26 November 2011

Washington’s Arena Stage: Under Construction

Back in September, I traveled down to Washington to see the Arena Stage’s revival of its hit staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (see my report on ROT, 17 October). I might have gone down under any circumstances, but what clinched this deal was that the production, which was originally presented in October, November, and December of 2010, was the début production in the newly-rebuilt home theater of the venerable theater troupe, a complete reconstruction of its longtime home on 6th Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., near Washington’s waterfront. Arena, which was born in Washington soon after I was, has had a long history for an American regional theater company, one of the oldest in the country and highly-regarded as well. It’s been a part of my cultural life since I can remember, starting long before Washington had any kind of cultural identity, much less a theater rep.

Not too long ago theater in the Nation’s Capital meant a touring show at the National, whatever was at Arena Stage, and a college production at Catholic University. Occasionally a special treat, such as a visit from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, would come along. Otherwise, the choices were pretty limited, and, except for Arena, pretty tame. Not only has the landscape changed considerably since then, but it keeps changing as if there had been an earthquake under the Potomac. Current activity certainly proves that theater is alive and kicking in D.C. The strongest evidence that Washington acknowledged its own status back in 1985 and proclaimed it to the world was the inauguration of the Helen Hayes Awards to recognize outstanding artistic achievement in the city’s professional theater. The award was named after one of theater’s true queens, a native Washingtonian, and the planners gathered a varied group of presenters connected with Washington theater life for that first year: Robert Prosky, Bruce Weitz, Robert Foxworth, George Grizzard, and Linda Carter. Now, can a city that claims the First Lady of the American Stage as a native daughter be anything but a theater town at heart?

The Arena was founded in August 1950, before I even turned four, by Edward Mangum, a professor at George Washington University; Zelda Fichandler, who became the long-serving artistic director; and her husband, Thomas C. Fichandler, who was the executive director. At that time, theater in Washington was limited. The oldest playhouse, Ford’s Theatre, built in 1863 (after the original, converted from a church in 1861, burned in 1862), had ceased presenting plays after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln there on 14 April 1865, not to reopen as a theater until 1968; it has been essentially a booking house since then. The National Theatre, where pre- and post-Broadway productions were mounted, opened in 1835 (though the current building only dates from 1921); I saw many plays and musicals there as a youngster, either on their way to New York or on their way around the country after their Broadway runs, but its fare was exclusively commercial. As for original productions, the only other outlet was the theater department of Catholic University, whose renowned director, Father Gilbert V. Hartke, provided Washingtonians with excellent college-level productions of the classics and stage standards. During the summer, Hartke, the “show-biz priest,” ran the Olney Theatre (1938) in exurban Montgomery County, Maryland, which, in the ’50 and ‘60s, was countryside. The fare at Olney was the usual summer-stock shows that played across the country on the straw-hat circuit, fun but hardly exciting or innovative. Finally, there were the Lisner Auditorium (opened 1943), on the campus of G.W. University, and Carter Barron Amphitheatre (1950) in Rock Creek Park which both hosted tours that included theatrical productions (I saw the D’Oyly Carte present several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the Lisner when I was small, for instance, and I saw my first Shakespeare play at the outdoor Carter Barron—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I believe) as well as other entertainments (Danny Kaye did a wonderful program for children at the Carter Barron back around 1956). The current Warner Theatre in downtown Washington, built as a movie theater in 1924, was converted for live performances in the ‘70s but didn’t present theatrical fare until 1992. When the Arena Stage joined the line up as the notion of regional theater spread across the country in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and, early ‘60s, part of the movement that produced Margo Jones’s Theatre ’47 in Dallas (1947), the Alley Theatre in Houston (1947), the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego (1947), the Coconut Grove Playhouse near Miami (1956), the Hartford Stage (1963), and the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis (1963), prospects for theater in Washington started to look up.

When the Arena began in 1950, there was little regional theater in the United States and no indigenous professional theater in the Nation’s Capital. Furthermore, audiences at the National Theatre in the ‘50s were still racially segregated, although black actors could perform on its stage. (A movement spearheaded by Helen Hayes, Washington Post reviewer Richard L. Coe, and Father Hartke failed to desegregate the National so in 1948 the activists persuaded Actors’ Equity members to refuse to play there. Rather than integrate, the theater’s management ceased presenting live theater until 1952, two years after the Arena began producing, when the National reopened to integrated audiences.) That was the cultural atmosphere into which the new theater venture, the first in Washington to play for a racially mixed audience, inserted itself.

The theater became the first non-profit company to transfer a production to Broadway when The Great White Hope moved to the Alvin Theatre in 1968 (having premièred at Arena the previous year). This feat has been followed by 15 other transfers, including Indians (1969), Moonchildren (1972), Zalmen or The Madness of God (1976), Tintypes (1980), Execution of Justice (1986), and the recent Tony-nominated (2009; it won for best score) and Pulitzer Prize-winning (2010) Next To Normal. (Zalmen had previously been broadcast on PBS in 1975 as part of Theater in America on Great Performances. In 1985, Arena’s presentation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Happy End was broadcast on PBS’s America’s Musical Theater.) Arena Stage became the first U.S. theater troupe to tour the Soviet Union, taking a repertory of Our Town and Inherit the Wind in 1973. In 1974, the renowned innovative Romanian director Liviu Ciulei (who died this past January) made his U.S. début at Arena with a staging of Georg Büchner’s Leonce and Lena; in 1987, exiled Russian director Yuri Lyubimov made his U.S. directorial début with his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to great critical acclaim and attention. In 1976, Arena won the first Regional Theatre Tony.

The demonstrable success of the theater impelled other artists to found area theaters, giving Washingtonians a broad selection of theater sources. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the grand complex of theaters and concert halls that hosts both domestic and touring performances of dance, music, opera, and theater, opened in 1971, providing competition for the historic National. In 1970, the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, which has a three-quarters-scale Elizabethan theater in its facility, began producing plays of Shakespeare’s period with the Folger Shakespeare Group. After reorganizing as an independent company called the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger in 1988, it moved downtown to the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992 and became the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Since 2007, the STC has also operated the Sidney Harman Hall nearby.) A new company, the Folger Theatre, was formed in 1992 to perform on the Elizabethan stage. Today’s other outlets in the District include the Round House Theatre of Bethesda and Silver Spring, Maryland, started in 1973; the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which moved to Washington from New York City in 1980; the Studio Theatre, formed in 1988; the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, devoted to musicals old and new and founded in 1990; and Theatre J, a Jewish-oriented company housed at the Washington Jewish Community Center, founded in 1990. As Washington Post writer Peter Marks puts it, however, “While Ford's Theatre has more historical heft and the Kennedy Center is more firmly part of the national cultural consciousness, Arena has traditionally set the pulse in Washington for that pivotal theatrical concern, the crafting of the serious play.”

Arena’s first home was a former movie theater, the Hippodrome Theatre, opening there on 16 August 1950 with Oliver Goldsmith’s Restoration comedy She Stoops to Conquer directed by Edward Mangum. In 1956, after one dark season, the company moved into the converted “Hospitality Hall” of the old Heurich Brewery in Foggy Bottom (“The Old Vat”), demolished ironically to make way in part for the Kennedy Center. Its inaugural production at The Old Vat, named in reference to both the brewery equipment in their new facility and to Britain’s famed Old Vic, was Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Schneider, opening on 7 November. The company opened its current location on the Potomac waterfront on 30 October 1961 with Schneider’s staging of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the over-800-seat Arena Stage was the first theater-in-the-round conceived expressly for a resident acting company. The troupe’s name, obviously, came from the type of stage it used, an arena, or in-the-round stage. In 1971, however, the company added the 514-seat Kreeger Theatre, a proscenium house also designed by Weese, expanding not only the quantity of its productions but the variety of plays and stagings it could offer. The U.S. première of Peter Barnes’s The Ruling Class, staged by David William, inaugurated the new theater on 15 January. On 13 January 1976, the company opened the Old Vat Room, a 130-seat cabaret space in the converted rehearsal studio below the Kreeger (occupied for ten years by banjo-player and storyteller Stephen Wade’s solo Banjo Dancing and its sequel On the Way Home which ran for more than 2,300 performances after having been booked in 1981 for a three-week engagement). After Zelda Fichandler retired from active leadership of Arena in 1991 (in 1984, she’d been named chair of the graduate acting program of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University), the original theater-in-the-round was renamed the Fichandler Theatre in 1992, known as the Fich, in honor of Zelda and Tom Fichandler. (Tom Fichandler had retired in 1986 and died in 1997. Edward Mangum had left the theater in 1952 and died in 2001.)

When Zelda Fichandler moved on from Arena Stage’s leadership in 1991, her former assistant and a 17-year veteran of Arena, Douglas C. Wager, assumed the artistic directorship. He remained at that post until his resignation seven years later. Wager continued Fichandler’s interest in both new works and classics from around the world. In 1998, the Arena board hired Molly Smith, founding artistic director of Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre for 19 years, who refocused the theater’s mission to produce American works from the past and the present. Smith has also projected Arena’s focus into the future by starting a commissioning program for American playwrights as well as a development program for new scripts. In December 2007, Smith launched the New Play Development Program and the American Voices New Play Institute in Summer 2009.

In January 2008, the Arena broke ground on what would be a $135 million reconstruction of its home base in Southwest, opening it to the public in 2010 with a gala evening on 25 October featuring President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as honorary chairs and then-Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and his wife Michelle Fenty as honorary co‐chairs. (In the interim, the company performed in several other local facilities, including Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, and the historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street, N.W., in downtown D.C., which, with its sister house, the Howard, have their own story about Washington performing arts to tell. I hope to present a précis of that illustrious history, which has a small connection with my family, in a subsequent article on ROT.) The new theater complex, designed by Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, British Columbia, has been named Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre for philanthropists Gilbert and Jaylee Mead whose gift of $35 million is the largest single donation ever made to an American regional theater. (Gilbert Mead, who died in 2007, was a retired NASA physicist and the heir to a paper-manufacturing fortune. He and his wife, Jaylee, a NASA mathematician and astronomer, were longtime supporters of Washington-area theater. They were, in the parlance of show business, true Angels.) At a time when theaters and other arts organizations are drawing back on their capital outlays and reducing their budgets, Arena is one of the few in the country that ventured an immense investment in both its own future and the future of its community.

