Monday, June 21, 2010

Orson Scott Card and the Tony Awards

I was forwarded a link to this blog post by Orson Scott Card, who (in the second half of the post) is grumpy about the Tony Awards -- or at least, about the plays on Broadway.  The person who emailed me (and I'm not identifying him only because I didn't take the time to ask if it was OK to do so) wondered whether this is "another dimension to the narrow roots of much of what we see." The short answer: no. What follows is a longer answer.

Card, who is probably best known for his novel Ender's Game, claims that -- oh, hell, I'm not going to summarize it. Here are the paragraphs I want to address:
Broadway has firmly aligned itself with the extreme left in American politics, to the point where they feel free to ridicule the values of most of the rest of the country -- the very people they expect to fly to New York and buy the tickets to keep the money flowing in.

Once upon a time, the theatrical community was one of the most open-minded and accepting groups in America; now it's rigid, exclusive, elitist, angry at nothing, and filled with disdain for people leading ordinary lives.

Oh, they'll occasionally cast a known conservative Republican, like Kelsey Grammer -- but only if he's in yet another revival of La Cage aux Folles and kisses another man onstage.
Once upon a time, the American theatre was one of our finest contributions to world culture. Now, judging from what we saw in this Tony broadcast, it's just a wholly-owned subsidiary of the contemptuous wing of the Democratic Party.

When Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams were writing for the American stage, we could go to New York and see greatness. 
This is a muddled mashup of pseudo-thought in which totally separate ideas are stitched together nonsensically with thread comprised of historical inaccuracy.

Before I discuss this, though, a disclaimer: I didn't watch the Tony Awards, nor have I been paying particular attention to the current Broadway season. I was in NYC recently and scanned the Broadway listings and opted for having dinner with friends, which I remain convinced was the better choice by far. So I can't comment on whether the acceptance speeches by the winners were filled with quotations from Lenin and Mao, which must have been the case given Card's undie-bundle.

In addition, the complaint, which Card makes elsewhere in his post, that there are so few new plays in a season that it is impossible to respectably fill out some of the categories has been made many other places as well, and is difficult to refute. But if you have to have an annual awards show (how else to market Broadway to the non-NYC public?), then you need to have nominees and that means you have to work with what you've been given. The lack of sufficient productions to fill the catregories ought to tell us something about the economic and creative bankruptcy of Broadway more than anything else. But why bring up the obvious, when you can grumble about liberals?

And his grumpiness about the Hollywood invasion? Yeah, take a number. I didn't even bother to quote these warmed-over cliches. Follow the link if you are a fan of stating the obvious.

But the part that requires a response I've pasted above.

Card seems to be grumpy about a couple things. First, that the Broadway menu is comprised wholly of fare drawn from the "extreme left" cookbook. I had to put down my Stalin-flavored sushi when I read that. I don't know enough about Card to know whether he is a tea bag nutjob who thinks anybody to the left of Herbert Hoover is "extreme left," but the the absurdity of this statement is beyond belief. Broadway fare is about as far left as the Chamber of Commerce. But exactly what is his beef? Is he cranky about Memphis -- are anti-racism and the Civil Rights movement "extreme left"? After half a century, I would have thought everyone along the political spectrum might agree about the immorality of prejudice based on race, Perhaps I am naive. After all, many people seem content to have sing-alongs from the racism songbook while changing the lyrics a bit to replace "black" with "gay."  Or is it Fences, perhaps August Wilson's most conservative play, that has him hitting the barricades? Hell, maybe there's just too many dark-skinned people winning awards these days, eh? Regardless, these plays are about as leftist as...well, the plays of O'Neill, Miller, Albee, and Williams (see below). Anyway, if he's looking for "conservative Republicans," I'd suggest that he should pay attention to some of the other awards -- the ones given to producers. I'm sure he'll find the scaled balanced if he just takes in the whole show. Or maybe he'd like a list of board members for the major arts organizations across America with which all those radical leftist artists have populated their organization's governance. Kind of hard to overthrow the government when you're reliant on Daddy Warbucks' bankroll to keep you afloat.

