Tuesday, January 05, 2010

David Byrne and Mr. Tanner

The Ancients and the Moderns
Judging from the comments on my post below concerning David Byrne's December 12 blogpost "Art Funding or Arts Funding," there is a lot of people who find the idea of funding arts education and new work over classics objectionable. As seems to be our tendency in today's society, where critical thinking skills seem to have gone the way of the appendix, some people feel as if they are actually saying something important if they "uncover" the motivation someone has for writing an idea, rather than dealing with the idea itself. Hey, conjecture is always easier than actual thought. And so we get this unlikely syllogism:

1. David Byrne is a pop singer.
2. David Byrne is suggesting that public money be used to support arts education and living artists.
3. Therefore, David Byrne wants public money to be used to support only pop music.

First of all, let's just say that $32M for a Wagnerian opera cycle is absurd by itself. But hey, if there are rich people out there who think it is cool, more power to them. But to ask LA county to foot $14M of that cost is really obscene. Nobody deserves that amount of money for a single production. Period.

But Byrne is using that production to illustrate a larger point, one that is getting lost in this rehashing of the 300+ -year Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. Here are the critical paragraphs from Byrne's post, as far as I'm concerned:

I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past — in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) — and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring — but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places. Maybe the balance and perspective has to be redressed and restored just a little. (underlining and italics mine)
What a radical concept: restore balance and perspective between the past and the present just a little. This isn't Artaud's 1938 "No More Masterpieces" (although I think Artaud had a point), but just a call for balance.

New Plays and Diversity
This goes to the center of our discussion of diversity and new plays. People are convening and blogging about how to get more diversity on our stages, but we are ignoring the single thing that would make the biggest impact: committing to the production of new plays. If every theatre in the country (save those devoted to the work of a single playwright, like Shakespeare festivals) committed to producing more new plays than revivals, the demand for new work would increase exponentially, and I believe so would diversity.

Margo Jones, one of the pioneers of the regional theatre, knew this. In 1951, she wrote in her classic Theatre-in-the-Round:
I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.

Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.


Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best
way in which they can learn to write better plays.


The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.
But what happened to this attitude? It got destroyed by Tyrone Guthrie. In the 1964 book about the founding of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis entitled A New Theatre (the irony of that title still rankles), Guthrie wrote:

It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice.....If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic, then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.
Think about that for a moment: the only way to know a good play from a bad play is to apply the test of time. Let's just let our grandparents decide what plays are good, because we sure can't. And because the Guthrie theatre made such a splash, attracting nationwide media attention for bringing in Hollywood stars like George Grizzard, Jessica Tandy, and Hume Cronyn to do Shakespeare and Moliere, everyone decided this must be The Way Things Should Be Done. And so we have our current regional theatre season, dominated by classics, with perhaps a single slot devoted to a newish play, preferably one that's been blessed by the NYC critics or won a major award. But an actual new play on the mainstage? Gasp! We'd have to close our doors! And so our contemporary playwrights scramble for crumbs, and eventually decamp for Hollywood where everything they do is new. Imagine if the Shakespeare's company had taken Guthrie's attitude, or Moliere's. There wouldn't BE any classics beyond the Greeks and Romans.

But note that Byrne isn't suggesting that classics aren't valuable. He writes: "Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring." But let's restore some balance. Jones was saying the same thing, so was Clurman when he co-founded the Group Theatre, and so were those who founded the Provincetown Players (although the latter two had less patience with the classics than Jones). But then, a few years later, we let a Brit play on our sense of American cultural inferiority, and we abandoned the development of our own unique artistic identity to become Europe-lite. Shame on us.

The Real Revolution: Empowerment
Byrne follows this with what is a far more revolutionary and far-reaching idea:
I sense that in the long run there is a greater value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon, the great works and the masterpieces. In my opinion, it’s more important that someone learn to make music, to draw, photograph, write or create in any form than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol or Bill Shakespeare — to say nothing of opry. In the long term it doesn’t matter if students become writers, artists or musicians — though a few might. It's more important that they are able to understand the process of creation, experimentation and discovery — which can then be applied to anything they do, as those processes, deep down, are all similar. It’s an investment in fluorescence.
He's not suggesting we make everybody so-called "professional artists," much less pop music icons. What he is saying is that people should be empowered to take creative expression back into their own hands -- to make music, draw, photograph, write or create in any form, and to do it themselves, instead of buying it from some specialist with an MFA. Yes, learning about the classics can be inspirational, but all-too-often the underlying message that is communicated is, as Byrne puts it, "about valuing the classics more than anything you and your pathetic friends can make." This is also, by the way, the underlying message of TV shows like American Idol. For every singer plucked from "obscurity" and hurled into the music stratosphere, the TV audience spends weeks laughing at the ineptitude of just regular folks who think they might just like to sing.

O Fall On Your Knees
The tragedy of this attitude, which is deeply ingrained in contemporary America, is beautifully illustrated by the late Harry Chapin in his heartbreaking song, "Mr. Tanner":



"Music was his life, it was not his livelihood, and it made him feel so happy, and it made him feel so good. He sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole."

