Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Lecture on Tony Kushner

[Cross-posted at the TACT blog.]
This is a lecture I will be delivering in one of my classes today
I’ve gotten to thinking lately about this class.
   To me, our discussions seem sort of superficial -- l ike we’re not really engaged in any decent way with the material.   And I think it’s my fault:   Somehow, the questions I am asking, or the attitude I am bringing to class, is not asking you to dig in and find the really interesting stuff.

This bothers me because I have a very strong sense of what plays are for:  that we, as human beings, create stories not simply to “kill time,” but as a way of making our ideas about life more easily remembered.   So while we can laugh and joke about, say, Phaedra’s mother having sex with the bull, the underlying message is about uncontrolled passion.   It is trying to explain how people seem to “lose their mind” when they are suddenly obsessed with a person or an idea.   

Playwrights only write plays about things that are on the minds of the audience.  If nobody was struggling with passion versus social duty, then the story wouldn’t be compelling.  So this tells us about the French society. It is the same issue being wrestled with in The Cid.      And, in a different way, it is the same issue being wrestled with in The Misanthrope.  It is Aristotle’s question “how are we to live?”

 If you are a Jansenist, as Racine once was;  if you are a Jansenist who abandoned your religion for the theatre; if you are a Jansenist who has many affairs, especially with women in the theatre;  If you are a Jansenist who gives the same play to Moliere and his competition; if you are a Jansenist who, in order to get back to a respectable life, may have poisoned your mistress...  Then suddenly Pahedra isn’t just an academic exercise, it is the story of your life!    .The desire for an inappropriate partner.  How do you DEAL with that?   You WANT to do the right thing. but you don’t seem to be able to control yourself.

There’s a book by Jonathan Haidt, a U of VA psychologist, called The Happiness Hypothesis.  In it, Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.  Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.    But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant.  Any time the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.   He’s completely overmatched. 

 The fact that this theme – the struggle between the Rider and the Elephant – is happening in a society completely committed to the dominance of the Rider, to the dominance of Reason, is no accident.  These are serious questions: how can I control this Elephant???

·         As I got to thinking about this, I was reminded of a lecture I gave a couple of times when I was angry at my students. Now, I’m not in the least bit angry with this class, so I haven’t been tempted to deliver this tirade to you. But as I read my notes, I thought: this is good stuff – this is stuff that you guys ought to hear! And truth be told, when I delivered these lectures in the past when I was angry at the students, it was hard for them to hear what I was saying because it sounded like I was just yelling at them. Sort of like that Far Side cartoon of a pet owner yelling at his dog in one box, and what the dog hears in the other: "blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger." So I decided that you should hear this lecture, and hear it at a time when you aren’t in trouble!  hope you’ll be able to hear the message, because it is something I am passionate about. And I hope you will have questions or comments for me afterwards. Ready?
I was angry with you Monday.Partly that was the onset of a migraine, but mainly it was frustration at your lack of interest: how will you keep other people interested in your work if you are so little interested in it yourself? And also your lack of respect – not of me, but of the art form that you want to be a part of. And I was angry at my own inability to communicate the reason why that respect, and why enormous effort and knowledge and wisdom, is necessary.

Monday before class I was reading playwright Tony Kushner’s impassioned speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education that was published under the title “A Modest Proposal” in the January 1998 American Theatre. How many of you have ever read American Theatre?  How many of you have ever read an issue cover to cover, not just an article or two? Well, in “A Modest Proposal,” Kushner stands in front of thousands of college theatre teachers from across the United States in 1997 – I was there to hear it -- and says that he thinks that all undergraduate arts majors should be eliminated, and instead students should receive a liberal arts education. I want to read a large chunk of this speech to you, because Tony Kushner is one of the most interesting artists we have today, and because what he wrote connects to why I was angry – in fact, may have caused why I was angry.

