19 May 2012

It’s Not Real – It’s Art

When I recently wrote my performance report on Red (4 March on ROT), the revival of the John Logan Tony-winner about painter Mark Rothko and his assistant, Ken, that I saw in Washington in February, I added a short coda about a column written by New York Times art reviewer Roberta Smith called “What’s True in Art Studios and Onstage.” I’d originally considered appending a longer statement on Smith’s article, but as it had little to do with the performance of Red in Washington—or anywhere, really—I decided to reserve it and present it as a separate article on ROT. The column, published on 5 April 2010, four days after Red had opened on Broadway, is about the play itself and, more broadly, about the nature of theater and art. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I get a little exercised here because this really bothers me, and the source is shocking.

Smith, an art reporter for the Times since 1986, writes that she was put off because the stage world of Red “clashed so violently with my memories of the studio visits I experienced in the two decades after the action of the play.” (The play’s set in 1958-59, so Smith’s alluding to a period up to the late ’70s.) As a consequence, Smith says that at times she wished “my seat had an ejection lever.” What disturbed Smith most, she explains, was “the noise, speed and off notes” of the script; in her experience over decades of involvement with art and artists as a student, a museum intern and employee, and an art journalist, the opportunities she had for examining art and coming to understand it “were quiet, slow, often awkward experiences,” not the fast-paced and verbal exchanges Logan imagined for the stage Rothko and Ken. While Smith conceded that for the theater it’s necessary to speed up and condense time, she still insisted that “the studio, not the play, was the thing for me.” The play came most alive for her, Smith writes, “whenever the actors stopped talking and turned to the business of moving the big (surprisingly convincing) ‘Rothkos’ around, preparing stretchers and canvases, mixing colors.” The “magic” of the play came when the “wordless choreography of the wheeling, turning canvases brought back the ephemeral intimacy of one artist’s inner sanctum 50 years on, verifying the often profound accuracy of silence.”

Let’s look at Smith’s criticism. What she’s objecting to is that the world of Logan’s play doesn’t line up with her own real-world experience. It’s too fast and loud, she says. First, let me note that Smith never says she visited Rothko’s studio—or ever met the painter herself; she acknowledges that her understanding of Rothko’s “worldview” comes from the James E. B. Breslin 1993 bio, Mark Rothko: A Biography (the same one which Logan read and which Edward Gero, the actor I saw play Rothko in Washington, said he used as a resource as well). So, assuming that every artist works differently (like people in nearly every other profession), there’s no reason to believe that Logan’s imagination is any less truthful than Smith’s assumptions. (As a side comment here, I want to note also that Logan didn’t just invent the environment of an artist’s workspace out of whole cloth; he knew painters in Los Angeles and went to their studios to learn how they worked, “getting into the studio, getting paint under my fingernails.”) Second, when Smith visited an artist, she was changing the dynamic of the workspace to one of observation and scrutiny—the Heisenberg principle at work. What an artist does when a journalist-cum-museum representative is present isn’t necessarily the same as he does when he’s working alone or in the company of an assistant whom he trusts or takes for granted. Third, what Smith saw as apparently unnecessary “noise” in the play isn’t really conversation. What the stage characters of Rothko and Ken are voicing for us to hear are the thoughts Smith suggests were going through the minds of those seeing the art in the studios, speaking aloud so we can hear—because complete silence, despite some experiments, doesn’t work so well in theater—what the characters would otherwise keep to themselves. Because Red is a drama, which implies a level of conflict, those thoughts are expressed as dialogue because a series of related monologues would be frankly boring on stage.

