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Millennial StagesEssays and Reviews 2001-2005
By Robert Brustein
Yale University PressCopyright © 2006 Robert Brustein
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePositions and Polemics
No Time for Comedy
I was hoping to do a review today of the late summer London theatre season, but like everyone else in America following the events of September 11th, I had to change my plans. Writing drama criticism seems like very trivial labor after you've been watching the herculean efforts of police, firemen, and city workers to retrieve the remains of victims buried under the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. How does one continue to evaluate plays in the face of all that heroism and all that rubble? It's being said that among the many things destroyed forever by the Muslim terrorists was our innocence. They may also have killed, I assume temporarily, our craving for art and entertainment.
When, for example, will any of us be able to watch a disaster movie again? The spectacle of hundreds of terrified people running down city streets pursued by clouds of smoke and debris was already so familiar to us from epics like Rodan and Godzilla that on that fateful Tuesday it was almost impossible to separate fiction from reality. Were they authentic human beings or crowds of Hollywood extras fleeing towards the camera as thosetwo giant buildings imploded behind them? No wonder the studios have announced that they are cancelling all their forthcoming disaster films-notably an Arnold Schwarzenegger epic about a man whose family is killed in a terrorist attack-and replacing them with patriotic stories, family dramas, and escapist fare.
The impact on the theatre has been just as daunting. The show is famously supposed to go on regardless of internal problems or external catastrophes (London's Windmill Theatre boasted "We Never Closed" even during the darkest days of the Blitz). But this plucky thumbs-up attitude in the face of adversity did not characterize the mood of theatre people after September 11th. For three or four days, all Broadway shows, The Producers included, were cancelled. New openings were delayed for a week or more. The Roundabout revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins was postponed until further notice because, as the director, Joe Mantello, observed, it is a musical "which asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience," and in light of the murderous assault on our nation, "this is not an appropriate time to present a show which makes such a demand." Especially when the musical is about the assassination of American presidents.
In the early forties, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, S. N. Behrman wrote a play called No Time for Comedy. Sixty years later, we again find ourselves in a situation where there may be no appetite for comedy, not to mention critical thought of any nature. For the last week, it would seem that the only fully accepted public activities have been church-going, prayer-saying, and flag-waving (in the days following September 11th, we are told, Walmart and Kmart between them sold 514,000 American flags).
In short, the terrorists accomplished in one brief morning what before seemed almost inconceivable after three decades of identity politics. They managed to unify the country into a nation of patriots, turning multiculturally diverse factions into a people with a common cause. But at what cost? During the divided days of Vietnam, artists had more freedom to criticize their government than at any time since the 5th century B.C., when Aristophanes satirized Pericles' conduct of the Peloponnesian wars. But this nation is now more united behind its government than at any time since 1941. As we again consider risking American lives abroad in order to annihilate an enemy, critical voices may become as objectionable to the polity as they were during World War II.
The war fever has already resulted in the murder of some Muslim Americans and the violation of their mosques. I pray it doesn't soon have an impact on everybody's civil liberties, not to mention on artistic and intellectual freedom. During World War II, the entertainment industry was entirely devoted to producing patriotic and escapist fare. Should this become a protracted general war and not just a focussed police action, it is entirely possible we may again start living in a climate of officially approved art.
The Fall season at my theatre in Cambridge was intended to be a festival celebrating the Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo. It consisted of Johan Padan and the Discovery of America, Fo's satiric comedy about the adventures of an anti-hero fleeing the religious fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition by joining Columbus in America. Our theatre elected to cancel the Tuesday performance of Johan Padan. Fo and Rame cancelled their participation in the tour. "We do not feel capable," they wrote to me, "of performing ironic and grotesque shows, which deal among other things with sex and eroticism, in such a grave state of national mourning. 'The show must go on' and the clown crying behind his mask are stereotypes that we do not wish to perpetuate."