Kushner says:

ENTIRELY TOO MUCH TIME HAS passed without sounding my keynote: We should abolish all undergraduate art majors. I travel around the country doing lectures--after tonight I expect the invitations to dry up--and I am generally tremendously impressed with the students I meet and talk with, and generally unimpressed with what they know, and among these impressive and impressively undereducated students the worst, I am sorry to say, are the arts majors. And it isn't simply that they seem remarkably non-conversant with the pillars of Western thought, with the political struggles of the day, with what has been written up in the morning's paper--these arts majors know shockingly little about the arts. Forget literature. How many theater majors do you know who could tell you, at the drop of a hat, which plays are by Aeschylus, which by Sophocles and which by Euripides? Or the dates of any of those writers? How many undergraduate playwriting majors, for instance, know even a single sentence of ancient Greek, just to have the sound of it in their ears and the feel of it in their mouths? How many really know what iambic pentameter is? How about alexandrines? How about who wrote what in alexandrines? How many know the names of a single Chinese playwright, or play? Or of more than one or two African playwrights? How many have read Heiner Miller? Suzan-Lori Parks? How many have read more than one play by either of these writers? How many have never heard of them? How many know who Lessing was, or why we should care? How many have read, I mean really read and absorbed, The Poetics? The Short Organum?

And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that "materialism" means that you own too many clothes, and "idealism" means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors--and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it's still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.

WHAT I WOULD HOPE YOU MIGHT consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together.
Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be. In your early years the processes of education and of training go hand in hand and are mostly indistinguishable. Practical, useful knowledge and the burgeoning of the imagination and the sowing of the seedbeds of moral integrity, communal responsibility and individual courage and daring all transpire more or less simultaneously in the very young, all can be learned by the stacking of blocks and the tying of shoelaces and the learning of multiplication tables and the successful manipulation of art supplies--and I'd better stop before I turn into Robert Fulghum. I think you know what I'm saying. After kindergarten, with the commencement of one's formal education, following grade school and up until one has reached young adulthood (which in my book starts at 21 years of age, or thereabouts): In the grand dialectic of life, in the dialectic between thought and action, one's formal education ought to speak more to the thesis, thought, than to its antithesis, action.
I THINK THIS IS SO BECAUSE I have so many women friends who have just given birth and they tell me it really, really hurts to have to squeeze that huge head with its tremendous brain through the birth canal, and I believe them, and it seems to me all that suffering shouldn't be for naught. If my friends are going to go through such misery to introduce new homo sapienses into the world, someone ought to see to it that these newcomers earn their fancy binomial nomenclature and become as sapient as possible. Someone ought to make sure their massive craniums are crammed as full as possible, otherwise I suggest the purchasing of household pets as a more pleasant alternative to seven hours of labor or a c-section. I think we should make sure these big-headed hominids become, as a result of being brilliantly educated, as deeply confused, conflicted, complicated, contrary, contemplative and circumspect as only years and years of sustained thought can make them.

I was reading this essay before class, and I was beating myself up over the simple-minded vocationalism of this class, where I teach you a few measly techniques for taking apart plays. And I got here and started asking questions, and it became instantly clear that many of you hadn’t even bothered to read the damn chapter. To hell with Aristotle, Brecht, Hegel, Marx, and Kristeva – you didn’t even want to read seven lousy pages of Walters and Pritner.

And then when I took you over to the library, most of you wandered around aimlessly because – oh my God! -- there were other people on the computers. Standing there amidst almost a million books, most of you sat around waiting for a turn to use the computers. Why didn’t you browse? Why didn’t you know, through repeated use, exactly where you could find books about August Wilson or theatre criticism? And then some of you told me, with a mixture of bewilderment and pride, that you hadn’t been in the library for a long time, or that you didn’t like to come to the library, or you grumpily told me that you already knew how to use the library. Then why aren’t you reading? Why aren’t you cramming your head full of knowledge – all kinds of knowledge: history, philosophy, art, music, political science, feminist criticism. Do you think that what you know right now is enough to justify allowing you to use, even for one second, one of the most powerful tools known to humanity: a theatre? What makes you think that you have anything worth saying to anybody else

In one of my gen ed classes, I asked the students if I offered them a diploma for which they wouldn’t have to come to class, would they take it?  Half of the students said yes. Explain that to me. Explain why anybody is so damned anxious to become an unthinking cog in the capitalist machinery that they would willingly give up their one chance to actually learn something that might make the world a more interesting place in which to live. Why are they so proud of their ignorance?

I can’t answer these questions.  All I can do is say, loudly and with all the passion I can muster, that if you want to be an artist, if you want to be allowed to play with the powerful tool of the theatre, then you damn well better have something interesting to say. I don’t care how many good performances or effective designs your create while you are here, as long as you can’t think in any but the most superficial way, I have failed. As long as you don’t regularly go to the library and check out books just because you are curious, I have failed. As long as you would rather play video games than learn something that might illuminate a little corner of the world to you, I have failed. And I hate failing, because when I fail, it means YOU have failed, and the theatre will continue to be a wasteland of musicals made from movies and TV shows, and plays that are the equivalent of a post-meal belch.

