Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tony on the Synthesis of Art and Entertainment

Tony, over at Jay Raskolnikov, has recently written a wonderful post entitled "Entertainment vs Art: Go Big or Go Home?," in which he uses the recent Harry Potter discussions to make his own points about what makes theatre really cook. After reading the post, I think the title doesn't reflect the content. Tony doesn't seem to be putting entertainment and art in opposition, but rather looking back to a day when they were expected to be joined. Tony writes, "Somehow we got the notion that art was different from entertainment; that art, that theatre shouldn't be entertainment, pandering to audiences. No one wants to be bored." Significantly, to my mind, he makes sure to quickly assure everyone that "This does not mean theatre should not challenge ideas, perceptions, beliefs, the status quo." I say significantly, because that is the way so many have come to think about art: if it is entertaining, then it must be pandering; if it is challenging, then it must be boring. If you come out in favor of the importance of entertainment, then you are in danger of having your artistic license revoked. And yet since Aristotle the first commandment of theatre was "to entertain." Horace added "educate" to that first rule, but it did not replace entertainment, but rather added to it.

For many people, Peter Shaffer and a play like Equus represents middlebrow hack work. But I say that play is a great model of what happens when you join entertainment and thought. Using the popular structure of a mystery story with psychiatrist as sleuth, Shaffer adds layers of fairly difficult ideas about religion and society, passion and normalcy. The spectacle is spartan, yet evocative. The story is embodied, not simply discussed. And what is at stake are two peoples' souls. And Shaffer accomplishes this by drawing from the ancient Greeks as well as the popular form of the mystery. And he doesn't shy away from helping the audience to understand the ideas, just like the chorus did in the Greek tragedies, and like Shakespeare's Chorus did in Henry V. He used powerful techniques from the past with contemporary content and language. Artaud would be pleased.

So be sure to read Tony -- great stuff.


Art said...

Hi Scott,

Surely somebody who is all about embracing writings with a consistency of morality, and all about avoiding Rudyard Kipling's "racist" writings, cannot possibly be holding up a play which suggests that an emotionally, (perhaps mentally,) disturbed boy who flogs himself in bed at night is to be pitied for becoming healed and therefore capable of living the quality of life we are all blessed to have, with all the good and bad that entails.

Scott Walters said...

I am suggesting that the moral question that Dysart raises, and which Freud raised before him in "Civilization and Its Discontents" -- whether the price of normality as defined by civilization is worth the cost of passion and desire -- is a worthy question regardless of whether you agree with Dysart or not. In fact, I am not certain that Shaffer sees Alan's healing as a tragedy -- after all, Dysart does decide to "take it away," while simultaneously mourning the loss. I think that "the quality of life we are all blessed to have," as you put it, at one time embraced a sense of religious fervor, and I'm not certain that our secular society has found anything to replace it. And what makes Equus powerful, in my opinion, is that whatever side you come down on as far as the issue presented, the opposite viewpoint is presented equally passionately. Thus, it requires that you think through your own position -- you can't just unthinkingly and unfeelingly apply your preconceptions.

Thanks for asking.

Freeman said...

I didn't realize people didn't like Equus. Huh. I love that play.

Art said...

Thanks for answering, Scott.

Matt: I am not saying I don't like the play. I enjoy following Scott's line of thinking and theorizing on his blog, and I was, half-jokingly, pointing out what I considered a possible inconsitency. I really did want to hear his thoughts on it.

That being said...

I do think Shaeffer's "moral question," that both he and Freud address will be relagated to the dustbin of history as mental illness moves more into mainstreaming rather than the exclusionary (ship of fools) and then centered (Mental institution) positions which Foucault documented well. (I would suggest reading Peter Kramer's recent works which posit that the idea of mental illness as "genius" or somehow elevated is really the status quo and what has been drilled into us through centuries.)

The tragedy is, as should be pointed out, that Dysart has allowed his own life to be dulled and devoid of passion to such an extent that he would entertain such ideas. Any other position would be increasingly tenous in the face of anything other than Artaud's philosophy of imagination as reality.

In past societies, quality of life did include religious fervor, but remember that the mentally ill in those societies were ostracized. If Dysart is troubled by what Alan fate is at his hands, imagine what Alan's fate would have been in an ancient society.

Even Saint Paul warned Christians of the dangers of losing their senses.

Schaeffer himself may not believe that Alan's healing is a tragedy, but I wouldn't quite go so far as to say that his play doesn't leave you with that as its theme.

Tony said...

"the idea of mental illness as 'genius,'" Fitting for a discussion referencing Artaud.

Personally, I don't see the "moral question" of Equus going anywhere near a dustbin, it has been asked in one form or another for millennia, and is central to much of Shaffer's work--esp Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus, and Amedaeus. Questioning man vs. God, and society vs. the individual--are as close to eternal questions as I can think of.

@Scott--I went back and forth on the title, still not sure if it's the best one, but that is the starting point I worked from in my thought process, so I figured what the hell.

Art said...

Hi Jay,

You are right, but I wasn't referencing Man versus God or Society Versus the Individual which are all timeless themes to be sure. But also themes which Shaeffer, in his play Eqqus, has unfortunately hitched to an almost prepostrous proposition.