“The design of Arena Stage was inspired by Molly Smith’s desire for ‘a theater for all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit,’” architect Bing Thom stated. In the Washington Post, Roger K. Lewis, a practicing architect and a former University of Maryland professor of architecture, writes that BTA had created “an aesthetically bold, sometimes theatrical, architectural ensemble” for the Arena’s new home. The new facility is 200,000 square feet in size, twice the size of the old theater, making it the largest regional theater in D.C. and the city’s second largest performing arts complex after the Kennedy Center. It houses three performance spaces sharing a common lobby with a graceful staircase linking the three theaters psychologically and physically. (In the old theater, the two main performance spaces were wings of the same building but had separate outdoor entrances with no public access from one to the other.)

The octagonal Fichandler Stage, seating 683 spectators, closely resembles the original arena theater, with its steeply raked seating separated by four aisles at the corners of the platform. The Fich’s stage has been updated with state-of-the-art technical equipment and a décor in dark maroon. Spectators are never more than eight rows above the stage, allowing the audience to be closer to the stage than before. The box seats are around the perimeter of the audience area as they were in the previous house, but they’re sealed off and covered by acoustic panels to improve sound within the space. The renovated Fichandler was inaugurated on 22 October 2010 with the opening of Molly Smith’s hit revival of Oklahoma!, the remounting of which I went to Washington to see this fall.

The 514-seat Kreeger Theater, a fan-shaped house decorated in deep blue, affords an intimate relation between actor and audience. With a modified thrust stage that’s also updated with current technology, it has excellent acoustics and sightlines. Named for David Lloyd Kreeger, the late Washington millionaire and arts patron who headed the GEICO insurance company, the Kreeger has ramps around its outer walls so that one critic characterized arriving at the theater as “intentionally reminiscent of entering a Richard Serra Cor-Ten steel sculpture.” The Kreeger Theater reopened with the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project/The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, opening on 19 November 2010.

The Kogod Cradle, a new performance venue, is a unique, oval-shaped theater with flexible seating for 200 and the latest technical capabilities. This theater, named for philanthropists and culture patrons Robert P. and Arlene Smith Kogod, is designed to “cradle” productions of new and developing plays within its acoustically sound, wooden basket-weaved, eggplant-hued walls. The Cradle’s walls are covered with horizontal, black-stained poplar panels molded scientifically in a non-repeating pattern to neutralize the acoustical problems caused by the theater’s ovoid shape and the floor doesn’t touch the walls, but sits on 20 separate, shoebox-sized isolation pads to ensure acoustic separation. The first production at the new Kogod Cradle was Kenny Leon’s presentation of the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s every tongue confess on 9 November 2010.

Essentially, everything was demolished except the shell of the old modernist brick-and-concrete structure that housed the Fichandler (the original 1961 theater) and the Kreeger. Everything else was to be reconceived, especially the lobby space, the source of most of the unhappiness with the old building for its inadequacy—and the fact that the Kreeger really had no lobby to speak of at all. The other common complaint was noise interference from airplane overflights out of National Airport and helicopters from the White House. Smith and the Arena board had contemplated moving to a location in Northwest Washington not far from the downtown home of the Shakespeare Theatre, but decided to stay in the theater’s Southwest home site. Rather than create separate facilities in a village-like configuration, the Arena leadership and BTA decided to tie all the new facilities, including extensive backstage augmentation, into one unified form. The three new theaters, the administrative offices, and the technical shops were all enveloped by the undulating glass curtain which also defeated the outside noise infiltration. (One major consideration for the whole project was soundlessness, both from outside and from within. All the materials and construction methods were carefully chosen to dampen sound production and reduce noise from equipment.) The whole structure is covered by a 475-foot-long, curved and cantilevered roof with a steeply angled tip pointing westward at the Washington Monument in what the architects call a “salute.” It also forms a dramatic landmark in Southwest that is otherwise mostly architecturally drab. One architecture critic called this gesture “the kind of big aesthetic move that Eero Saarinen might have made.” (Saarinen, the Finnish-born American architect, designed, among other famous buildings, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, as well as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.) From the street front, the glass panels of the “curtain wall,” hung from the roof and tilted slightly outward at the top, allow the inner structure to be visible—a particular delight at night with the interior lit up—an inspiration the designers took from the transparency of jellyfish. The 45-foot-tall, ground-to-roof glass wall also makes the roof seem to hover in the air like a flying carpet.

The steel roof structure is supported by 18 elliptical wooden columns to which are also attached the wooden struts that brace the glass curtain wall. (The wood-and-glass construction, according to BTA, is unique in Washington and rare anywhere in the country.) From the inside of the Mead Center, the 45-to-55-foot-high pillars look like masts, making the lobby feel a little like the deck of sailing ship. (On the other hand, the curved wood-and-concrete walls and broad, sweeping staircases also made me feel as if I’d gotten inside a grounded spacecraft.)

The Mead Center has more spaces than the old theater for artists, staff, and board members to permit access of one by the others easier. All under one roof for the first time are the state-of-the-art costume and scene shops as well as the administrative offices, education spaces, and rehearsal halls. In fact, the designers intermingled the administrative offices with the workshops and performance spaces so that all the people who make the theater run are within view of one another’s working areas. Furthermore, the shops are visible from the street and the “kitchen,” where the staff and performers relax and mingle, can be seen from the lobby.

Practicality and convenience play a role in the new Arena as well. Instead of the old, limited parking lot next to the theater, so small that other, nearby lots for apartment and office buildings were usurped by theatergoers when street parking, problematical in the neighborhood under any circumstances, wasn’t available, has been replaced by a relatively large underground garage beneath the new structure. (Access in rain or snow doesn’t require going outside to go from car to theater or vice versa.) Replacing what amounted to overgrown concession stands for before-curtain repasts is the large, open Catwalk Café overlooking the new lobby. Even the habitual complaint of theatergoers worldwide has been addressed: there are an increased number of restrooms at the Mead Center, especially for women. Furthermore, BTA paid close attention to technological concerns by creating efficient interior temperature zones and incorporating a chemical‐free water treatment system. The entire structure is wheelchair accessible, of course.

Praise for the new building was forthcoming from preservationists and architecture critics alike, such as the chair of Washington’s Historic Preservation Review Board, Tersh Boarsberg, who said, “It’s exemplary . . . the architecture is unique and different, and imaginative and forceful,” and Ben Forgey, former architecture critic for the Washington Post, who wrote, “People will come to look at, as well as be in, this building. Its transparency will be compelling day or night.” Asserts architect Lewis, “There are two compelling reasons to visit Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater: the theatrical productions and the wonderful new work of iconic modern architecture that preserves and envelops the older modern architecture.” Approved by the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustments and twice by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the Mead Center was named one of the ten best new buildings in Washington by the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research and education organization that advocates progressive land development.

21 November 2011

The Theater Problem in Education

by Robert B. Youngblood

[Bob Youngblood, an emeritus professor at my undergrad alma mater, was one of my German profs and, as he says below, was an avid supporter and participant in the university theater program. Both Bob and our university theater director were new the same semester I started my freshman year, not much older than I was, so we all became friendly even as students and faculty. After I graduated, Bob and Lee Kahn, the director, became more like social acquaintances with common interests than teachers and a former student and we kept in touch all these years. (Lee died at 46 in 1981 but I’m still in touch with his widow.) In one e-mail message Bob sent me, he broached the topic of the disappearance of theater at my alma mater and I published “Disappearing Theater” on ROT on 19 July 2010. “The Theater Problem” is Bob’s view of this same disheartening phenomenon from the inside. ~Rick]

For three decades of my teaching career at Washington and Lee University as a professor of German and Italian, I taught two large literature classes of modern foreign literature in English translation, a component course in those required for graduation. The fall semester course was on modern German literature (from Rainer Maria Rilke to Thomas Bernhard and Ingo Schulze) and the winter semester course was on modern Italian literature (from Giovanni Verga to Antonio Tabucchi and Erri De Luca). The prose portions of the course could usually proceed with surmountable problems. Poetry and drama in both courses, on the other hand, were very bumpy roads indeed. This essay addresses "the theater problem."

It was, of course, my job to teach plays by dramatists that were aesthetically complex and by authors too contemporary for the students even to know their names (plays like Offending the Public by Peter Handke and Ten Rooms by Botho Strauss in German, Emma B. Widow Jocasta by Alberto Savinio and The Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo in Italian, for example). Theater-lover that I am, I relished the task of presenting plays by these and other playwrights. Because I could automatically and rightly assume that every student was a tabula rasa about the plays, performance techniques, and the contemporary theater scenes in Germany and Italy, these modernist/postmodernist playwrights were less of an obstacle to teach . So ultra-modernism wasn't the problem.

What depressed me (and up to retirement brought me close to despondency) was that students, over the years, gradually came to have virtually no background in post-Elizabethan play-reading and had only attended either very few or no plays at all in a theater proper.

Naturally, I didn't expect students, even at our ultra-selective private liberal arts college, to be familiar with the playwrights generally considered the European forerunners of modern drama: Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Chekhov, Wedekind, Pirandello, Shaw, and Brecht. Given, however, the notorious U.S.-centered cultural isolation our students are taught in, I expected most of them to have read or seen Thornton Wilder's Our Town or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, or failing that, to have heard of at least one play by Eugene O'Neill. In my last teaching years, the only playwright that most students could name or profess familiarity with one or the other of his major plays was (as one might expect) Tennessee Williams. In his case, students were able to name, said they knew about, or had seen (the movie version of) A Streetcar Named Desire.

In response to this distressing situation, I would ask students why they hadn't read or seen canonical plays. Surely their high school put on at least a play a year and they took part in or saw it? Oh yes, they replied, and named musicals that were performed or they took part in! To that, I would ask if they had acted in or seen any of the outstanding musicals like Cabaret, Into the Woods, or Sweeney Todd that consider serious themes and offers intellectual challenges rather than just issue-free entertainment. That question would net me a blank look, but they assured me they knew musicals by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, some of the classics up to the 1950s.