Fourth, of course, is the fact that Logan never pretended that he’s presenting a slice of Rothko’s actual life in Red. He says quite frankly that he isn’t: “[T]his was the way to explore the themes I thought were interesting, which really didn't have much to do with Mark Rothko. It had more to do with my feelings about art and theatre and mentors and fathers. Mark Rothko became the vessel for things I wanted to explore." Ken, the young assistant, isn’t a real person or even a composite but a completely fictional character Logan invented for the play. If someone wants to see a true-to-life portrayal of the workings of some artist’s studio, the theater is probably not the place to go. Try a documentary: there are many, including one remarkable film of Rothko’s contemporary and fellow Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, at work on his famous drip paintings. With all Smith’s experience of the art world, I’m shocked that she’d have gone into a theater to see a play and expected real life to unfold on the stage. And was disappointed—no “disturbed,” she says—that her world isn’t reflected in the play.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that there apparently are people like Smith who apparently don’t get that art and life aren’t the same. Back on 15 December 1974, for example, there was another Times article, “Psychoanalyst Says Nay to ‘Equus’” by Dr. Sanford Gifford, taking Peter Shaffer’s play to task for inaccuracies in its portrayal of Martin Dysart's practices. Gifford declares that “the play paints a picture of the psychoanalytic process that demands a professional response.” He complains that “Shaffer presents us with a fictitious piece of psychopathology.” After describing the play’s conceit, Gifford asserts, “As the play’s imagery becomes murkier and more portentous, however, and the clever theatrical devices multiply, we begin to suspect that we, the spectators, are being tricked by the playwright.” Gifford calls all this “a spurious air of importance” and adds, “Perhaps in Shaffer’s skillful mixture of truth, banality and pretension there is something for us all, for doctor and patient alike, something that gratifies our universal fantasies about our therapists (and most psychiatrists were once patients).” Gifford, a Harvard Medical School faculty member, goes on to list what he sees as three “fantasies” in Equus, two of which he labels “familiar wishes, entertaining or tedious according to taste.” The first is the wish to ask the therapist personal questions so that, in Shaffer’s play, we learn that Dysart is ”unhappy, weak and fallible, like everyone else.” Second is the “familiar” desire to be “our therapist’s favorite child, his only patient, or at least his most interesting one.”

Gifford saves his greatest disapproval for what he sees as “the principal ‘message’ that Shaffer seems to have written out for us most explicitly”: that “psychopathology and the creative imagination are inseparable.” The psychoanalyst believes that Shaffer is perpetuating the notion that creativity and madness are connected in a “version of the mad artist theme” because “insanity was the price paid by the artist, in a kind of Faustian bargain, for the use of his creative powers.” In Equus, Gifford asserts, Shaffer presents the “delusional world” of Alan Strang, “a half-illiterate stable boy” as “itself a work of art.” The doctor points out that Alan isn’t an artist, but that the play treats his ”productions” as worthy of “respect, even reverence” because without Alan’s “psychotic rituals he would remain a mere village yokel capable of nothing more creative than watching TV.” Shaffer’s point, Gifford declares, “is that if we give up our symptoms, we lose our imaginative powers and must accept a bleak, plastic ‘normality,’ without color or passion.” This concept, the psychoanalyst insists, is “a pernicious fallacy” because “many of us—the ordinary and untalented as well as the artistic and creative—use just this fallacy to avoid treatment or to justify holding on to our symptoms.”

The author of the column offers that Shaffer “may know better than to believe” what he’s presented in the play, but that the playwright’s “chosen to exploit its theatrical effectiveness, or allowed himself to be carried away by his own bravura as a dramatic technician.” In that case, Gifford asserts, “we feel all the more ‘manipulated’ by the play.” Plays like Equus, he continues, “leave us feeling cheated, that we have been promised some significant glimpse of the truth and left with a bogus or trivial message.” The psychoanalyst refers to “the remarkably little compassion we feel for either the psychiatrist or his patient.” He adds, “Even as we leave the theater we have forgotten them both as human beings, suggesting . . . that we have been forcibly and mechanically ‘entertained’ rather than enlightened.” Gifford concludes his commentary by remonstrating that “surely we are entitled to a higher grade of banality from a playwright as accomplished and psychologically knowledgeable as Peter Shaffer.”

Confronting Gifford’s complaints, we may see that they’re a little harder to disarm than were Smith’s. If, in fact, Shaffer had been intent on presenting a treatment of psychiatry in action, a real-life portrait of a psychotherapist and a patient at work, Gifford might even have a valid argument, assuming that the play is wrong on the facts and the truth as the columnist says it is. (I’ll defer to Gifford on this issue, since I don’t have the expertise to dispute him. I’ll add, though, that Shaffer called on “a distinguished child psychiatrist” for advice in his work.) The question is, however, whether Shaffer, or any playwright—or artist in any medium, for that matter—should be held accountable for the factual details of his creations when compared to actual practitioners in some profession or other. (I wonder if there are bank robbers and burglars who object to the way their TV and film counterparts practice their dirty work.) The cornerstone of Gifford’s position on Equus and of my counterargument is the psychoanalyst’s assertion that Shaffer’s presenting the idea that insanity and creativity are linked or that “madness is the price of genius,” as Gifford phrases it. That’s not the play I saw (or read). Yes, Dysart debates with himself whether or not to treat Alan. But what’s at stake for Dysart isn’t Alan’s sanity versus his “creativity”—his passion, really, is the way Shaffer puts it—but Dysart’s own peace of mind, his integrity. Like Antonio Salieri in Shaffer’s other hit play, Amadeus, Dysart’s in fundamental doubt. His dilemma is that he can “cure” Alan—he does cure Alan: “I’ll heal the rash on his body. I’ll erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes”—but it’s the consequences of the “cure” that make Dysart question his purpose: “When that’s done, I’ll set him on a nice mini-scooter and send him puttering off into the Normal world . . . . I doubt, however, with much passion! . . . Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”

