Saturday, January 28, 2006

Spirit Shared

Susan Glaspell, quoting George Cook of the Provincetown Players:

"On man cannot produce drama. True drama is born only of one feeling animating
all the members of a clan -- a spirit shared by all and expressed by the few for
the all. If there is nothing to take the place of the common religious purpose
and passion of the primitive group, out of which the Dionysian dance was born,
no new vital drama can arise in any people."


Almost twenty years ago, I dropped out of an MFA program because they kept me so busy with production that there was no time to think. I came to the program hoping to learn new ideas, discover new approaches, develop my own unique aesthetic within a larger context. But instead, I found myself stage managing, directing constantly, and learning "technique." I decided this was no way to become an artist, it was just the way to become another cog in the theatrical machinery.

Over at, I find that the non-thinking attitude is still prevalent. I a comment on an admirable post called "Teaching is Power," Lucas Krech writes: "What makes you good is doing it. If you want to be a writer write. If you want to be a director direct. Reading can’t teach you how to write, it can only teach you how other people write, except that writing is a process not a product, so reading only teaches you what other people produce."

Yes, you must practice your craft, but if every generation must reinvent the wheel, we are wasting an enormous amount of time and talent. Techniques have been discovered in the past that can be used today; ideas have been discussed in the past that still have validity today. Back in the day, artists served as apprentices, which meant that they watched how somebody who knew how to do something did it. Reading is another way of serving an apprentice.

High school theatre does a great disservice to young people: it puts them onstage and lets them figure it out themselves. The result: a bunch of undergrads with horrible habits. What is worse, all the high school kids’ adoring family surround them and tell them how wonderful they are, “better than what I saw on NY last year when I visited.” And of course, young people believe them. As a result, they think there is no real reason to actually LEARN about the art form — hell, they already know how to DO it. And who cares about the genuises of the past, I’m a genius already! The result: the theatre is filled with superficial and unpolished productions by people who think they know what they are doing. As Albert Williams writes in Chicago’s “Performink” newspaper: “if young dancers launched their careers with the same level of technique most young actors possess, they’d break their necks the first time on stage.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. But technique is only half the battle -- thought is the other. You should have something to say, and also the skill to say it effectively. One alone doesn't make it.

I wish there was a lot more care and a lot more thought put into production. If there was, maybe we'd get somewhere...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Chekhov's Words to His Brother

Stolen from (a blog I recommend highly, and I thank Matt Freeman for pointing me to). A letter from Chekhov to his brother:

You are easy enough to understand…. Others are not to blame if you do not understand yourself….
If you want proof that I understand you, I can even enumerate… In my estimation you are good to a fault, generous, not an egoist; you will share your last kopek with others, you are sincere; you are free from envy and hatred, open-hearted… You have been gifted from above with something most others lack: talent…
You only have one failing. But in it lies the source of your false position, your misery… That failing is an utter lack of culture… Your talent has thrust you into [a] charmed circle, you belong to it, but…you are impelled away from it.
In my opinion people of culture must meet the following reqiusites:
1. They respect the human personality and are therefore always forbearing, gentle, courteous and compliant…
2. They sympathize not only with beggars and stray cats; they are also sick at heart with what is not visible to the naked eye…
3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts…
4. They are sincere and fear untruth like the very devil…
5. They do not make fools of themselves in order to arouse sympahty…
6. They are not vain…
7. If they have talent, they regard it with respect. To it they will sacrifice their repose, women, wine and vanity…
8. They develop an aesthetic sense…
Such are cultured people. To educate yourself not to fall below the level of your own environment, it is not enough to have read Pickwick Papers or to have memorized the monlogue from Faust.
What you need is constant work, day and night, eternal reading, study, will power…. Every hour is precious.
You are no longer a child. Time to make change!
I’m expecting you — so are we all.

– Chekhov, in a letter to his brother, Nikolai, 1886

I draw your attention especially to #1 above, in the context of our discussion.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on Chekhov

Devilvet (see blogroll) commented on my post below entitled "Chekhov and Condemnation." He writes:

"After more thought, I'm sort of confused at the point of this story or more accurately, how this story proves your point. What you see as accepting, gentle nature...I see as pandering. When I read this story I see a tale about three women who are asking difficult questions that they don't fully grasp, and the person they come to for enlightenment or enabling, giving them an out. 'Ladies you aren't as interested in geo-politics as you should be, so let's talk about candy.'"