My follow-up question would then be: Why they didn't go to plays. The answers would run along these lines: We live in the suburbs. The theaters are downtown. Plays are at night when downtown is dangerous. We don't go down there. To my follow-up question, what about matinees on the weekend, again no answer. Weekends, as we in the teaching profession know, are for sleeping late and partying. And, given the "stuff" they see on DVDs and TV, to expect them to sit through a play of two or three hours, which has few scene changes and which requires a cerebral commitment, is asking a lot of today's young people. It's all students can do to sit through a lecture of an hour between their cell phone calls and text messages.

But there's film, I would counter. There are lots of plays on film. There are, for example, at least three different film versions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, that quintessential American play. In response to the word "film," they would tell me how many plays by Shakespeare they had seen in English class. Ah, I thought, here's where they experienced the translation of text into image and sound. It would often turn out, however, that they had only read one complete play by Shakespeare (usually Romeo and Juliet; if a second one, usually Richard III). Frequently they just read extrapolated scenes in class and later watched a film of the play (alas, I can't remember hearing Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear mentioned).

Given their lack of at least theater attendance, I shouldn't have been disappointed at the following, but invariably was: At least one oral report was required per course; I would suggest the setting of a scene in a play read for a class. Although I would give a verbal example of a scene-setting or diagram one on the blackboard, students would either tell me, to my disappointment, that they were unable or found it very difficult to set or diagram a scene. I expected them to know, but most also didn't, what a sound stage was in movie-making.

Despite the dispiriting, near absence, of theater background that students all too often came to W&L with from high school, this idealistic and theater-passionate instructor threw himself willingly into the breach. His abiding hope was that the plays treated in his courses would at least awaken an interest in theater and prod students to attend performances at W&L. Alas, this was not the case. A colleague who conducted an exiting-senior survey for years found, in the last year he did, that only one third of the senior class had attended a single play at W&L.

I personally had some of my most significant experiences at W&L with colleague-directors in our university theater. I contributed to a contemporary version of Six Characters in Search of an Author, to characterization and Brechtian elements in Saint Joan of the Stockyards, and to a major production of Goethe's Faust (both parts!) which played to virtually full houses. The programming of plays at W&L tried to present at least one representative play from the principle periods in the canon over a student's four years at W&L. Unfortunately, this college has eliminated virtually all play production. The two stages of our impressive and still fairly new performing arts complex were virtually barren of plays. This is not only due to the economic downturn but also because of low student participation in this art form. Up to the last year of performances, W&L wound up playing to primarily non-student audiences.

It comes as no surprise to me that theater in the U.S. has been experiencing a "hard go of it" in the years I've been a witness to the drop-off of live theater experiences and play-reading in our high schools. If, to boot, our colleges aren't educating and producing a new generation of play-going audiences, the future of theater in these altogether troubled United States looks even bleaker still!

[Bob was, as he describes himself, “theater-passionate,” but he doesn’t make his living in the theater, either as an artist or as a teacher, so his lament is perhaps a more unbiased cri than was my own. I could be seen to have had a conflict of interest, an axe to grind—but Bob’s loss is purely from the perspective of someone who loves (and misses) theater and a teacher in a liberal arts college who sees the loss to the students’ fundamental education. His final statement, that “the future of theater in these altogether troubled United States looks even bleaker still” if colleges like W&L stop teaching and presenting theater because we would no longer be “educating and producing a new generation of play-going audiences,” is something that I’ve said myself numerous times. In “Degrading the Arts” (13 August 2009), I make the same point Bob does in “The Theater Problem,” for instance, but the issue comes up often. It’s shameful, in my view, that arts education at any academic level in this country should become a question of finances or head-count. It’s even worse when the school or the board of ed takes the tack of eliminating theater or other art program in the face of low student turn-out rather than doing everything they can to raise that student interest, promote the arts on campus, and boost the benefits and pleasures of the arts.

[In “Disappearing Theater,” I quoted from a letter George Washington, the principal benefactor of the young Washington Academy (which grew into Washington and Lee University), wrote to the school’s trustees in 1798. The former president of the United States insisted: "[T]o encourage the Arts [has] ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart." I’ll also quote another great American, Chester A. Riley (as portrayed on TV by William Bendix): "What a revoltin' development this is!" I say, shame on everyone involved. Discretion may be considered valorous, but cowardice and burying your head in the sand are no virtues. Shame!]

16 November 2011

“The Indispensable Opposition”

By Walter Lippmann

[The essay below by the great American essayist, social critic, and public intellectual Walter Lippman (1889-1974) was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in August 1939. Europe was about to go to war and Germany, Italy, and Spain were in the grips of Nazis, Fascists, and Falangists, while Russia and the Soviet Union were under Stalin’s iron control. The United States, officially neutral at the time, would be fighting against one totalitarian philosophy while allied with another. Freedom of speech and expression was about to be tested as a theory and a right in a way that it had never been tested before. (No one could know, of course, that in another 15 years or thereabouts, another test of free speech would occur under Joseph McCarthy and his enablers, and the U.S. would fail it.) In the midst of this social and political turmoil spoke up Walter Lippmann with one of the most astonishing pieces of writing I have ever read. I think about it all the time, quoting from it often. I probably should say it’s the most influential essay I’ve encountered in my life, but I distrust such absolutes. In any event, it’s certainly one of the most influential pieces I’ve read. I can’t think of a more useful service Rick On Theater can offer than to bring this essay to the attentions of random readers who may never have seen it before. At 72 years old, “The Indispensable Opposition” still—perhaps it’s more accurate to say “especially now”—has something to say to which we need to listen.

[Anyone who’s been keeping up with
ROT will know that I style myself as close to a First Amendment absolutist. There are very few instances when I’d condone curtailing someone’s freedom to speak or express her or his ideas. ROT readers will also know that I’ll often stray on this blog from the mandate of its title, the coverage of theater. In a sense, republishing “The Indispensable Opposition” isn’t a case of that: I have used Lippmann’s essay and the ideas in it to discuss the importance of art to the First Amendment and the significance of the First Amendment to art and theater. What Lippmann writes here has fundamental bearing on theater, even if he doesn’t say so. I say so. Pay heed! ~Rick]


Were they pressed hard enough, most men would probably confess that political freedom—that is to say, the right to speak freely and to act in opposition—is a noble ideal rather than a practical necessity. As the case for freedom is generally put today, the argument lends itself to this feeling. It is made to appear that, whereas each man claims his freedom as a matter of right, the freedom he accords to other men is a matter of toleration. Thus, the defense of freedom of opinion tends to rest not on its substantial, beneficial, and indispensable consequences, but on a somewhat eccentric, a rather vaguely benevolent, attachment to an abstraction.

It is all very well to say with Voltaire, “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” but as a matter of fact most men will not defend to the death the rights of other men: if they disapprove sufficiently what other men say, they will somehow suppress those men if they can.

So, if this is best that can be said for liberty of opinion, that a man must tolerate his opponents because everyone has a “right” to say what he pleases, then we shall find that liberty of opinion is a luxury, safe only in pleasant times when men can be tolerant because they are not deeply and vitally concerned.

Yet actually, as a matter of historic fact, there is a much stronger foundation for the great constitutional right of freedom of speech, and as a matter of practical human experience there is a much more compelling reason for cultivating the habits of free men. We take, it seems to me, a naïvely self-righteous view when we argue as if the right of our opponents to speak were something that we protect because we are magnanimous, noble, and unselfish. The compelling reason why, if liberty of opinion did not exist, we should have to invent it, why it will eventually have to be restored in all civilized countries where it is now suppressed, is that we must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say.

We miss the whole point when we imagine that we tolerate the freedom of our political opponents as we tolerate a howling baby next door, as we put up with the blasts from our neighbor’s radio because we are too peaceable to heave a brick through the window. If this were all there is to freedom of opinion, that we are too goodnatured or too timid to do anything about our opponents and our critics except to let them talk, it would be difficult to say whether we are tolerant because we are magnanimous or because we are lazy, because we have strong principles or because we lack serious convictions, whether we have the hospitality of an inquiring mind or the indifference of an empty mind. And so, if we truly wish to understand why freedom is necessary to a civilized society, we must begin by realizing that, because freedom of discussion improves our own opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity.

We are much closer to the essence of the matter, not when we quote Voltaire, but when we go to the doctor and we pay him to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet. When we pay the doctor to exercise complete freedom of speech about the cause and cure of our stomachache, we do not look upon ourselves as tolerant and magnanimous, and worthy to be admired by ourselves. We have enough common sense to know that if we threaten to put the doctor in jail because we do not like the diagnosis and the prescription it will be unpleasant for the doctor, to be sure, but equally unpleasant for our own stomachache. That is why even the most ferocious dictator would rather be treated by a doctor who was free to think and speak the truth than by his own Minister of Propaganda. For there is a point, the point at which things really matter, where the freedom of others is no longer a question of their right but of our own need.

The point at which we recognize this need is much higher in some men than in others. The totalitarian rulers think they do not need the freedom of an opposition: they exile, imprison, or shoot their opponents. We have concluded on the basis of practical experience, which goes back to Magna Carta and beyond, that we need the opposition. We pay the opposition salaries out of the public treasury.

In so far as the usual apology for freedom of speech ignores this experience, it becomes abstract and eccentric rather than concrete and human. The emphasis is generally put on the right to speak, as if all that mattered were that the doctor should be free to go out into the park and explain to the vacant air why I have a stomachache. Surely that is a miserable caricature of the great civic right which men have bled and died for. What really matters is that the doctor should tell me what ails me, that I should listen to him, that if I do not like what he says I should be free to call in another doctor; and that then the first doctor should have to listen to the second doctor; and that out of all the speaking and listening, the give and take of opinions, the truth should be arrived at.

This is the creative principle of freedom of speech, not that it is a system for the tolerating of error, but that it is a system for finding the truth. It may not produce the truth, or the whole truth all the time, or often, or in some cases ever. But if the truth can be found, there is no other system which will normally and habitually find so much truth. Until we have thoroughly understood this principle, we shall not know why we must value our liberty, or how we can protect and develop it.


