Rex Cramphorne Memorial Lecture will be a doozy, I can tell you now, and talks about the sense of community that theatre specifically creates); Melbourne Workers Theatre. As for others: Liz Jones, the artistic director of La Mama Melbourne is another. Didier Berzace of Theatre de la Commune in Paris. Just for starters. There are tons of others. I reckon anyone who seriously makes theatre thinks seriously about this question of community, and in a multiplicity of ways: just as there are many kinds of communities. One of the (non-commercial) theatre's virtues is that you can't avoid this question.

What I don't understand is why you keep claiming that such people do not exist in contemporary theatre. They're all over the place.

Brian Santana said...

Read the Suzan-Lori Parks collection The America Play and Other Works. She has some wonderful essays about theatre, its power, and its purpose that are included with these plays. Very inspiring stuff.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- I'm not denying it, I am asking for guidance toward them. Part of the reason I ask is that the publishing world has changed, and I am not certain where such writing is likely to be published. I have just finished a series of lectures on Harold Clurman and Robert Edmond Jones, and in the course of researching the topics I came across so many books published in the 40s that allowed artists to talk in detail about what they believe about their art form. Jones' The Dramatic Imagination, for instance, or Clurman's The Fervent Years are brilliant. But even more than this, I found books published in the 40s that were mainly photos of various theatre sets and collections articles by well-known artists discussing everything from tragedy to turntables. But today, there seem to be only a few non-academic publishers who do such books. Furthermore, given the thin market, I'm not certain that contemporary artists have much motivation to discuss their work in any great detail, especially in theoretical terms. But if they do, and do so regularly, I'd like to know where I need to look. Like I said, Kushner comes the closest, it seems to me, to Jones and Clurman and Brook.
Brian, thank you for the tip about Suzanne Lori-Parks -- I will try to track it down. I had hopes that Anna Deavere Smith's books might be inspiring, but I was disappointed.
I must confess I am looking for something that gets the heart pounding, that can get people excited about the act of creation. I can't get buzzed about, say, Richard Foreman's sighing about not knowing why he does his shows anymore -- it makes me sad, as opposed to giving me courage and inspiration. I regularly return to Howard Barker's writings, and I find some of that energy in his writing, but ultimately his writing feels...embattled, rather than visionary. But the English theatre artists seem to do more of this type of writing than the Americans. And books like Staging the Revolution are very exciting. Here in America, I am very excited about Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones and Theater for Incarcerated Women, which is great. And Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance is also inspirational. But I want more -- more for me, and more for my students. Which is why I put out the call for info.