He asks more questions, which I will address anon, but let's start with this one. When I read Gorky's story, I see three women who have come to visit the Famous Author and are trying to talk about things they think he would want to talk about -- things that are "important." Chekhov relieves them of this necessity and puts them at their ease by asking them about something they all enjoy: candied fruit. For me, an important phrase in the story is: "And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge." To me, Chekhov understands that the world can be revealed in many ways, and that candied fruit is as good as geopolitics. When we use the word "pandering," to me we are creating a strict hierarchy of value that says that certain things are important, and others aren't, and that life's truths can only be found through the higher subjects. I'm not certain I agree. It seems to me that his desire is to talk to the ladies about something that they are truly interested in, and to communicate with them from within their own place of enthusiasm.

Devilvet goes on to ask, "what in this Gorky story as you've laid it out has to do with Chekov the dramatist?" It seems to me that many artists would not have made the effort Chekhov makes here -- they would have stayed within their own area of interest and expected the ladies to come to them. There is value to that, to encouraging the ladies to step beyond their comfort zone. But there is also value to starting where someone is comfortable and exploring the "subtle knowledge" that can be found there, and perhaps building a bridge to another part of the forest from there.

When I read a Chekhov play, I don't see him judging his characters. Even characters like Natalya in The Three Sisters, certainly a bitch on wheels, is portrayed sympathetically in the first act, and that colors how we view her for the rest of the play. He allows his characters to "speak their own language," and he relates to them from where they live.

Allison Croggon comments, "When I think of Chekhov the artist, I think of the Chekhov who despised his audience and spoke of "iron in the blood". I'm sure he was a charming human being (quite sure, when I read his letters) - but I also think he was as hard as nails." I suspect we all see the Chekhov we want to see, but for me the key word in her comment is "also" in the second sentence. He is a both/and not an either/or. He wanted to show people how dreary their lives are, while he also believed in their ability to improve. He did not paint rosy pictures, nor did he fail to see the faults of his characters and his audience, but he also did not refuse to see their generosity, their vulnerability, their heart. In my Modern Drama class, we read The Cherry Orchard right after we read A Doll's House, and I sometimes think that is too bad, because if you read Chekhov while still wearing Ibsen's powerfully judgmental lens, you often miss the point of Chekhov's play. You simply judge Ranevskaya and Gaev -- "Why don't they take action? Why are they so infuriating in their impracticality?" -- and you miss the sadness, the emotion, the contradictory feelings that are a part of their actions. Or inactions.

As Allison notes, Chekhov's "great speeches wound," and this is certainly true. But there are other moments (often moments that occur right before or right after the wounding) that heal. When Lopakhin fails to propose to Varya, it is one of the most painful scenes I have ever witnessed, because you simultaneously can sense the longing of these two people for each other, and the inability to make the leap of faith it takes to connect. It hurts, and you understand as well.

Allison quotes Nietzsche to the effect that there is health in the "ability to stare into the abyss of catastrophe," and this is undoubtedly true, and Chekhov certainly was able to do this. But he reported back what he saw in such a way that the abyss seemed understandable, if no less frightening. Nietzsche, like Ibsen, looked at the world with hard eyes; Chekhov, I would say, looked with soft eyes. The eyes of a friend, not of a judge. I value both ways of looking, for different reasons. And I admire Chekhov's way, because I often lack it myself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Friend and Doctor

Matthew Freeman has done a beautiful, beautiful job elaborating on my post below. Hi spost, "Friend, Doctor, Artist" is most eloquent. I recommend it highly.

Chekhov and Condemnation

The comments on my post below, "Narcotized Stupors," were so thoughtful, insightful, and kind I must move them from the background and into an "up-front" post.

Devilvet wrote: "What's wrong with condemnation? "If that art wakens the spirit only to condemn it...that seems wrong, somehow." What about If that art condemns the absence or bastardization of the spirit in hopes to awaken." And he continued: "I can see how taking the attitude that They with a capital T are narcotized could lead to a position of superiority by the artist that if perceived by the audience would distance them significantly. But is condemnation synonymus with alienation? Can an artistic endevour compartmentize it's condemnation?"

Allison Croggon: "I'm not sure that those who are not awake to (say) the suffering of others can really posit themselves as victims. And some things need to be condemned, because they (by default) condemn others in very real and material ways - think 1930s Germany. It's not the "spirit" that is being condemned, after all, if condemnation is indeed what's going on, but whatever imprisons it."