Let us apply this principle to the system of public speech in a totalitarian state. We may, without any serious falsification, picture a condition of affairs in which the mass of the people are being addressed through one broadcasting system by one man and his chosen subordinates. The orators speak. The audience listens but cannot and dare not speak back. It is a system of one way communication; the opinions of the rulers are broadcast outwardly to the mass of the people. but nothing comes back to the rulers from the people except the cheers; nothing returns in the way of knowledge of forgotten facts, hidden feelings, neglected truths, and practical suggestions.

But even a dictator cannot govern by his own one way inspiration alone. In practice, therefore, the totalitarian rulers get back the reports of the secret police and of their party henchmen down among the crowd. If these reports are competent, the rulers may manage to remain in touch with public sentiment. Yet that is not enough to know what the audience feels. The rulers have also to make great decisions that have enormous consequences, and here their system provides virtually no help from the give-and-take of opinion in the nation. So they must either rely on their own intuition, which cannot be permanently and continually inspired, or, if they are intelligent despots, encourage their trusted advisers and their technicians to speak and debate freely in their presence.

On the walls of the houses of Italian peasants one may see inscribed in large letters the legend, “Mussolini is always right.” But if that legend is taken seriously by Italian ambassadors, by the Italian General Staff, and by the Ministry of Finance, then all one can say is heaven help Mussolini, heaven help Italy, and the new Emperor of Ethiopia.

For at some point, even in a totalitarian state, it is indispensable that there should exist the freedom of opinion which causes opposing opinions to be debated. As time goes on, that is less and less easy under a despotism; critical discussion disappears as the internal opposition is liquidated in favor of men who think and life alike. That is why the early successes of despots, of Napoleon I and Napoleon III, have usually been followed by an irreparable mistake. For in listening only to his yes men—the others being in exile or in concentration camps, or terrified—the despot shuts himself off from the truth that no man can dispense with.

We know all this well enough when we contemplate the dictatorships. But when we try to picture our own system, by way of contrast, what picture do we have in our minds? It is, is it not, that anyone may stand up on his own soapbox and say anything he pleases, like the individuals in Kipling’s poem who sit each in his separate star and draw the Thing as they see it for the God of Things as they are. Kipling, perhaps, could do this, since he was a poet. But the ordinary mortal isolated on his separate star will have an hallucination, and a citizenry declaiming from separate soapboxes will poison the air with hot and nonsensical confusion.

If the democratic alternative to the totalitarian one way broadcasts is a row of separate soapboxes, than I submit that the alternative is unworkable, is unreasonable, and is humanly unattractive. It is above all a false alternative. It is not true that liberty has developed among civilized men when anyone is free to set up a soapbox, is free to hire a hall where he may expound his opinion to those who are willing to listen. On the contrary, freedom of speech is established to achieve its essential purpose only when different opinions are expounded in the same hall to the same audience.

For, while the right to talk may be the beginning of freedom, the necessity of listening is what makes the right important. Even in Russia and Germany a man may still stand in an open field and speak his mind. What matters is not the utterance of opinion. What matters is the confrontation of opinions in debate. No man can care profoundly that every fool should say what he likes. Nothing has been accomplished if the wisest man proclaims his wisdom in the middle of the Sahara Desert. This is the shadow. We have the substance of liberty when the fool is compelled to listen to the wise man and learn, when the wise man is compelled to take account of the fool, and to instruct him, when the wise man can increase his wisdom by hearing the judgment of his peer.

That is why civilized men must cherish liberty—as a means of promoting the discovery of truth. So we must not fix our whole attention on the right of anyone to hire his own hall, to rent his own broadcasting station, to distribute his own pamphlets. These rights are incidental; and though they must be preserved, they can be preserved only by regarding them as incidental, as auxiliary to the substance of liberty that must be cherished and cultivated.

Freedom of speech is best conceived, therefore, by having in mind the picture of a place like the American Congress, an assembly where opposing views are represented, where ideas are not merely uttered but debated, or the British Parliament, where men who are free to speak are also compelled to answer. We may picture the true condition of freedom as existing in a place like a court of law, where witnesses testify and are cross-examined, where the lawyer argues against the opposing lawyer before the same judge and in the presence of one jury. We may picture freedom as existing in a forum where the speaker must respond to questions; in a gathering of scientists where the data, the hypothesis, and the conclusion are submitted to men competent to judge them; in a reputable newspaper which not only will publish the opinions of those who disagree but will re-examine its own opinion in the light of what they say.

Thus the essence of freedom of opinion is not in mere toleration as such, but in the debate which toleration provides: it is not in the venting of opinion, but in the confrontation of opinion. That this is the practical substance can readily be understood when we remember how differently we feel and act about the censorship and regulation of opinion purveyed by different media of communication. We find then that, in so far as the medium makes difficult the confrontation of opinion in debate, we are driven towards censorship and regulation.

There is, for example, the whispering campaign, the circulation of anonymous rumors by men who cannot be compelled to prove what they say. They put the utmost strain on our tolerance, and there are few who do not rejoice when the anonymous slanderer is caught, exposed, and punished. At a higher level there is the moving picture, a most powerful medium for conveying ideas, but a medium which does not permit debate. A moving picture cannot be answered effectively by another moving picture; in all free countries there is some censorship of the movies, and there would be more if the producers did not recognize their limitations by avoiding political controversy. This is then the radio. Here debate is difficult; it is not easy to make sure that the speaker is being answered in the presence of the same audience. Inevitably, this is some regulation of the radio.

When we reach the newspaper press, the opportunity for debate is so considerable that discontent cannot grow to the point where under normal conditions there is any disposition to regulate the press. But when newspapers abuse their power by injuring people who have no means of replying, a disposition to regulate the press appears. When we arrive at Congress we find that, because the membership of the House is so large, full debate is impracticable. So there are restrictive rules. On the other hand, in the Senate, where the conditions of full debate exist, there is almost absolute freedom of speech.

This shows us that the preservation and development of freedom of opinion are not only a matter of adhering to abstract legal rights, but also, and very urgently, a matter of organizing and arranging sufficient debate. Once we have a firm hold on the central principle, there are many practical conclusions to be drawn. We then realize that the defense of freedom of opinion consists primarily in perfecting the opportunity for an adequate give-and-take of opinion; it consists also in regulating the freedom of those revolutionists who cannot or will not permit or maintain debate when it does not suit their purposes.

We must insist that free oratory is only the beginning of free speech; it is not the end, but a means to an end. The end is to find the truth. The practical justification of civil liberty is not that self-expression is one of the rights of man. It is that the examination of opinion is one of the necessities of man. For experience tells us that it is only when freedom of opinion becomes the compulsion to debate that the seed which our fathers planted has produced its fruit. When that is understood, freedom will be cherished not because it is a vent for our opinions by because it is the surest method of correcting them.

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is unfit to be lived by man. This is the virtue of liberty, and the ground on which we may best justify our belief in it, that it tolerates error in order to serve the truth. When men are brought face to face with their opponents, forced to listen and learn and mend their ideas, they cease to be children and savages and begin to live like civilized men. Then only is freedom a reality, when men may voice their opinions because they must examine their opinions.


The only reason for dwelling on all this is that if we are to preserve democracy we must understand its principles. And the principle which distinguishes it from all other forms of government is that in a democracy the opposition not only is tolerated as constitutional but must be maintained because it is in fact indispensable.

The democratic system cannot be operated without effective opposition. For, in making the great experiment of governing people by consent rather than by coercion, it is not sufficient that the party in power should have a majority. It is just as necessary that the party in power should never outrage the minority. That means that it must listen to the minority and be moved by the account of the minority’s objections, and that in administering measures it must remember that the minority may become the majority.

The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers are. So if he is wise he will often pray to be delivered from his friends, because they will ruin him. But, though it hurts, he ought also to pray never to be left without opponents; for they keep him on the path of reason and good sense.

The national unity of a free people depends upon a sufficiently even balance of political power to make it impracticable for the administration to be arbitrary and for the opposition to be revolutionary and irreconcilable. Where that balance no longer exists, democracy perishes. For unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.

11 November 2011

Short Takes II


I ran an errand over on 6th Avenue late one afternoon and while I was walking back, I saw a dog do the oddest thing. (Okay, it wasn't as funny as a dog walking on his front paws, but that’s a trick; this was just the dog's natural—not to say normal—behavior. I think.) This guy was walking his black-and-white pug in front of me as I came east on one of the cross streets back to 5th. All of a sudden, the dog just stopped and I figured it was going to poop or pee or something. But it just lay down in the middle of the sidewalk—for no observable reason I could detect—but not in any usual canine prone position. It went down straight—with its front paws stretched out straight forward and its rear paws straight back and its head on the pavement between his front legs. I used to call this "The Bear Rug" when my own dog did it (but he did it at home, not when were out walking, and when he was already lying down, not directly from a standing position.) Can you picture this? Boom—and its flat out on the sidewalk! I actually burst out laughing aloud—and I commented as I passed the guy that I hadn't ever seen a dog do that.


When I went home from the library, taking the bus as I usually do, I discovered that I had no more fares on my MetroCard. I usually check when I get on the subway up to the library, but I just forgot to look this time. Of course, on the bus you can't recharge the card and you can't pay the fare with bills, and I didn't have exact amount in coins. I was about to get off the bus—I'd have gone down the 5th Avenue entrance to the subway on the same corner and refilled my card, then either taken the subway home or gotten on another bus—when a young woman behind me offered to treat me to the ride. I accepted the "loan" of her card, but I reimbursed her the cost of the fare. She nearly refused, but I didn't think it was right since I wasn't without the fare—just without the right form of payment. Now 'n' then, people are just nice for no reason at all—a random act of kindness. How 'bout that!