I agree with Kushner: all undergraduate arts majors should be abolished, if by undergraduate arts majors we mean vocational training. On Friday, we will have a departmental post-mortem to discuss our most recent production, and what is the question that is most on everybody’s mind? Was it a good show? Did we do a good job? Did we think the set “worked”? Did we believe the acting? But nobody is going to talk about what the play said, and whether we actually believe what it said. Nobody is going to talk about how that message applies to us, and whether it is something we should take seriously. Nobody is going to talk about whether our community needed to see this play.

Because we don’t care. All we care about is how many butts are in the seats, and whether they applaud at the end. The arts, including literature, including the teaching of the arts in elementary and secondary school, are suffering because the artists and teachers don’t think anymore, and they don’t ask their students to think anymore.

If you want evidence of the vapidity of the world of theatre and film, watch Inside the Actors Studio any week it is on. The actors are charming, they are well meaning, and they can sometimes talk about their own work a little bit, but most of them have no ability to place their work within a context, to explain why their work is important to the society in which we live, to refer to other important works of art. And just what the hell do Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck, and Jude Law have to say about acting that we need to hear, much less about the arts? And if you need more evidence of the vacuousness of this show, think about the resounding idiocy of the portentous host’s, James Lipton’s, final questions
      • What is your favorite word?
      • What is your least favorite word?
      • What turns you on?
      • What turns you off?
      • What sound do you love?
      • What sound do you hate?
      • What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
      • What profession would you like not to participate in?
      • If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
These are narcissistic parlor games that any idiot can play. How can we go in front of a Congress that is filled with philistine idiots who want to cut arts funding and make a case for our importance when what we do is so insipid and shallow that we can’t defend it?

Now is the time for you to engage with ideas, to learn to think, and to actually DO some thinking and some talking and some arguing.  You can’t say, after seeing a play by Samuel Beckett, one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, “Well, wasn’t THAT uplifting.” You should be struck down by a bolt of artistic lightning from the sky for saying that. You can’t sit there like a petulant teenager pouting about having to be in by midnight. This is your education – do you really think you have nothing left to learn? You can’t sit there without making an attempt to think, to feel.

Because if you want to be a major in drama or in literature, you need to care. It isn’t that you have to like Beckett or Pirandello or O’Neill or Ibsen. It is that you have to open up your mind, open up your heart, open up your gut. You have to OPEN UP. And THINK about it – what it means, why it is in this anthology, what it is saying and how it applies to your life. And you have to do that not just in this class, but in all your other classes: in Humanities, in Political Science, in Biology, in Sociology. So that when you do a play, write a novel, teach a student, raise a child – you have something profound to contribute, something that gives you the right to read that book, do that play, teach that student, raise that child.

W. H Auden once said that “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us." You must become worthy of reading a great play. You must bring something to the table.

In the play Look Back in Anger – the play that started the revolution in the English theatre in 1956 – the playwright John Osborne has his angry young protagonist cry “Oh heavens how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm.  Just enthusiasm – that’s all.  I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! I’m alive!  I’ve an idea.” Me too.Yes, you are tired – we are all tired. But I have news for you: this is as rested as you will ever get. Once you get out of here and are working a job to put food in your mouth and a roof over your head, and you’re trying to create art in your spare time, you will be much more tired than this. And that is what it is to be an adult. How will you keep your imagination alive? How will you keep yourself inspired? How will you keep yourself creative? And how will you justify the effort that it takes to do that unless you have a reason for being an artist, a purpose for doing a play or writing a novel, a reason for being???

And so I ask you to start now, to start today. Show a little ordinary enthusiasm. Open up. THINK. ARGUE. QUESTION. If you feel angry about what I have said, ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. If you agree with what I’ve said ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. Form your own ideas, but form them within some context and with some rigor. Tony Kushner is right: you are a big-headed hominid that caused your mother a lot of pain trying to pass that huge cranium out – you owe it to her to use that brain thoroughly and completely.

With what time is left, I want to do two things: I want you to question me, argue with me, think with me about some of the things I said, and Kushner said; and then I want you to question each other, argue with each other, think with each other – in this class, or outside of class when we run out of time.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...