George Hunka: "There is also, I would suggest, the guilt that the artist him or herself might bear. Is that not worthy of condemnation? We all like to see ourselves as victims, but honestly, we must recognize our capacity to act as victimizers as well. In which case, we still must answer."

To which MttJ appended: "or at least (and maybe more constructively,) we must question."

As p'tit boo notes, this is an issue that we have discussed in the past at various times, often with me leading off with an aggressive tone, which of course is then met with an equally aggressive tone. This time, I'm feeling much more pensive, and so these comments have touched me.

Today, I begin teaching The Cherry Orchard in my Modern Drama course. When I did a brief introduction to Chekhov and his writing, I used the following story from Maxim Gorky's "Anton Chekhov: Fragments of Recollection" ( to illustrate Chekhov's nature:

I think that in Anton Chekhov's presence every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one's self; and I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns himself, like a savage with shells and fish's teeth. Anton Chekhov disliked fish's teeth and cocks' feathers; anything "brilliant" or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed him; I noticed that whenever he saw any one dressed up in this way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul of the person. All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubles about what some people expected and others --coarser people--demanded of Anton Chekhov. He did not like conversations with which our dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that it is ridiculous to argue about velvet costumes in the future when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.

Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple. Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and the smell of strong scent; they sat down politely opposite their host, pretended that they were very much interested in politics, and began "putting questions":
"Anton Pavlovitch, what do you think? How will the war end?"
Anton Pavlovitch coughed, thought for a while, and then gently, in a serious and kindly voice, replied: "Probably in peace."
"Well, yes ... certainly! But who will win? The Greeks or the Turks?"
"It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger."
"And who, do you think, are the stronger?" all the ladies asked together.
"Those who are the better fed and the better educated."
"Ah, how clever!" one of them exclaimed.
"And whom do you like the best?" another asked.
Anton Pavlovitch looked at her kindly, and answered with a meek smile:
"I like candied fruits ... don't you?"
"Very much," the lady exclaimed gayly.
"Especially Abrikossov's," the second agreed solidly. And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish: "It smells so good." And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge. It was obvious that they were happy at not having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given a thought. When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovitch: "We will send you some candied fruit."
"You managed that nicely," I observed when they had gone.
Anton Pavlovitch laughed quietly and said: "Every one should speak his own language."

I admire this accepting, gentle nature. There is kindness in his approach, and understanding. And yet...and yet... Chekhov also said "All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!'" Surely this is a condemnatory attitude. He goes on: "The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!'" This is the attitude of the doctor that Chekhov was: a combination of condemnation and encouragement: you have high cholesterol (condemnation), but if you change your eating habits and exercise your health will improve (encouragement).

A doctor often must be blunt and realistic when describing a diagnosis: you have cancer. But if a doctor simply said that and left the patient sitting there, what good has he done? And yet...and yet...Chekhov said that the artist's job was to ask questions, not provide answers, and again I agree. But while Chekhov never provided answers, he also never closed the door on whether an answer was possible.

The underlying assumption being explored here is that the artist is analogous to the doctor, and that healing is goal. If you reject that, then this discussion makes no sense. But if you do accept it, even temporarily and for the sake of argument, there are so many directions one could go. The surgeon must cut and open up a patient in order to heal -- must hurt in order to help. If he were afraid to cut the skin, the surgeon would be worthless. Yet the intent, the overall goal, is to heal, not simply to cut. There have been times when I have felt that certain artists (and interestingly, these have more often been performers, designers, and directors than playwright) seem to feel that cutting is an end in itself, and they glory in the gash and the scar.

If I am ill, I don't want a doctor who is going to empathize with me, I want one who is going to look at my symptoms, reach a diagnosis, and take action. But a doctor not interested in healing is simply a sadist.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Narcotized Stupors

From "The Candy Monkey Raves," by Steve Almond, in the Jan-Feb '06 Utne Magazine:

"But one of the functions of art (yes, even popular art) is to call people out of their narcotized stupors, to raise people's consciousness, to awaken their capacities for compassion. William Faulkner probably put this best in his 1950 Nobel Prize speech: 'The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man; it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.'"