I watched Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire on TV one night, a decidedly odd movie to start with. (It's Wenders, so I guess that's a given.) It's about two angels who hang around Berlin and watch as the humans live their lives until one of them decides he wants to become human and experience life himself. (Nicholas Cage's City of Angels is a remake/adaptation of Wenders's movie.) One of the oddest bits is that one of the human characters is Peter Falk—as himself; there are several references to his TV role as Columbo. He's making a Nazi-era movie in Berlin, and the angels hang around the set for a while. (It turns out that Falk himself is a former angel. In the movie; I don't know about real life—though I guess he is now.) None of this, however, is relevant to this reminiscence. The movie was released in '88 and meanders around odd parts of Berlin, including some sites near sections of the wall (which didn’t come down until the next year). I'm not sure I can make this make sense—I've never articulated it before—but at one point, one of the angels crosses a street and passes in front of a row of buildings that all looked as if they dated from the immediate post-war period—'50s and '60s or thereabouts. It was only a few seconds of film, and it wasn't in the least significant to the movie, but it made an odd connection for me. For those few seconds, the scene could have been anywhere in West Germany where those kinds of buildings were ubiquitous in the early days of my family’s time there in the early ‘60s. They were just little shops—bakeries, groceries, tobacconists, and so on; I don't even know what they were, but it could have been any street in any West German town where new buildings had been erected to replace older ones that had been destroyed in World War II—they went up fast as Germany was recovering, and they all looked alike. All of a sudden, and just for a second or two, I was right back there in '63 in Koblenz, the Rhine River town where my family first lived in Germany, in those first weeks and months when my brother and I moved there to join my folks. It was the oddest kind of nostalgic sense—sort of Proustian, I guess. I reexperienced a feeling I remember having, but never tried to describe or even, really, recognized until much, much later. It was this absolutely certain feeling that here I was, doing this extraordinary thing—living in a foreign country—that I knew was both unique and special and exciting.

I was just 16 and had never been anywhere off the East Coast of the United States and one skiing trip to Quebec, and we were living not in an American enclave or a housing compound, but right among the Koblenzers, shopping in their stores—no PX or commissary—and so on. And, this was 1963—how many American teenagers lived in Europe back then? I never said this to myself in words, but I knew I was on an adventure. Now, I know I'd thought this before—especially when I went back to Germany in the army in the ‘70s, and most clearly when I went back to Koblenz ten years after I first arrived there—but I know I've never tried to put this into words of any kind—not even in my head. As I said, at the time, I had this sense, but it wasn't remotely verbal and I never recognized it except maybe subliminally until years later. (What 16-year-old is that introspective, I guess.) I'd be out in town for whatever reason—shopping, exploring, meeting Dad at his office, wandering with a friend (who more than likely would have been the French kid I got to know there, which made it all the odder: an American foreign service brat and a French army brat hanging out in a small German city)—and I'd take notice of the German shops with German signs, the German people on the streets, the German kids. Everything was alien—but fascinating. And this feeling would come over me—"I live here. This is now my home. I'm actually doing this." None of those words occurred to me—I'm putting those in now—but the feeling was there. This only happened in the first months or a year—after that I got very blasé about living in foreign parts, and later, when my dad was transferred to Bonn, we lived in an embassy compound where all our neighbors were Americans and our surroundings were an approximation of an American suburb. But those first months in Koblenz, the Germanness of it all, the newness, the strangeness, was actually palpable. I was doing this really, really, different thing—and I knew it. All this came back to me in that brief piece of movie, just because the setting looked vaguely familiar. (Ironically, the rest of the movie didn't remind me of my days in Berlin at all—even though I consciously looked for things I might recognize. Only the monuments were familiar, not the streets or neighborhoods.) Very strange.


I watched another old flick I taped off TV one night. It wasn't a terribly remarkable movie as far as cinema goes, but it had some startling, small moments of reflected reality. Not Realism—reality. The movie was The Big Lift with Montgomery Clift, made in 1950 about the '48-'49 Berlin Airlift. It was made on location in Berlin (using both local German actors for the German roles and actual military personnel for all the army and air force characters except Clift and Paul Douglas). Most of the little things that hit me were about life in post-war Germany and occupied Berlin. As odd as it may seem from a chronological perspective, life in Germany was not very different in the early '60s when I was there as a kid than it was right after the war when the movie was made. Less rubble, more prosperity (just beginning), but otherwise, it was still "post-war." (Of course, it was also the Federal Republic of Germany by then—no longer Allied occupied territory.) Berlin, even in the '70s, when I was there ten years further on, was still occupied and, except for new uniforms (and still less rubble), plus the addition of the Wall (built starting in 1961), things were much the same in many ways as they were right after the war ended. It was a time warp, in both instances. For example, one character says he checked someone, a German, out in "the Document Center" and found a record of her from the war years. The Berlin Document Center was, in fact, the records repository of the Third Reich's official files, and it was in the American Sector of Berlin so we kept it as a resource. (I was an intelligence officer in the army: a Special Agent, just like they say on TV.) It was one of the agencies we always checked when we did background investigations of a German native who was old enough to have lived in the Third Reich. (Mind you, this was all the official records, so a file might reveal only that someone was an old-age pensioner, had been a dues-paying member of the musicians guild, or had held a job as a school teacher in Frankfurt. Only occasionally did a file check of the BDC reveal a criminal record or service in the SS or something nefarious.)

Anyway, it was just a passing mention of something actual, like the brief description the pilot of Clift's plane gave of flying into Tempelhof Air Force Base on their first flight in from Frankfurt. ( I suppose only someone like me who'd been over there would have known whether those details were made up or not, but that's kind of the point: who’d really care about that kind if accuracy—and yet, there it was). The Soviets controlled the airspace over what was then their occupation zone of Germany (later East Germany) and restricted Allied flights to a very narrow corridor. Plus, Tempelhof, which closed in 2008, was actually in downtown Berlin—you land over city buildings, and the movie showed this, both from the air as the planes landed, and from the city as planes landed or took off practically outside apartment windows. (In my day, only specially certified pilots were allowed to fly in and out of Berlin. One of them was the newly-appointed CO of the air base, Colonel Gail Halvorsen. In 1948-'49, he became a hero to the children of Berlin—in the '70s, the adults running the city—he was known as the Candy Bomber because he dropped Hershey bars from his plane whenever he flew over the city on his landing approach. I knew Colonel Halvorsen—his daughter was a member of our theater group, which met at Tempelhof—and once when I took an Air Force hop into Berlin from Wiesbaden, he piloted the plane. My little brush with actual history.)

But what most often caught me in Big Lift were the little bits of German culture and custom that were incorporated in the movie. In one scene, set in the apartment of one of the German characters, a group of people are sitting and standing around late in the evening, drinking and nibbling—a kind of impromptu celebration. A neighbor comes in, a woman who lives in another apartment in the building. She's just arriving from work, and stops in to say hello. When she arrives, she makes the rounds of all the people, stopping at each person and shaking his or her hand and saying, "Guten Abend." When she reaches the last person, she says she's tired and off home to bed and immediately reverses her route, shaking all the same hands in reverse order, saying. "Gute Nacht," as she works her way back out the door. That's so German—the formal, hand-shaking greeting of each and every person present, even though you don't plan to stay, and then doing the exact same thing to say good night. In Germany, at least back then—they may have caught the American casualness disease since my day—you can't just stick your head in the door, wave, and say to everyone at once, "Hi. And good night," and then leave. It couldn't have been realer if it had been a documentary! And there were other, briefer bits, too—like the vendor in the subway who sells loose cigarettes. You could still buy individual cigarettes in much of Europe when I was in school there—a pack was relatively pricey even in the '60s.

There was one other real note the movie struck—more in line with my old job in Berlin. While he's visiting a woman he had met, Clift meets a neighbor who stops in at the woman's apartment. They introduce themselves to one another and chit-chat briefly, then the man takes a seat by the window and takes out a pad and makes notes as planes land at the airport. (I told you, the planes flew right by the windows!) Clift asks the man what he's doing. "I'm a Russian spy," he answers matter-of-factly. Clift is taken aback slightly, as you might expect. He asks if the man's not afraid that Clift might report him. "The Americans know I do this," he states. "And the Russians know that the Americans know." He also explains that because the Russians don't believe the newspaper announcements of the airlift's progress—since the Russians lie, they assume everyone else does, too—they insist on getting their own statistics. Since the official reports are accurate—the U.S. wants everyone to know what they're doing; it's good propaganda—he tells Clift that he leaves out one or two flights, just so the Russians feel they're getting "real" figures. Later in the movie, he has stepped out of the living room briefly just as a plane comes in to land. He sticks his head around the corner, then smiles at Clift and says, "That one was just American propaganda!"

Anyway, the man tells Clift that the Russians are spying on the Americans with 20,000 agents in Berlin, and the Americans are spying on the Russians, only with just 10,000 agents. Both sides know that the other side is spying, and that each side also knows that the other side knows. It's all very absurd, sort of Kafkaesque—but not inaccurate. When I was an intel officer in Berlin in the '70s, not only were the Russians (and the East Germans, of course) spying on us and we on them, but, obviously, the French and British were also spying on the Russians and vice versa. But the Allies were also spying on each other. And there were spies in Berlin from Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet Bloc countries, all spying on everyone else—including each other. There were even Chinese spies operating in Berlin—countries with no obvious need to be in Berlin. Berlin was espionage-central in that era—the counterpart of, say, Lisbon in WWII. With the possible exception of Saigon, Berlin in the early ‘70s may have had more spies per capita than any other place on Earth. It certainly had spies from more countries and agencies than anywhere else. (I'm sure there's a comedy of errors in this somewhere!)

The first day I reported to our offices, which were in the headquarters compound which also housed both the Brigade command (one-star general), the military governor's office (two-star general), and the Minister's office (the highest-ranking diplomatic officer in Berlin, just below an ambassador), I noticed two black Russian sedans parked, one by each exit from the compound. (Russian Moskviches or Volgas were easy to spot: even in the early ‘70s, they looked like something preserved from the late ‘40s.) I asked about them, and my sponsor told me that they were almost always there, just watching, taking notes and probably photos—and that within an hour of my arrival, the Soviets knew my name, rank, and assignment. (Military Intel personnel wore civilian clothes on duty and were all addressed as "Mr." or "Miss" outside the office. When we had to wear fatigues—for the firing range, say, or during an alert—we wore no branch or rank insignia, only the "US" device. Our addresses and phone numbers were unlisted, and our cars were all registered in Munich, 66th MI HQ, not Berlin. We weren't clandestine, but low profile.) By the same token, I got info copies of the transcripts of the wiretaps from Potsdam, the Soviet military HQ in East Germany. The Cold War was mighty crowded in Berlin!


