Friday, March 10, 2006

Maxwell Anderson on Tragedy

I may have mentioned that I am preparing a new class for the fall on the American theatre of the 1920s and 1930s. I began reading plays and essays this week (I just finished The Time of Your Life, which was quite engaging). In a little book entitled American Playwrights on Drama, I found an essay by Maxwell Anderson entitled "The Essence of Tragedy." In it, he says the following:

"And since our plays...are exaltations of the human spirit, since that is what an audience expects when it comes to the theatre, the playwright...must so arrange his story that it will prove to the audience that men pass through suffering purified, that, animal though we are, despicable though we are in many ways, there is in us all some divine, incalculable fire that urges us to be better than we are...[I]n the majority of ancient and modern plays it seems to me that what the audience wants to believe is that men have a desire to break the molds of earth which encase them and claim kinship with a higher morality than that which hems them in...[They want to see plays that show] the groping of men toward and excellence dimly apprehended, seldom possible of definition. [Such plays] are evidence to me that the theatre at its best is a religious affirmation, an age-old rite restating and reassuring men's belief in his own destiny and his ultimate hope. The theatre is much older than the doctrine of evolution, but its one faith, assseverated again and again for every age and every year, is a faith in evolution, in the reaching and the climb of men toward distant goals, glimpsed but never seen, perhaps never achieved, or achieved only to be passed impatiently on the way to a more distant horizon." (1939)

What I see in this quotation, among many other things, and what I also say in The Time of Your Life, is a tremendous sense of optimism, a belief in mankind's ability to remain hopeful in the face of adversity, and a belief in his ability to make things better. Many would call this naive, and others would say it is impossible to hold onto those beliefs in the face of everything that has happened in the world. But what Anderson is saying, and I agree with him, is that the basis of tragedy is exactly this sense of courage and hope in the face of pain and inhumanity; the refusal to allow such inhumanity to seep into one's own consciousness. At one time, 75 years ago, such tragic pluck was valued, and the theatre served to reinforce the courage necessary to face the trials of each day. And so far, it has been a joy to encounter it.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

NYTW No More

Just a public notice that I have said my last word in NYTW -- moving on. In addition, I am going to refrain from commenting negatively, on that or any other topic, on other blogs as well. I'm going to follow Matt Freeman's suggestion that I "talk about what [I] love, not what [I]hate." We'll see where that leads me. I need to extricate myself from the Sunday-Morning- political-talk shows approach to blogging: I've engaged in too much bluster and outrage, and not enough contemplation and reflection. I'm a grizzled old academic, and my interests should reflect that. So a warning to my readers: new things to come.

Monday, March 06, 2006

NYTW: How I Think It Should Have Gone

I have been thinking about the NYTW controversy. I suspect that many of you who have read my posts about the artist's relationship to the audience, and the artist's responsibility to the society, may have thought that I would have come down in favor of Nicola's actions -- that he was being responsive to his community, and not trying to get in their face, and I would throw my hat in the air and shout "Huzzah!" As my previous post shows, this is not my opinion. So let me lay out how things might have transpired if I had been in Nicola's position.

First, it is important to understand that, as artistic director, it is my respoonsibilty to be paying attention to the people who form the NYTW community -- not just the board, but the subscribers, the other members of the audience, and the larger NYC community as well (although this last group secondarily). At some point, I may have encountered My Name is Rachel Corrie, and become intrigued by the play -- there was something about it that I felt was theatrically exciting.

At this point, I should ask myself a question: does my audience need this play? Not want this play; need this play. How would I answer this question for myself? From my knowledge of my audience. I might have noticed, for instance, that when members of my audience discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they tend to be unable to see the Palestinian viewpoint, or they tend to be unable to understand how anyone could sympathize with the Palestinian cause -- in short, that they are unable to project themselves into a Palestinian viewpoint. If this were the case, I might say: this play will put a face on a viewpoint that they find foreign, it will humanize people whose motivations have been incomprehensible to them. At this point, I would decide: yes, this is a play my audience needs.

If, several months later, the deaths of Sharon and the ascendancy of Hamas have my audience feeling "edgy," my original commitment to this play would be strengthened: now more than ever, when my audience is even more fearful and is even more prone to dehumanize the Palestinian side of the issue, this play must be done because of the work it can do.

I have begun studying Chinese medicine lately. While the metaphor of artist as doctor has appeared on this blog, it is a Western model of medicine being used: looking at a wound or illness and trying to fix it. While I am in the very earliest stages of research into the topic of Chinese medicine, I have begun to see a much more dynamic and useful model of the "doctor" that I'd like to explore, because it applies to the NYTW situation, and to the artist in general.

From a website describing traditional Chinese medicine: "Chinese medicine views the body as an energetic system in dynamic balance. Qi, which can be translated as energy or life force, flows in a regular pattern through a system of channels — or meridians — to all parts of the body.
When the flow of Qi is unimpeded there is harmony, balance, and good health. When there are Qi blockages, too much or too little qi, there is an imbalance which can lead to disharmony and disease. Chinese medicine helps restore the body to balance and works on an energetic level to affect all aspects of a person..." [ital mine]

Perhaps we could conceive of the ideal society as a healthy body in which the life force flows unimpeded. To do so, there must be balance. In this model, the artist would have his or her hand on the pulse of the community, and respond to maintain balance. This is the opposite of "giving the audience what it wants," since what it will want is more of what has thrown it out of balance in the first place. If society has become too ordered and uptight, like say America of the 1950s, then the artist must throw his or her weight in the opposite direction -- which is exactly what happened with the beats in the 50s and the explosion of counter-culture art in the 60s. If the society is racist, then the artist must throw himself or herself in the opposite direction. Homophobic? Same thing. With the goal of restoring balance.

At a certain point, the society will begin swinging too far in the other direction, and the artist, hand on the pulse, will begin to move in another direction. For instance, the abandonment of all artistic form and structure in the 1960s, while a necessary corrective, might need another corrective so as to avoid total anarchy. Again, the artist moves in opposition to the prevailing norm, always asking what his or her community needs at that particular moment.

Had Nicola's audience been evenly split between those who could not see the Palestinian viewpoint, and those who could not see the Israeli viewpoint, a play other than My Name is Rachel Corrie might have been a better choice, one that perhaps humanized both sides of the conflict. Again, this decision would be based on a knowledge of the audience, on taking the audience's pulse.

The artist becomes the canary in the mine who senses trouble first, and sings out a warning. Or another analogy: the artist is poised at society's fulcrum, and senses every shift first. Either way, the artist, or artistic director, asks: what does my community need now?