My comment was brought about by Scott's comments against the literature of Rudyard Kipling, and his subsequent choice of Eqqus to exemplify something close to his ideal.

There are many people who would find the overall treatment of mental illness and emotional disturbance in the play Eqqus to be equally as offensive and insidious as anything in most of Rudyard Kipling's writing.

Indeed, Scott Walters would have children warned away from Mr. Kipling's children's literature, when it is mostly through Kipling's verse and poetry that we are treated to his rather odius thoughts on class and race.

My opinion is that Equus is a fine play, and it is well constructed and theatrical for all the reasons Scott has mentioned. But please remember, it was Scott who introduced morality into the discussion.

I really don't mean to make this all about Eqqus, but as an example of what I am getting at, I will end with a quote from Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph, talking about the Daniel Radcliffe Eqqus that is going on right now:

"More remarkably, he almost persuaded me to accept the play's absurd and dangerous psychobabble, inspired by that most dodgy of 60s gurus R.D. Laing, in which we are asked to believe that the mentally ill are vouched an insight, and a passion, denied to the boringly sane.

Anyone who has visited a secure psychiatric hospital, or briefly suffered even mild mental illness themselves, will know just how perniciously wrong such specious theorising is. But I promised at the start that I wouldn't put the boot in, though I will simply end by saying that the actors impersonating the horses do so with tremendous skill and grace, and that the play, for all its occasional foolishness, looks like being a huge hit all over again."

Troubador said...

I read Equus when I was a drama student. I didn't like it much. For a play that takes the form of a mystery it ultimately is devoid of any mystery as all the pieces fit neatly into place.

For all his theatrical conceits and grand ambitions, ultimately Shaeffer identifies with mediocrity. Dysart leaves his patient dull but functional, Shaeffer does the same to the craft of playwriting.

Scott Walters said...

Art -- Indeed, there are many who would find "Equus" as offensive as Kipling's poetry, and that is a worthy discussion to have. You will note, however, that my example of "Equus" concerned the melding of popular storytelling techniques with thought. Whether one agrees with the thought or not doesn't minimize the fact that Shaffer has accomplished this goal at a level that is rarely approached by most contemporary playwrights. I suspect that, if one stood in the lobby of the theatre as the audience left, one might hear people talking about whether what Dysart did was "right." Thus, it is a play about morality.

Unlike many in American society who tend to define morality as being about coercion, I see it as being about the most important question that all art and philosophy can address: how are we to live? And so yes, I very often will discuss the answer that a work of art gives to that question. In the case of "Equus," Shaffer brings into relationship two characters living lives at the extreme ends of the Apollonian and the Dionysian continuum. We are asked to ponder which is better. To me, this is where Shaffer departs from his Greek roots of moderation in all things and enters the Romantic worship of the extreme. What happens in that climactic scene when Alan relives the night he blinded the horses is that Dysart comes face to face with the destruction and pain that can result from coming into too close a relationship with one's god. It isn't all ecstacy and transcendence, as he had imagined it to be. When he decides to cure Alan, he simultaneously is killing his own dream.

To me, this play isn't about madness or mental illness, it is about man's relationship to god. It does not say that mental illness is a form of insight, but rather that religious fervor is now classified as disease. Throughout religious history there are stories of what happens to those who look into the eyes of their god, and it is rarely good. Alan experiences the same fate as all those others who come too close to god. Unfortunately, I think Shaffer presents a polarized case that doesn't allow a middle path, one neither passionless and unbelieving, nor fervent and faithful.

Nevertheless, he does present a gripping intellectual struggle that is also theatrically powerful, which was my point.

Troubador said...

There is no intellectual or moral struggle to wrestle with at the end of Equus. Alan has a delusion that led to an anti-social destructive act and Dysart does exactly what we'd expect him to do to stop Alan committing more anti-social destructive acts. If Dysart had decided that it was better to allow Alan to keep his religion even if it meant he'd continue to blind animals, that might've been controversial. As it stands Equus is an extremely conservative play.

Scott Walters said...

Troubador -- I think you better read the play again, or at least Dysart's last monologue. I don't think it is quite so cut and dried. The audience does not end up cheering about Dysart's decision, nor does Dysart himself. Whether conservative or not, I'm not certain what that has to do with what I have been writing about.

Don R. Hall said...

All art is populist - without an audience it is spanking it in a closet. To get and to keep an audience, the artist must entertain first and foremost, keeping in mind that the only reaction that is antithesis to "entertaining" is "bored."

Thus, something that shocks, offends, amuses, enlightens, frustrates or panders can be considered entertainment. All great theater entertains or it isn't great - it is forgotten.

Troubador said...

Scott, I never said the audience ends up " cheering about Dysart's decision", I said that he "does exactly what we expect him to do". My problem is that the play doesn't frame his actions or his inner conflict in a way that causes a serious conflict in the minds of its audience. So I take issue with your claim that it is as an example of a play that is "about the most important question that all art and philosophy can address: how are we to live?" I think it deals with that in a very superficial way because it is too conservative in the way it frames that question for an audience.