By the way, at the start of The Big Lift, there’s a voice over that explains how the Soviets started the blockade. The VO describes how the crossing points (the famous Checkpoint Charlie, for instance) were all closed, the trains halted at the border of the Soviet Zone, and the Autobahns connecting Berlin to the Allied zones were denied to Allied traffic. The airlift defeated this action and the Soviets never tried it again—but they did keep up the same tactics on a sporadic and short-term basis. Every few months, they’d stop the supply trains from West Germany (we called it The Zone, left over from days of the occupation; in the days before the U.S. recognized East Germany, that was officially called the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany, or SZOG) and keep them on a siding for hours, maybe a day. On another occasion, they'd stop all the traffic on the Autobahn—official Allied traffic was restricted to one designated route through East Germany between Berlin and Helmstedt on the border, a 110-mile drive—and back cars and trucks up at one or another of the checkpoints. (Another thing the Soviets loved to do on the Autobahn was to make us deal with the East German guards instead of the Soviet ones. They knew we weren't supposed to do that before recognition—we were supposed to demand to see a Soviet official. They knew there wasn't anything we could really do out on the highway. When they did that, we'd have to report the incident when we got to our destination, either in Berlin or Helmstedt.) There were also occasional "incidents" at Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo, or Charlie, engineered as an excuse to close them for several hours. (These were not the same as real incidents that also occurred at the checkpoints every few weeks. People were still trying to escape from the East even as late as the '70s. Every month or so, there were shots fired at one of the checkpoints; then everyone would scramble.)

In the movie, there are several scenes of Berliners shoveling debris into wheelbarrows. The wartime destruction, still in evidence both in the early ‘60s when I lived in West Germany and in the early ‘70s when I was in Berlin, had to be cleared by hand becaude the deprivations of Germany after the war, especially in Berlin, made gasoline-powered machinery unavailable. In addition, the post-war unemployment was so great until the Wirkschaftswunder—the Economic Miracle—of the 1960s that hiring out-of-work Berliners to clear the rubble served a benefit. (The woman with whom Clift falls in love in the film works clearing debris.) What the movie doesn’t tell is that most of that debris was taken to a site in Wilmersdorf near the Grunewald, Berlin’s forested “Central Park.” The rubble was piled into a mountain named Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), the highest spot in the city at about 365 feet. On top of that mountain the Army Security Agency, the military counterpart to the NSA, built an elaborate spy site called Field Station Berlin, the most secret place in Berlin. Usually just called Teufelsberg—the facility was known to insiders simply as "The Hill"—was located in the British Sector even though it was a U.S. site. (The Brits had a small section on the site, but essentially we just shared whatever poop we got with them and the French.) Everyone knew it was there—you could see the bulbous towers and antennas, looking like some futuristic city, from many parts of Berlin—but very few who didn’t work there knew what went on. (One of my classmates from the Russian language program was assigned to the companion listening station in Helmstedt and despite my clearances as an intel officer, he couldn’t tell me what he did, aside from the obvious: listening in on Russian transmissions. The transcripts I got from Potsdam, which I mentioned in passing above, came from FSB.) I don’t know when Teufelsberg was competed or when FSB was built, but I suspect that when the airlift was going on and even in 1950 when The Big Lift was filmed, it didn’t exist yet. Even if it did, the film probably wouldn’t have been allowed to mention that that’s where all the rubble was heading. Now, of course, it’s all over the ‘Net!

06 November 2011

'Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling'

The first play in the Atlantic Theater Company’s season that I saw this year was Adam Rapp’s “surreal” (ATC’s word) Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, performed at the CSC theater in the East Village (where ATC's presenting this production because it's rebuilding its Chelsea home). My friend Diana and I, having taken out a subscription to this season’s mainstage productions, went down to East 13th Street near 3rd Avenue on Wednesday evening, 19 October, for the 80-minute one-acter that Charles Isherwood calls “an empty farrago of a play” in the New York Times but which John Lahr in the New Yorker describes as a “fierce little play.” To be honest (and what else?), I don’t know whether I agree with Isherwood or with Lahr—or whether I don’t agree with either reviewer. To quote the great Vinnie Barbarino: “I’m so confused!” That’s a reportable reaction, too, I’m afraid, though it hardly does any of you very much good. Let’s see if I can sort Dreams out a little for us all—or at least describe the experience.

First, let me admit that I don’t know Rapp’s work at all. I’ve heard his name for years, but I’ve never been motivated to catch a production of one of his plays. I’m not sure Dreams will change my mind on that score. Both Diana and I came out with the same sense, which, Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post writes, “feels as if Rapp is trying a little too hard”; Diana even said the play seemed like the work of a novice writer trying out ideas he isn’t ready to handle yet, even after I pointed out that Rapp has been around for a number of years and is in his 40’s. For all I know, though, Rapp could either usually be clear as crystal or always obscure and muddled. I have only one play on which to go, so I’ll have to treat it as a one-off and do the best I can to describe what I saw.

In Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling (there’s no internal punctuation in the title, which may be significant of something—though I’m not sure what), Bertram Cabot and his wife Sandra (pronounced “Sondra”) have invited their old friends Dirk and Celeste Von Stofenberg to dinner at their “opulent Connecticut home” (“the Rowayton area," Rapp says) to celebrate the release from Stockbridge House, a private psychiatric hospital, of the Von Stofenberg’s adult son, James, following an attempt to fly off a roof. Before Celeste and James appear, the Cabots are entertaining Dirk over drinks in the elegantly-set dining room, and Sandra pays Dirk the most explicit compliments on his physique and appearance, as if she’s appraising a prize stud horse for breeding. Bert steps out of the room as this gets more and more awkward, and Sandra enlists Dirk to help her kill her husband. Later, geese start dive-bombing into the side of the house and the sky turns beige, and there are the growls of a lion coming through the intercom from the basement. During the evening, Sandra and Bert take their friends downstairs to tour the newly refinished basement among whose features is an aquarium housing a 47-inch barracuda which, Sandra explains, is fed on other fish supplied by a man from Norwalk. While the older couples are out of the room, James and the Cabot’s strange daughter (she’s working on an art project for which she collects arm hair), make a connection and suddenly are having raucous sex on the dining table, knocking the dishes and silver and even the furniture about the room. Wilma, the Cabots African- American maid (from Red Hook, Brooklyn, we’re informed), whom Sandra’s training not only in the domestic arts but in the sonnets of Shakespeare and the French language, goes about cleaning up and putting things back in order as the coupling continues loudly on the table top. The menu, by the way, is wild goose (one of the ones Wilma’s picked up off the lawn?) and, for dessert, crème brûlée made with a special ingredient. Lion’s milk. This isn’t a normal world these folks live in!

My problem is that I couldn’t figure out where it was all heading—what Rapp was trying to say to me. As Vincentelli puts it, “[E]verybody’s behavior is off in a way that’s hard to pinpoint.” Okay, the very rich are nastier than you and me. (Well, me anyway.) They like to destroy things—nature, animals, other people, their own young, each other—and they look down an everything that’s not part of their select environment—Bert regales Dirk with the tale of his and Sandra’s last trip to Borneo, and while he takes great delight in the poverty, deprivation, and neediness he sees everywhere away from Connecticut’s Gold Coast (even Hartford, the state capital, comes in for insults), Sandra denigrates in the most vulgar and frankest terms all that they’ve seen. But is that all Rapp’s trying to say? I gather from comments that his plays usually deal with the downtrodden and forgotten people, the damaged and disturbed, and that he’s often portrayed the upper classes and wealthy in similarly bad light—Dreams is apparently a rare Rapp play set in a nice home (designed here by Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata) rather than a tenement or other derelict setting—but if that’s his only point, he’s gone to elaborate lengths just to make it again. Several of the reviewers invoked Edward Albee’s name and work by way of comparison (not always to Rapp’s benefit), but Albee uses the absurdity of his plots and characters to fuller purposes—at least in his top plays. In Albee’s hands, absurdity is a scalpel or at least a switchblade; for Rapp, it’s a blunt instrument. If Rapp is saying anything more than that the rich are bastards, however, I can’t suss it out.

Behavior in Dreams is curiously unmotivated, but that’s not the fault of the actors. (I don’t think it’s director Neil Pepe’s responsibility, either—it’s the way Rapp wrote the play and the characters.) Sandra (Christine Lahti) not only denigrates everything yet travels apparently continuously, she commands the maid, Wilma (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), to recite a sonnet the way Pozzo orders Lucky to sound off in Waiting for Godot—it comes out of nowhere in the middle of serving dinner. The Cabot’s basement, however newly redone, seems to be an unnatural object of interest. When the older folks have left the room, the nearly catatonic Cora Cabot (Katherine Waterston) virtually jumps James Von Stofenberg’s (Shane McRae) bones with little prelude or, dare I say, foreplay. And when she walks in on the acrobatic sex scene, Wilma seems unsurprised and goes about her duties as if stepping around a rambunctious puppy. All the characters behave—you can’t call it reacting, since that implies a motivating force—this way in one way or another. Sandra announces that she wants Dirk (Reed Birney) to kill Bert (Cotter Smith), and he hesitates momentarily (they went to Yale together—and even rowed on the same crew!), but considers the proposal as if she’d asked him to throw her husband little party. Even seemingly plain and simple Celeste Von Stofenberg reveals a seriously bent psyche when she relates the plot of a children’s book she’s writing: a little boy is abandoned by his parents in a dead volcano in Hawaii. A baby pterodactyl feeds him and teaches him to fly. But the child puts on so much weight he can’t get off the ground so he decides to cut his feet off to lose the extra weight. No one seems to find any of that gruesome—or to see the connection with either the dream Dirk relates to Sandra (it’s where the title comes from) or the attempt James had made to fly off the roof of a building.