We've forgotten the true value of the arts, which is not solely about virtuosity (although virtuosity can be inspiring and has its place), but about making us whole, about allowing us to express the feelings within us, about allowing us to connect to what is beautiful and heartfelt, to what makes us human. When we sing, when we tell a story or write a poem or paint a picture, we allow others to find points of contact with us and with each other. We're reminded of our common humanity, and our sense of being alone is lessened. We share ourselves with each other.

That is what arts education ought to release. That is what deserves more attention.

13 comments:

99 said...

Very, very, very well put. Thank you, sir.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

great post. I'm surprised and depressed by the fact that some people were against Byrne's excellent argument for giving more funding to arts education programs.

George Hunka said...

Jonathan Swift also participated in the Ancients/Moderns quarrel; his own opinion emerged in the 1697 "The Battle of the Books":

"For, pray Gentlemen, was ever any thing so Modern as the Spider in his Air, his Turns, and his Paradoxes? He argues in the Behalf of You his Brethren, and Himself, with many Boastings of his native Stock, and great Genius; that he Spins and Spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any Obligation or Assistance from without. Then he displays to you his great Skill in Architecture, and Improvement in the Mathematicks. To all this, the Bee, as an Advocate, retained by us the Antients, thinks fit to Answer; That if one may judge of the great Genius or Inventions of the Moderns, by what they have produced, you will hardly have Countenance to bear you out in boasting of either. Erect your Schemes with as much Method and Skill as you please; yet, if the materials be nothing but Dirt, spun out of your own Entrails (the Guts of Modern Brains) the Edifice will conclude at last in a Cobweb: The Duration of which, like that of other Spiders Webs, may be imputed to their being forgotten, or neglected, or hid in a Corner. For any Thing else of Genuine, that the Moderns may pretend to, I cannot recollect; unless it be a large Vein of Wrangling and Satyr, much of a Nature and Substance with the Spider's Poison; which, however, they pretend to spit wholly out of themselves, is improved by the same Arts, by feeding upon the Insects and Vermin of the Age. As for Us, the Antients, We are content with the Bee, to pretend to Nothing of our own, beyond our Wings and our Voice: that is to say, our Flights and our Language; For the rest, whatever we have got, has been by infinite Labor, and search, and ranging thro' every Corner of Nature: The Difference is, that instead of Dirt and Poison, we have rather chose to till our Hives with Honey and Wax, thus furnishing Mankind with the two Noblest of Things, which are Sweetness and Light."

Any quarrels with the above can be addressed to J. Swift, c/o St. Patrick's Cathedral, Patrick Street, Dublin.

Scott Walters said...

Does he have a blog?

George Hunka said...

Nah. Just another dead white male. Though, like David Bryne, he was a live white male when he wrote it.

Kate said...

I'm curious as to what people think of the LCT3 project this season... I'm sure y'all have talked about it but I can't find it culling through your past posts.
LCT3 is described as "Lincoln Center Theater’s new initiative devoted to producing work of emerging playwrights, directors and designers" So, all the playwrights (mostly) have MFAs-- I think Matt Sax has a bachelor's from Northwestern (such a heavy theatre undergrad, it's like having an MFA). I admit I've only been to see one of the pieces, What Once We Felt (which I was tremendously moved by, which I know is not how most people felt.) To me it seems like the idea is to give production value and an uptown theater address to people who (usually) at this stage in their careers wouldn't have either. What this translates to them is up for debate. Exposure, I'd imagine. And money. (both helpful)

So it's new(ish) plays, some world premieres, most written, designed and helmed by younger artists, some outside the form of playwright-sits-alone-and-writes-then-everyone-else-comes-to-produce. But because they all seem to have a specific educational background, do we think it's a step forward or just more of the same?

ukejackson said...

Those passages of Byrne's post are the ones that stuck in my mind, especially living in Pennsylvania, where all arts funding for artists was cut in favor of institutions, and where Governor Rendell gave $37 million to a department store chain while cutting education funds.

However, I take issue with the idea that the classics don't allow for diversity. The man who more or less invented diversity in post ww2 American theater was Joe Papp and he began color blind casting with the NY Shakespeare Festival.

If you really want to get charged about, read "Free for All" the new oral history of Papp and the Public. I posted my review of it last night on my blog:
http://www.aplaywrightspeaks.blogspot.com/

Kate said...

Oh, and I also wanted to share a theater education and empowerment program that I think is pretty incredible: http://www.thecontinuumproject.org/Aboutus.html

ukejackson said...

I think it's also worth noting that, while Ibsen was closely involved with the Norwegian national theater as a young man, it was not as a playwright but as a director and producer. His greatest works were written while he was in self-imposed exile in Italy and Germany, for nearly 30 years. He was hardly the center of a working theater when he achieved his powers as a playwright, as Jones stated. He was quite unlike Shakespeare, Moliere, et al in this regard.

Scott Walters said...

Point taken. Doesn't negate the idea.

ukejackson said...

Oh absolutely. Working with actors always, or nearly always, makes my scripts better. Unfortunately, in this country, creating theater is a business proposition as much as it is a creative endeavor. I'm a good writer but a lousy businessman.

David Dower said...

It's really great to read that Margo Jones quote again, Scott. Thanks for putting her back in the conversation!

Patrick said...

I can't believe Margo Jones was never mentioned during my undergrad.

Thanks so much for posting this.