In other words, no time for comedy. In a speech to the audience on the night we reopened Johan Padan (that very same night our sister theatre, the Huntington, was opening the unfortunately titled The Dead !), I did my best to argue that comedy-like all forms of art-has the capacity to humanize us in the midst of inhuman events. But to tell the truth my heart wasn't in it. I didn't feel much like being humanized one day after those planes rammed into those buildings, engulfed them in fireballs, and toppled them to the ground, killing all those innocents. I wanted revenge. Some of my theatre students were eager to know what America had done to make "those people" so angry at us, indeed why we were so roundly hated throughout much of the world. "You just don't want to believe in evil," I stormed, comparing this question to trying to "understand" why Hitler hated the Jews. I was out of patience at that moment with the way the liberal mind always picks at its own scabs. Against the background of those bodies catapulting out of the top floor windows of the World Trade Center, the self-hatred of American political correctness never seemed more incongruous. (Actually, PC is probably dead as a doornail now, another casualty of the terrorists' flight plan, in the same grave as the Peace Now movement after being blown to smithereens by Palestinian suicide bombers.)
A few days later, my thirst for vengeance abating somewhat, I began to feel ashamed. One of my anxious students, a woman, wrote to me that she had been a prison guard in Israel and had watched herself grow so "callous and punitive" over the way her ratty charges berated her, smelling of urine and perspiration, that she was forced to request a transfer. She understood full well, she said, the origins of hatred and revenge.
I was even more ashamed, however, when Jerry Falwell, with Pat Robertson concurring, blamed the whole catastrophe on secular America. "I really believe," he fulminated, "that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way-all of them who have tried to secularize America-I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" This was almost enough to make one embrace political correctness. (Far from being the result of secularism, of course, the terrorist attack was the work of fanatical religious fundamentalists who shared the revulsion of our own fundamentalists against America's "moral corruption" and "secularism.")
My student ended her letter by saying she was "blessed to be able to work in the theatre" because of the opportunity it gave her to "criticize and rebuild my conscience" rather than "simplify issues into good and evil." That was my blessing, too, and I was grateful for being reminded, in my current state of anger and confusion, of the obligations of art in a bad time, of why literature and drama continued to remain relevant despite our horrifying glimpses into the darkness of the human heart.
Or maybe the arts remain relevant because of those glimpses. They help us to understand, not to excuse, the motives behind evil actions-just as Shakespeare was able to suggest, not condone, the reasons for Macbeth's murder of Duncan, and Dostoevsky was able to examine, not exonerate, the political ideas that led Raskolnikov to plunge an axe into the skull of his landlady. It is one of the functions of art to help us see how the hatred and viciousness of our enemies can begin to infect the brains of relatively normal people like ourselves.
It can also help us understand the origins of that infection. I want to go back to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, perhaps the first account of state terrorism in literature. And I want to reread The Possessed where Dostoevsky examines the anarchism and nihilism and despair that make a sane man into a criminal killer of innocent bystanders. I also need to refresh my memory about such bracing critiques of our own military establishment as Catch 22 and Doctor Strangelove because the greatest danger of the moment, with 88 percent of the country in favor of strong military action against the Taliban (an opinion I share), but apparently willing, according to a recent Times poll, to sacrifice thousands of innocent civilians in the process, is a military blank check that could make the punishment even more appalling than the crime. As Genet once wrote in The Balcony, if we behave like the other side, then we are the other side.
If only for that reason, it is necessary to look past the waved flags and bent knees and silent moments of prayer, and try to keep the arts in focus. By lighting up the dark places in every human heart, literature, drama, music, and painting could help temper our righteous demand for vengeance with a humanizing restraint. The American theatre presently stands like Estragon and Vladimir under that leafless tree in Beckett's blasted plain. The show can't go on. It must go on. There is no time when there's no time for comedy.