In fact, this is a world without connections. As ominous as the crashing geese and the oddly-colored sky are, presaging something portentous, there’s no link to anything on stage or elsewhere that I could determine. Even in the end when James carries the body of a dead lioness up from the Cabots’ basement and lays it on the dining table, only the silence suggests that anything unusual might be going on.

The acting all around was fine. I usually find Lahti hard and humorless no matter whom she’s playing, and that works for some roles—as it does here. She’s clearly the center of this universe, for good or ill. In her Chanel-like suit and hard-shined high-heeled pumps (the costumes were designed by Theresa Squire), she’s as bitchy as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Smith’s Bert couldn’t have been more of a milquetoast, and McRae’s James was believably damaged (even if we never really learned why). Birney was required to do little more than look uncomfortable and nonplussed, which he did convincingly, even making his final act (which I won’t reveal as it’s the most genuinely surprising beat in the play) seem consonant with Rapp’s world. Pepe’s direction was also totally competent, given Rapp’s script. (I don’t mean that to be a backhanded compliment.) The lack of motivation wasn’t the director’s failure; it was clearly the playwright’s intent—even if I don’t get why. (And I admit that that may be my failure. I’m just not tuned into Rapp’s frequency, I guess—which is why I’ve never felt compelled to see his plays before.)

Most of the criticism was mixed, with some coming down decidedly on the negative side. I’ve already mentioned Isherwood’s New York Times evaluation; he went on to call Dreams, “A tediously outlandish dark comedy.” Joe Dziemianowicz in New York’s Daily News called the play an “amusing work” the first half of which “is played for laughs.” The script, Dziemianowicz says, is “pungent and on-target” but ultimately “loses steam and its sense of fun as it turns into a surreal morality tale.” In New York magazine, Scott Brown writes, “Dreams of Flying doesn’t have much new to say on the subject of the savagery underlying American wealth and privilege, but it has a great time covering the classics—adultery, exigency, barely suppressed madness and hysteria. You won’t feel much by the end, but you’ll have had a great evening getting numb.” Vincentelli concludes in the New York Post that Rapp and Pepe “expertly weave comedy and coiled nastiness,” but Marilyn Stasio’s Variety review sums up, “For all the savage talk and bestial imagery, there are no teeth—and consequently no bite—to this offbeat but superficial comedy.” In the Village Voice, Alexis Soloski writes, “Largely owing to the excellence of director Neil Pepe's cast, there's much to enjoy” but warns that “it's enough to put you off dessert.” Finally, Back Stage, the actors’ trade paper, reports in David Sheward’s notice that “Rapp manages to balance the overt theatrics with more-believable dramaturgy in his dark and wild new comedy.” In my confusion, I have to agree with everyone! (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.)

I’m afraid I may have confused you all more than I elucidated this theater experience. I can’t say I hated the performance. I’ve been to many that made me angry and worse, but I don’t feel that strongly after seeing Dreams. That may say something in itself, but I would advise anyone considering seeing Dreams, or perhaps any other of Rapp’s plays—and he’s a playwright with some popularity around the country (I don’t know about abroad)—that you consider whether he’s a writer you can get into or if, like me, he’s outside your orbit. He seems to be that kind of writer: if you get him, he’s engaging and provocative; if you don’t, you’re left in a quandary. Quandaries, however, aren’t life-threatening. Occasionally, they’re even intriguing to mull over. I can guarantee one thing: you won’t be bored!

01 November 2011

Lady Gaga: Artist For Our Time

By Kirk Woodward

[Once again, I’m presenting an article from frequent guest-blogger Kirk Woodward. His last contributions were a discussion of theatrical music versus pop songs (“Theatrical and Popular Songs,” 2 October) followed by a consideration of pop songs in the context of a jukebox musical (“The Jukebox Musical,” 7 October). In that last article, Kirk raised the possibility that the songs of Lady Gaga might be in line for a successful treatment on the musical theater stage. Now Kirk returns to ROT with an interesting profile of Lady Gaga and her music (and considerable other talents and skills) and we can glean some of the reasons Kirk thinks her songs might work on the theatrical stage. I think you’ll find, as I did, that the exploration comes at its subject from a unusual angle as well. ~Rick]

One has to feel sorry for today’s critics and reviewers, faced with a dilemma that I reported in my book The Art of Writing Reviews (available at lulu.com). If you don’t mind, I will quote myself:

The fact is that the boundaries between art forms aren’t rigidly fixed, the way they (maybe) used to be. The visual arts, dance, poetry, all draw on each other. Conceptual art closely resembles theater. Poetry slams, those raucous celebrations of verse, resemble both theater and musical concerts.

The blurring of boundaries can confuse a reviewer. Earlier generations assumed that there were basic principles that applied to any art work of a particular genre. Is that still true? Are there any landmarks, any touchstones that the reviewer can rely on?

But then, should there be? Common sense says that the more you know about an art form, the better a reviewer you’ll be, but consider this: All education about art is looking backwards. It has to be – up ahead, in the future, there’s nothing to see. Learning the elements of an art is learning
what’s already been done.

What’s wrong with that? Don’t tradition and craft matter? They do, but the problem is that artists who aren’t repeating what has already been accomplished, are striking out into unknown territory. Their work may be vital and important. It may also be garbage. What it
won’t be like – unless it’s mere imitation – is what’s gone before it.

A reviewer learns – at least one hopes so – the fundamentals of the art being reviewed, and then – yikes – the fundamentals begin to shift! History suggests that these shifts used to occur gradually. If there were any reviewers in the Middle Ages, it might have taken decades for them to notice that figures in paintings had begun to acquire new dimensionality that gave them the appearance of being fully rounded. Today equivalent kinds of changes occur practically overnight.

The rise of electronic communication methods in the Twentieth Century, and an expanding range of materials available for use in art, led to the rise of almost instantaneous communication methods across the Internet in the Twenty-First, and the resulting increase in capacity has led to an overwhelming need for novelty. The comment in the New Testament that the intellectuals of Greece “spent all their time discussing the latest new thing” (Acts 17:21) can be said of us as well, in spades, and not just concerning products like TV shows and video games. Wikipedia’s article on “Contemporary Art” includes a list over eighty art movements from the 1950’s on, including many unfamiliar to me, such as (I select at random):

Bay Area Figurative Movement
Arte Povera
Bad Painting
Land Art
Institutional Critique
New Leipzig School

I’m sure there’s an excellent article, not to say a thesis or book, in the development of so many art movements over such a short period of time, but I want to concentrate in this piece on two, conceptual art and performance art, because they have direct bearing on the subject of this article. Conceptual art declares that the idea is the most important part of the art work – indeed, the idea may be said to be the work of art itself. An example is Telepathic Piece by Robert Barry, who said that during his exhibit he would attempt to communicate to visitors, mind to mind, a series of thoughts that were not either images or words. (Try it.)

In effect, one creates conceptual art by (figuratively) putting quotation marks around an idea, an activity, or anything else – singling it out, and then identifying that very process as art. This approach has a natural tie-in with the more physicalized art movement called performance art, in which any interaction between the performer(s) and the audience can be identified – conceptually, so to speak – as an art piece.

Although there are no rules for performance art – who would make them? – there is an implied suggestion that performance art impinges on “real life,” that it sets itself up in an unusual or unexpected relationship to ordinary existence, so it probably has a higher degree of spontaneity than a theatrical event such as a play would have. There is also usually implicit in the idea of performance art the principle that the event is basically not repeatable – that each encounter between performer and audience is unique.

An interesting example of this concept is the very funny “Over the Moon” sequence in the musical Rent, in which one of the characters, wishing to protest a real estate scheme, stages a performance art piece. This scene is a part of Rent, a scripted musical, and as such really isn’t performance art – unless, I suppose, one conceptually makes it so – but instead is about performance art. One could claim, in theory, that including a performance art piece in a musical is a piece of conceptual art. This is where I begin to get dizzy.

The art movements we are discussing have been around a while now, and their pioneers have been joined by members from new generations. One of the most notable, not to say successful, one who has most been able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by conceptual and performance art, one who has in fact transformed her public self into a piece of performance art, is the artist who performs under the exuberant name of Lady Gaga.

It is not my intention to present either a full biography or a full critique of Gaga (as I will hereafter refer to her, presuming an intimacy that I haven’t got). However, elements of both history and evaluation are useful in order to get a picture of just what she’s doing as she makes the rounds of modern commerce, culture, and art, all at once.

Gaga is 25 years old. Born Stefani Germanotta and raised in New York City, she appears to be, as a person, what the singer Tony Bennett called in an article in The New Yorker (September 19, 2011) “a sweet little Italian-American girl.” She is also a notoriously hard worker (an acquaintance who was in school with her said he had never seen anyone with such a work ethic), and she has the gift of apparently being able to throw herself wholeheartedly into any activity, no matter how risky, no matter how it makes her look.

Twenty-five is not terribly old for an established artist, but Gaga has packed that short number of years with plenty of training and experience to equip her for the role of a premier performance artist in our time. Among her areas of accomplishment are:

PIANIST – this was her first artistic activity; she is classically trained and didn’t know anything about popular music until her early teens when her father gave her albums by the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. She was if not a prodigy at least highly talented, knows the classical piano repertoire, and frequently plays piano (not classical music, though) in her appearances.

MUSICAL THEATER PERFORMER – she played lead roles in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Guys and Dolls in high school, and has said she is particularly proud of her performance as Adelaide in the latter. She was accepted in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, in the highly competitive musical theater program CAP21 (Collaborative Arts Project 21), where she stayed for three semesters. I'm unclear whether or not it was through musical theater training that she acquired the skills of a . . .

DANCER – in the current style of concert/show, pioneered by Gaga's role model Madonna, a singer is surrounded by a group of impossibly agile dancers. Gaga holds her own, moving with remarkable physical control. In any case, one gets the feeling that the restrictions of the musical theater may not have been congenial to her, because she left school to become a . . .

PERFORMANCE ARTIST – most notably, she teamed up with another, more experienced New York performer, Lady Starlight, appearing wherever possible in free form performance events, often including appearances as a . . .

SEXUAL PROVACATEUR – wearing as little as possible, partly because performance art is intended to shock, partly to draw attention and crowds. However, many who have worn a bikini have not succeeded in the arts. Gaga is also a remarkable . . .