A few years after I saw Equus, I came across a situation that reflects the play’s theme in microcosm. I adopted a year-old dog, a beautiful, loving, and playful mixed breed. A couple of weeks after I brought him home, I discovered that he hated other dogs and became almost uncontrollably hostile when he was around them. I was taking the dog through obedience training at the time and I approached the trainer with the problem and she took my dog home with her for a weekend to diagnose it. When the trainer returned the dog to me, she explained the alternatives: she could make him manageable and controllable but he’d still have behavior problems around other dogs, or she could render him docile and calm, though he’d have no personality left. Now, I don’t mean to equate Shaffer’s characters with a dog and his trainer, but the situations are similar enough, the dilemma is parallel enough to help me understand what Shaffer’s writing about. Do I make the dog compliant enough to live quietly in society, but without passion, or do I allow him his passion but leave him with self-control problems? That’s precisely the question Dysart faces with Alan. And as with me and my dog analogy, the consequences of the answer are Dysart’s, not Alan’s.

Gifford is wrong about the play’s point: it’s not Alan who’s mind is in jeopardy—it’s Dysart’s soul. Equus isn’t about whether Alan Strang must sacrifice his passion for normalcy—but whether Martin Dysart can keep on making that God-like decision with impunity. See, the play’s not only not about psychiatry, it’s not about Alan, either. It’s about Dysart who’s having a secular crisis of faith (another parallel this play has with Amadeus). In the last scene, the doctor says, “Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!”

Gifford engages in some writing tactics that aren’t very even-handed, on top of the erroneous argument he makes. First, he does something that always aggravates me when reviewers do it: he speaks throughout his article of “we” and “us,” as if he knew what was in the minds of all the other spectators in the theater. Unless psychoanalysis has made some advances of which I’m unaware, he can’t possibly. For instance, he avers that “we feel” little compassion for Dysart and Alan. Well, I, for one, felt immense compassion for Dysart; Equus had a profound effect on me after I saw it. I sympathized with Alan, but Dysart’s crisis tore me up and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterward. (For years I wanted to play Dysart in that show.) Gifford can speak for himself and say what he felt and thought, but he can’t attribute his notions to anyone else. If he conducted a survey, then he must say so; otherwise, he’s assuming knowledge he can’t have.

In addition to that rhetorical fault, Gifford never uses the characters’ names in his column. It’s a way of diminishing them so that they don’t take on the dimensions of individuals: they have no names, so they can’t be people. Therefore we can’t attribute to them human characteristics and personalities. If they take on human dimensions, as Shaffer clearly intended—that’s what playwrights do—then we can see them as individuals not as whole classes of people. Dr. Dysart is one man, one doctor—not all psychiatrists or, worse, psychiatry the profession. Gifford goes further, though. He uses many loaded words, like “murky,” “spurious,” “pretension,” “Faustian,” and “pernicious,” to poison the well. He chooses words to describe Alan and Dysart that denigrate them, words Shaffer doesn’t use in the play. He calls Alan a “yokel,” “half-illiterate,” and a “stable boy”—all ways of dismissing him so we won’t empathize with him. The fact that Alan doesn’t read—though it’s not necessarily true that he can’t—and that he does work part time in a stable doesn’t alter the reality that this is diction intended to demean Alan so we won’t care about him as Dysart is supposed to have.