The New Relevance
One of the clichés of current culture chat is that September 11th has forced us to look at the arts in a completely different way. There's been a slew of newspaper and magazine articles lately devoted to detailing how the terrorist attacks have affected what poets are writing, what people are reading, what theatres are producing. During the heady days of the sixties and seventies, there was a word to describe this sort of thing. We called it "relevance," an epithet wielded as an implicit rebuke to any work of art that didn't condemn the Vietnam War. Today, in a time of revived patriotism, there are signs that anything that fails to glorify the war in Afghanistan or at least reflect our current predicament might be deemed "irrelevant" as well. Some artists, such as Don DeLillo (who predicted a reign of terrorism in Mao II), today seem not only relevant but prophetic. Others, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, who regarded the events of September 11th ("the biggest work of art") purely as an aesthetic experience and had his concerts cancelled as a result, are being treated as dangerously out of touch with the real world.
I agree with those who think artists should be allowed to say whatever they like, no matter how lamebrained. And yet it's hard to deny that recent events have profoundly affected the way we look at the world and think about the arts. My first reaction, based on the escapist cultural fare of World War II, was that we were condemned to a future of Doris Day movies. I was wrong. It is impossible to look at any form of art or entertainment these days without relating it to our present fears and anxieties.
My theatre, for example, is currently preparing a production of Othello. I found myself listening to the first reading with entirely new ears. The hero is a Moor, therefore from Morocco, very possibly a Muslim. What if his savage treatment of Desdemona, generally considered an uncharacteristic fit of jealousy induced by Iago's cunning insinuations, were also motivated by Islamic convictions about women's place in society? What would be the effect on the audience if Desdemona, greeted by Cassio as she disembarked in Cyprus, were to be wearing a chador?
And how about Iago, the incarnation of absolute evil, who massacres the innocent and rejoices in their suffering? Is he a prototype for Osama bin Laden? Bin Laden tells us there are motives behind Al Qaeda's hatred of America-the suffering of the Third World, the presence of infidel troops on holy soil, U.S. support for Israel. David Letterman proposed another one-"They don't have cable." Flippant as it sounds, the remark contains a truism, that underneath the Muslim fundamentalist hatred of Western corruption there lies Muslim fundamentalist envy of Western technology. Iago suffers from envy, too. Although Coleridge called him a "motiveless malignity," he has a host of reasons for hating Othello-he was passed over for promotion by Cassio, he suspects his general of sleeping with his wife, he is probably a racist. At the end, when finally apprehended, Iago feels no remorse and will go to his death without a word-so will Bin Laden, I suspect. Two evil martyrs anticipating the embrace of hundreds of virgins with liquid black eyes.
I also began to look for new meaning in Aristotle's Poetics, especially the section on tragedy where he famously defines the form as "an imitation of an action of high importance ... by means of pity and terror affecting a catharsis of these emotions." That a need for purging terror should assume such high definition in his theory suggests that Aristotle may have been something of a prophet too. One can certainly find precedents, and perhaps some solace, for the massacre of the innocent at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the choruses of such tragedies as Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women and Euripides' The Trojan Women.
In Portrait of the Artist, James Joyce suggests that Aristotle never defined pity or terror. "I have," says his arrogant stand-in, Stephen Dedalus: "Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause." Hm, human sufferings. Was he anticipating our whole century? Hm, "secret cause." Was he prophesying Al Qaeda? As a matter of fact, Aristotle did define his terms, in the thirteenth chapter of his Poetics: "Pity is induced by undeserved misfortune, and terror by the misfortunes of normal people," which pretty well sums up our feelings about the victims of September 11th and our fears about our own future.
Does Theatre Matter?
Does theatre matter any more? We've been asking ourselves this question ever since the first couch potato decided to watch I Love Lucy rather than wrangle with a nasty box office manager and navigate the treacherous shoals of Broadway streets. We've been asking ourselves this question for at least four decades of rising ticket prices and declining attendance. Every playwright, actor, director, designer, dramaturg, administrator, and theatre technician at some point asks this question, wondering whether anyone still has any passion for the theatre aside from those who work in it.
I started asking this question at least thirty years ago, and even published an essay called "Who Needs Theatre." Besides trying to run a theatre company, I was writing for a magazine most of whose readers hadn't seen a play in decades, and I was wondering just who in hell I was talking to every week.
Excerpted from Millennial Stages by Robert Brustein Copyright © 2006 by Robert Brustein. Excerpted by permission.
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