SINGER – she has a vocal range of several octaves, and to my mind is particularly effective in her lower registers, but she can raise the roof with practically any note she hits, and there are plenty of those. She is marvelous in her recent duet with Tony Bennett on the Rodgers and Hart song "The Lady Is A Tramp." But she doesn't have to depend on singing other people's songs, because she is also a first-rate . . .

SONGWRITER – her first professional job in the recording industry was writing songs for others, including Brittany Spears. (A producer who heard her demonstrating songs she wrote for others signed her to a contract as a singer herself.) She has had three best-selling, award-winning studio albums. But music isn't all she does. To my mind she also is a remarkably gifted . . .

ACTOR – she hasn't made any films, although one assumes they may be in her future someday, and she hasn't been in a play or musical since college, but as a performance artist she has demonstrated impressive acting ability. In particular I'm thinking of her spooky characterization of Jo Calderone, a slouching, smoking little male street punk who claims to be her boyfriend and is almost frighteningly believable. This particular role, incidentally, is one of the few times one sees her "dress down," since she is a major . . .

FASHION PLATE – her extravagant, boisterous, sometimes revealing, always surprising clothes – costumes? – are famous, or, in the case of her "meat dress," infamous. She seldom wears the same outfit twice, as far as I can tell; she has said that she keeps an archive of them, and they should make a valuable addition to the Smithsonian some day, if it can find a wing big enough to hold them. But it's not just clothes that define her look. She is also a remarkable . . .

MODEL – she has a real "photographer's face," meaning that she is capable, using makeup, wigs, and so on, of a variety of looks ranging from the frightening to the stunningly gorgeous, with numerous stops in between. Coming up with so many looks on one's own could be daunting enough, but Gaga is also a formidable . . .

CREATOR OF SPECTACLE – video of her tours can be seen on the web. They include remarkable stagings of her songs, and astonishing performances of them by her. I am also told that she is an important . . .

VIDEO ARTIST – music videos are hardly my field of expertise, but a friend who has studied the field says that hers have revitalized it. Fortunately, Gaga has help and support in designing her costumes, shows, and videos, because she is a . . .

TEAM LEADER – she has gathered her creative friends and associates in a collective called the Haus of Gaga, consciously modeled on Andy Warhol's famous Factory, which serves as an inspiration and brain trust, ensuring that she doesn't have to depend only on herself for ideas (although, as she told Jimmy Kimmel on his television show, "I didn't get here by agreeing with everybody"). She is also a . . .

FAN FAVORITE – she calls her fans her "little monsters" and has a remarkable two-way relationship with them, often over the Internet – they suggest ideas for outfits, many of which she accepts, and she is known for her graciousness to them. And of course she is in fact – and, as we will see, this is not irrelevant – a . . .

PHILANTHROPIST – she puts in extensive time, effort, and money for causes she believes in, notably for relief in Japan after the earthquake, and she campaigns against bullying and for self-acceptance among people whose self-image is battered. And speaking of time and money, she is an astounding . . .

MARKETER – her art is located firmly in commerce, and she works the marketplace like few before her. The campaign to make a number one hit out of her sensational latest album, Born This Way, was exhaustive – she did everything but sell CDs door to door, and I'm not positive she didn't do that. I don't follow her on Twitter (or anywhere else), but it wouldn't amaze me to learn that she'd tweeted, "Met a nice couple on Elm St. Sold 3 copies."

I've undoubtedly missed several components of Gaga's background, and who knows what else she'll come up with in the future. My point is not that she has a remarkable range of skills, although she does, but that, at least at this moment in her career, she uses these skills at the service of her central skill, which is that of the performance artist. She conceptualizes the various public encounters in her life as artistic events, and arranges live, one-time performances (except for concert tours, of course, where the staged numbers, however novel, repeat themselves) within those events, which she herself acts out. These performances are full of surprises in content and presentation that startle and awaken the audience. She seldom does what one would expect. She is hard to anticipate.

The observation that Gaga is essentially a performance artist is not exactly unique to me. It is important to make, however, for the reasons I outlined at the beginning of this article – because boundaries within the arts are continually shifting, and because a reviewer's or critic's first task is to understand what the purpose of the artist is. Thinking of Gaga, for example, within the traditional boundaries of "a singer" or "a songwriter," although not wrong, misses the main thrust of what she's doing.

A performance artist's purpose is to refresh the world, at least the part of it that the artist is able to intrude on. Gaga ambitiously wants to accomplish the purpose of performance art on a large scale, and she has the tools for the task. She may decide to use them in some other way later, but at the moment that's what she's doing.

And seen in such a light, her philanthropic activities and in particular her championing of people who feel odd, marginalized, and bullied, fit a pattern that makes it clear what her performance art is about. Much contemporary music, including rock in many forms, shares a common theme: "Look at me – and accept me for what I am." Gaga is very much in this tradition. In the title song of her new album she sings:

I'm beautiful in my way,
Cause God makes no mistakes.
I'm on the right track, baby,
I was born this way.

Interestingly, while many rockers have made this point by taking what we might call the low roads of grunge, animal passion, and glumness, Gaga makes the same point through the high roads of fashion and art. (In my favorite performance of hers on YouTube, a literally foot-stomping rendition on the talk show The View of her song "You and I," she wears a black and white patterned dress suit, for heaven's sake, with matching hat, purse, and sunglasses, although to be fair her piano is wearing the same thing.) She bypasses many familiar ways of shocking the public; in particular, her more outré costumes may be revealing but they are less sexy than they are about sex, her position on drugs (which she says she once abused) is responsible, and she keeps her private life remarkably private.

Gaga is sometimes presented in the press as, basically, a sort of flake. "Flake" is what she is not. She is purposeful. There is a concept behind each costume she wears, each public appearance, each presentation of a song. She aims for a deliberate effect in everything. The effect doesn't always come off the way she intends – the meat dress overpowered whatever intention she had – but she always has a plan. (For the record, she related the meat dress to the right to fight for what one believes in, and for her opposition to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of the military.)

So, leaving Gaga aside for a moment, what kind of criticism is appropriate for conceptual and performance art? Criticism of conceptual art is difficult because the "art work" exists only as a process. Reviewing of performance art, as an extension of conceptual art, is difficult because ordinarily a reviewer singles out unpleasant elements of a work for negative criticism, but in performance art the uncomfortable is the point. If a piece of performance art isn't irritating, it probably hasn't done its job. We may say that performance art "pushes the envelope" or "challenges the boundaries" but it really does more than that – it reaches out into "real life" and disrupts it in some way.

There is always the possibility that a piece of conceptual art, with its cerebral nature, or performance art, with its ability to irritate and disrupt, may simply be poor work. Almost any stupid idea can be justified as conceptual art; almost any baffling performance can be justified as performance art, a claim that one could make, perhaps, for example, for the singing of Florence Foster Jenkins, "famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability" (Wikipedia). Is something a lousy idea? Call it conceptual art. Is it a lousy performance? Call it performance art.

Even with conceptual or performance art, however, the principles of reviewing are always the same, and they are what sets criticism apart from merely having an opinion. A reviewer first needs to experience the work at hand for what it is – not for what the reviewer imagines, remembers, or wishes it were. In the process the reviewer tries to determine what the purpose of the work is, and then whether or not it achieves its purpose. Finally, the reviewer is in a position to tell us whether the effort was worthwhile in the first place.

Eventually a consensus forms around ability, and listeners as different as Barry Manilow and Alice Cooper have said that they consider Gaga the genuine article. In general she's received terrific press, not to mention a cartload of awards, but it's interesting to look at negative criticism she’s received. The most extensive such piece I've seen, posted on Slate.com (September 11, 2011) by Nathan Heller, is titled “Lady Gaga: Pop’s leading conservative,” a title that strikes me as an overreach. Heller says in the article that she's conservative "every way but politically," which is kind of like saying that people in church are materialists "every way but spiritually." "Conservative" doesn't seem to be the right word anyway for someone who's designed and worn a dress made out of meat.

Heller does understand Gaga's core role as a performance artist, but he doesn't apply that insight to her songwriting. Instead he uses the hoary method of quoting lyrics to demonstrate a song's faults. Many lyrics sound silly quoted out of context, and a song isn't just a lyric anyway; it's also melody, arrangement, and the way the music and the words fit together and interact with each other, as well as the performer’s delivery of the material. More to the point, Heller doesn't seem to understand that Gaga's songwriting also fits under the heading of performance art. However genuine the feelings in her songs may be to her, she still writes the songs (frequently with collaborators) "as if" she were in a particular situation. Her songs are written, so to speak, within quotation marks.

But much of the negative criticism that Gaga receives simply misses what she's trying to do. For example, she participated in a recent awards show as her Jo Calderone character, and remained in that character throughout the show and on through the following press conference. One reviewer said she had stayed in the character too long – that she should have dropped it after using it once. No doubt from the standpoint of show biz that observation is canny. Gaga, however, was engaging in a piece of performance art, and its purpose was to disrupt and make uncomfortable (which it certainly did, at least for me), not to glide along well-worn entertainment paths. Similarly, she recently sang her song “Bad Romance” to Bill Clinton at his birthday party, raising many eyebrows. If you want somebody who will do nothing but carry in a cake, smile, and blow out the candles, Gaga’s probably not the one you want to invite.

A performance artist continually takes chances by risking offence. It can be difficult to be a performance artist and also beloved. (Laurie Anderson has probably accomplished this feat.) Gaga has achieved popularity despite the risks she takes, through her use of the attributes we've discussed, including talent, energy, and the ability to plunge ahead no matter what. Remarkably, she has used her skills not to make us comfortable with her, but to make us more alert, more uncomfortable, more uncertain what's going to happen next.

A lesson that performance art by its nature presents to the reviewer, the critic, and even the ordinary listener or viewer, then, is: listen first, understand next, evaluate intelligently, judge last if at all.

[For those interested in the book from which Kirk quotes himself, The Art of Writing Reviews, he’s mentioned where it’s available. For further thoughts on the subject, I posted a four-part commentary on Kirk’s book, “The Art of Writing Reviews,” 1, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009.]