Gifford also writes of Alan’s “creativity,” styling the boy as an artist and calling his life a work of art, though that’s not how Shaffer characterizes his character. Though the dramatist has Dysart speak of the boy’s passion, Gifford seems to want to be sure we see the play’s psychiatrist as aggrandizing Alan, puffing up his significance, portraying him as a martyr. Shaffer doesn’t do that: he presents Alan as a boy trying to recapture his freedom to “gallop,” to live life with fervor. Here, Gifford writes of Alan’s “perverse passion for horses,” but it’s not his feelings for horses that Dysart envies; it’s the boy’s passion for living. And it’s not Alan’s passion that’s at the center of Equus; it’s Dysart’s. Gifford sets Alan up as a straw man so he can knock him down and appear to weaken Shaffer’s point. These tactics are why I said that Gifford’s objections are harder to dispute than Smith’s: she’s far more honest in her statements than Gifford is. Then, she’s a reporter—he’s a headshrinker. And he has the temerity to object to Shaffer’s having Dysart confess to using tricks!

Art and life aren’t supposed to be the same. Realism, the art style that is still the form of most Western theater, isn’t reality. Art may reflect life or be informed by reality, but it isn’t a replication of real life. Hell, if it were, we wouldn’t need artists at all. We’d only need a bunch of photocopiers and those Star Trek-type replicators and holodecks. Technicians would do the job. The result wouldn’t be art, of course, it’d be programming. Now, there are a lot of things about which someone can complain and criticize in a piece of art, including that it’s factually incorrect (though that one may be misguided, too, as Gifford’s objections to Equus suggest—though I don’t advocate outright lying, of course) or that the reality on which it comments isn’t worth the effort, or that it’s ineffective and meaningless, and so on. But I reject that it’s even legitimate to criticize an artwork because it’s not like reality. As if to make my point for me, Gabe McKinley, author of CQ/CX (see my report on ROT, 9 March), a fact-based play that recently ran at the Atlantic Theater Company, stated: “It’s important to remember that as a playwright, sometimes getting away from the facts, you actually get closer to the truth. . . . It’s not a historical document; it’s a play.” Playwright Logan didn’t want to recreate Rothko’s studio or the life that went on in it. He had something he wanted to say about relationships—specifically father-son relationships—and he found the character of Mark Rothko as he gleaned it, both from the painter’s art and from his biography, an apt vehicle through which to make his point. Shaffer wasn’t writing about the practice of psychiatry but the dilemma faced by one man when confronted by one situation. As in Amadeus, Shaffer’s looking at a crisis of the soul, a professional doubt so deep that it effects one person’s very being. The writers’ scripts aren’t reality—but they’re informed by reality and they make comments on reality. Reality as the playwrights see it and understand it—but that’s why they’re artists, not reporters or documentarists. There’s a difference, hard to define perhaps, between photography that’s intended to record and preserve and photography that’s art.

Maybe there’s an insoluble difficulty when practitioners in a field see plays about their profession. Not only do they know too much, sort of like jurors with special knowledge not shared by their fellow panelists, but they may suffer from tunnel vision. They may see the play as about the profession, and lose sight of the fact that the playwright is writing about the people. When I see plays (or movies and TV shows) about theater and acting, I spot all the inaccuracies and misrepresentations—a friend and I have been sharing some objections about the current series Smash which is about actors, singers, dancers, directors, producers, writers, and composers—but of course, those are seldom the point of the drama. Plays like The Royal Family, Light Up the Sky, Noises Off, A Life in the Theater, or The Dresser aren’t really about theater: they’re about the characters, their conflicts, and their interrelationships. Red isn’t about painting and Equus isn’t about psychotherapy. Since I think both plays are magnificent theater pieces, I can’t help but feel that Roberta Smith and Sanford Gifford, and others like them, have missed something wonderful because they misdirected their focus.

Reading Smith’s and Gifford’s columns, I couldn’t help wonder what someone with a reality fetish must make of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if you overlook 20th- and 21st-century knowledge and just focus on what folks in 16th- and 17th-century England would have known, his plays are chock full of breaches of reality. The Bard fudged a lot of what were even then known as facts to make dramatic points. The great Realist playwright, Henrik Ibsen, has all kinds of untruths in his plays. He believed, for instance, that moral transgressions will have physical repercussions—a bad life will give you cancer, say. He also believed that a child can inherit his father’s syphilis. No? Well, that dispenses with Doll House, Ghosts, and The Master Builder. Smith admits to having been “an art critic for longer than she cares to recall who before that held various small-time jobs around the art world.” How would she react, I wonder, if some dancer or choreographer wrote a criticism of one of Degas's paintings because it wasn't an accurate portrayal of a dance studio or a ballet class? Ridiculous! It's art, I’d imagine she’d cry, not real life! Precisely. QED.

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