Friday, April 07, 2006

The Four R's

From "What's Supposed to be Going on Here?," a speech by Wayne C. Booth to about 600 freshmen in Orientation Week. Published in The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967 - 1988

"There are many ways of talking about the arts of liberal education, the arts that genuinely liberate. At the risk of being gimmicky, I'd like to suggest a way of reviving that tired old list, the 'three R's.' Reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic made up a highly simplified, minimal list of the arts of liberation: to be able to read is to be free to learn what other men know; to be able to write is to be free to teach ot move or change other men with your words; and to be able to calculate is to be freed from enslavement to other men's calculations. Without scrapping arithmetic...I'd like to expand the first two of these into four. The new list would have reading and writing mixed up in every one of the four, and it would run like this: first, the art of Recovery of meanings, the seemingly simple but never finally mastered ability to learn what other men have known or believed; second, the art of Rejection of whatever is false or enslaving in other men's meanings -- what is often called critical thinking; third, the art of Renewing or (the thesaurus yields lots of 'R's' here) Renovating or Recognizing or Re-presenting what is valid or worthwhile in other men's meanings; and finally the art of Revising or Revolutionizing thought by discovering genuinely new truth. Both critics and defenders of current education seem these days to be far more interested in the last of these four, revolutionary novelty, than any of the others. Under the names of 'creativity,' 'originality,' or novelty, educationists often talk as if a little institutional doctoring would make it possible for everyone to become intellectually revolutionary, thinking bold new thoughts that nobody else has ever dared to think. Well, maybe. Nobody knows precisely the limits of our creativity. All I can say is that genuinely new ideas seem to me terribly rare, and if it is the goal of education to produce them most of us seem to be doomed to perpetual second-class citizenship."

I would venture that this might apply to the theatre as well...

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.

The FlyBy Lead

Back when this blog was young lo seven months ago, I began with a debate about the regional tendency to import leading actors from NYC. Now Boston's Thomas Garvey of WBUR addresses the same thing in his report "Now Let Us Praise Local Actors." Thanks to YS at "Mirror Up to Nature" for drawing my attention to it, and concurring. Developing your own artistic community is the only way to thrive!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Alison Croggon's Near-Perfect Definition of Wisdom

In the comments of the post below, "In a Nutshell," Alison Croogon wrote the following inspirational sentences:

"Yes, of course artists have to be intelligent, but that is not by any means the whole of what's required...Artists are not only concerned with ideas, but with responding to the world around them through the sensual media they use - words, paint, rock, their bodies - in ways which bypass cerebral thinking, which focus on the materiality and sensual properties of the things they use, and which seek emotional as well as intellectual response."

That is as close to a perfect definition of what I mean by wisdom as I am likely to find. To improve on it would only be to add more details to the basic idea that wisdom is the ability to see, appreciate, and express as much of the world as possible using as much of one's self as possible: the intellectual and the emotional, the cerebral and the sensual, the comic and the tragic, the just and the unjust, the heroic and the cowardly, the love and the hate -- the list could go on, of course. But to me wisdom is the embrace of all the possibilities of the world, and express them in such a way as to guide others to see them as well.

Thank you, Alison!