I have been puzzling over this paragraph. I agree heartly with Faulkner, and with Almond's idea that the arts "raise people's consciousness...[and] awaken their capacities for compassion," but I'm uncomfortable with the attitude that the phrase "narcotized stupor" seems to suggest. To some extent, I think it is true -- I think our contemporary society, with its speed and volume, with its lack of time to reflect, its rampant materialism, and its constant pressure to consume leads people to self-medicate in so many ways: alcohol, drugs, television, consumer goods. In that sense, they are living in a stupor, because to live with all senses alive is too painful.

What bothers me is the condemnatory attitude implied by phrases like "narcotized stupor." There is something very judgmental here, like a teetotaler at brewery tour, that does not seem to me to be conducive to profound art, which is based on deep empathy. In fact, such scorn, in many ways, is blaming the victim. People must cope daily with the spiritually deadening effects of American society, and art reminds them of what it is to truly live. If that art wakens the spirit only to condemn it...that seems wrong, somehow.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

On Exploring, Instead of Arguing

George has taken issue with my post "The Totalitarian Narrative Indeed," and I can't blame him. Lately, he has been posting strong, well-considered statements about his aesthetic preferences, and every time he gets one set up, I come in and try to knock it down. A month ago, I was posting my own such statements, and I became very despondent when the only thing that happened was a series of comments and posts telling me I was wrong and evil. It is difficult to bear one's soul through one's ideas and find that you are attacked and rejected.

Why do we do that? Why do we look at the exchange of ideas as a form of pugilism? When somebody advances an idea, why is our first impulse to look for the weakness and faults, rather than explore the possibilities that the ideas present? Sometimes it seems like we prefer circular firing squads. I certainly am not free of this impulse.

Yes, challenging an idea can cause the original author to think more deeply, and perhaps emerge with a stronger and more elegant idea or explanation. But sometimes, in the face of attack, the idea is dropped or the impulse that led to the idea is squashed. I don't think George will follow the latter action, but I know, looking back at my posts a month ago, that it took nearly a week before I began posting new ideas again. I laid low.

Deborah Tannen calls this "The Argument Culture," and she sees it as intellectually destructive. Despite engaging in it all too regularly, my intuition tells me that she is right.

So let me engage George's ideas about the totalitarian narrative a bit more fully.

Some of my favorite plays are Beckett's late short plays, especially "Rockby" and "Ohio Impromptu." These are plays that do not rely on narrative, but rather on the exploration of an image: on the former, an old woman rocked (is rocked) in a chair as she stares out a window every day, and at the end of each day the chair stops rocking, and after a pause, she says "More," and the pattern begins anew; the the latter, reader and a listener seem to go through the story of the listener's life, with the listener knocking when he wants to hear something again, until at the last the reader informs him that "nothing is left to tell." If one of the functions of art is to provoke what Anne Bogart calls an "aesthetic arrest," a moment when one is stopped in one's tracks and transfixed, then I think these plays are amazing.

The philosopher Ken Wilber writes in The Eye of Spirit: "Great art suspends the reverted eye, the lamented past, the anticipated future: we enter into it with the timeless present; we are with God today, perfect in our manner and mode, open to the riches and the glories of a realm that time forgot, but that great art reminds us of: not by its content, but by what it does in us: suspends the desire to be elsewhere. And thus is undoes the agitated grasping in the heart of the suffering self, and releases us -- maybe for a second, maybe for a minute, maybe for all eternity -- releases us from the coil of ourselves....Great art i judged by its capacity to take your breath away, take your self away, take time away, all at once."

Narrative lives in the future; it relies on the question "What will happen next?" To free ourselves from narrative might lead to a contemplative pause in time. When I read one of Beckett's short plays, I wonder whether a contemporary audience rushing into the theatre with the speed of American life buzzing in their brains can actually slow down enough to experience the miracle that Beckett creates. I sometimes think that the audience should be taken through a half hour of meditation prior to the performance.

Beckett is Grotowskian in the sense that the body onstage, rather than the narrative surge through time, is what creates the profound metaphor at the center of his plays and the experience that accompanies it. And he certainly is minimalist. But not in terms of words -- there are often many words spoken even in a short Beckett play. But in terms of plot and image. The world is distilled to an essence.

Unfortunately, Beckett right now stands alone -- I can think of no one who is following the trail he has blazed. And while I love a good story, and a strong narrative line, I also love the frozen moment in time, the profound depth, that Beckett's plays create.

This may not be what George is describing, but it is what I see in my mind's eye when I take the time to explore George's ideas, rather than argue with them. It is something I ought to do more of.