As mentioned above, Card then goes on to provide, by way of contrast to today's radical cabaret, the Golden Days of Broadway when "Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams were writing for the American stage" and dammit, "the theatrical community was one of the most open-minded and accepting groups in America." What??? Surely he's not holding up Eugene O'Neill, who hung out with Greenwich Village Communists like John Reed and won the Nobel for radical plays like The Hairy Ape; Arthur Miller, who it is conjectured was a member of the writer's unit of the Communist Party around 1946 and who was an unfriendly witness before HUAC and who wrote The Crucible as a repudiation of McCarthyism; Tennessee Williams, whose homosexuality and drug addiction led to his early death; and Edward Albee, whose recent plays include one about having sex with a goat -- surely these are not the playwrights that Card holds up as a contrast to the "extreme left" plays of the current season, as the playwrights who reflected the tolerant values of "the rest of the country."  I know things look better through the haze of nostalgia, but this is total historical blindness.

But I do think he's right about the "contemptuous" part, but that has nothing to do with left or right -- both are equally contemptuous of the "values of the rest of the country" (whatever that means -- is this a code phrase for the "Real Americans" that Sarah Palin loves to refer to?), but that contempt takes different forms. Yes, artists are absurd who, with little intellectual or moral justification, see themselves as superior to everyone else simply because they make their living creating or interpreting imaginative worlds. This attitude is the energy shadow of the social shakedown that occurred during the Modernist first part of the 20th century, when artists declared themselves better than, well, just about anybody else. Read Ortega Y Gassett's The Revolt of the Masses for a primary source of this arrogance, or Lawrence W. Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America or Highbrow/Lowdown: Theatre, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class for a historical overview. (Nota bene: if you want to meet theatre's sneerer-in-chief, shake hands with Card's hero, Edward Albee.) But at the same time, producers (not just on Broadway, but in the offices of corporate arts everywhere) are equally contemptuous, insulting the intelligence of "the rest of the country" with their putrid, materialist pandering that exhibits all the moral values of Donald Trump running a BP shareholders meeting. Card needs to look a little bit closer at the values of American culture overall.

If my email forwarder friend is asking me to comment about the lack of diversity on our stages, then I would say that we have none, but not because of the simple-minded reason Card offers that there just aren't enough conservative Republicans around not kissing men in plays about homosexuality. It is because both left and right share the same classic liberal (in the REAL definition of the term, not the dopey use bandied about by FOX news) philosophy that what is most important in our world is the total freedom of the individual sans any responsibility to the betterment of the community. Nobody wants to talk about true "republicanism" (small "r"), which came from Jefferson, and was based on the sense of responsibility generated by having to have face-to-face interactions with other members of the community in order to solve problems and create a stronger place for everybody. No, we just want to do what we want to do and then figure out a way to sell it to other people. Our world has become a vast marketplace, and whether you are an "extreme left" or a "conservative Republican" artist or businessperson, you have that as a common ground. At root, you all believe the same thing: it's all about the commodity, the marketing, and the transaction.

You want diversity? It isn't about black and white, red and blue. It's about whether you believe that the individual is not part of a larger community, whether an individual has a responsibility to his neighbors.

Earlier today, over on the TACT blog, I posted these ten "hopes" that Wendell Berry delivered as part of a 1989 Commence address. If you want true diversity, create art (and a country to go with it) that reflects these values:

  1. Beware the justice of Nature.
  1. Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature.
  2. Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.
  3. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else. Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour.
  4. Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made.
  5. Put the interest of the community first.
  6. Love your neighbors–not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have.
  7. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us.
  8. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household–which thrive by care and generosity–and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.
  9. Find work, if you can, that does no damage. Enjoy your work. Work well.

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