Avant Guarding

 

If you go to plays regularly, you know about talkbacks. Theatergoers, given a chance to speak to cast members after a performance, ask about role interpretation or simply gush. Rarely does a talkback become a squirmy affair, as it did recently at the Yale Rep.

The work that had just been performed was Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, reviewed so favorably (“terrific”) in the New York Times a few days earlier that tickets became scarce and anticipation ran high.

In this play, two couples share a last name and a dramatic fate that colors the action: The husbands have the same fatal illness. There is no traditional climax—just a moving along toward the inevitable.  But the play is a treasure trove of non-sequiturs. Eno creates dialogue that captures the way ordinary people speak, often resulting in an uncomfortable hilarity. In commenting on the playwright’s style, critic Charles Isherwood calls him “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”

At the talkback session, it seemed as if some of the Yale Rep audience, definitely not of the Jon Stewart generation, had not joined in the enthusiasm. Though one couple spoke glowingly of The Realistic Joneses—“We saw it Tuesday night and here we are back again”—a few in the crowd had advice for improving the work. Then a woman in the third row asked, in a confrontational tone, “Is this supposed to be a comedy or a tragedy?”

A member of the company explained that life is full of contradiction, and that’s what Eno addresses. To which the woman retorted, “Your explanation is not satisfactory.” Having paid her $77 for a senior matinee ticket she was, of course, entitled to her opinion, and it was brave of her to speak up. But her reaction suggests larger questions.

How, in Connecticut, do we view art that pushes us, that invites us beyond the familiar? Are we a creative, forward-thinking place, as we like to think we are or are we at heart provincial? One woman objecting to a new play can’t tell us much, any more than one patron in Hartford booing a new orchestral piece by Philip Glass (this happened in 1988, causing a major stir). But examining a longer cultural record may be more revealing.

There is no doubt that in the stereotype of our “land of steady habits” there is truth—as a culture, we prize the familiar. However, any definition of meaningful art must embrace newness, and add dimension to our experience. This has always been a confrontation waiting to happen. Those who take pride in Connecticut culture may point to the shining example of Danbury bandmaster Charles Ives. Yet though he is considered today the first of the great modernist composers, his work was largely shunned during his lifetime.

We may now boast about the tenure of Chick Austin, the bold director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art from 1927 to 1945. He had so many triumphs—the first American retrospective of Picasso’s work, staging the first opera with an all-black cast, bringing Balanchine to this country among them— that one critic called Hartford “the Athens of America.” That is, until Austin was fired for doing reckless things like paying the ungodly sum of $399 for a painting of mere lines by somebody named Mondrian.

“The Athens of America” became anything but in 1973 when then Mayor George Athanson showed his hostility to Alexander Calder’s new 50-foot-high sculpture “Stegosaurus,” constructed on the Burr Mall, by permanently keeping his City Hall office blinds drawn so that he wouldn’t have to look at it.

He was also among the many critics in 1977 when the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving commissioned the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre to create a new work across from the Atheneum, near the Ancient Burying Grounds. Andre excavated 36 large boulders from a Bristol quarry and assembled them in rows. “The Rocks,” as “Stone Field Sculpture” was popularly (or unpopularly) called, became a touchstone —a symbol, for many, of being hoodwinked (the work cost $87,000). Today, “Stone Field Sculpture” is among the most respected public art projects in the nation.

But then, who, in the end, is to judge worthiness? The critics, or those of us for whom art is created?

Many years ago, Wesleyan University hosted a reading by the Israeli-Arab poet Taha Muhammad Ali. In a poem titled “Twigs,” he writes of truths so basic that they get buried in a complicated world in which our instincts are also buried:

And so it has taken me 60 years to understand
That water is the finest drink
And bread the most delicious food
And that art is worthless unless
It plants a measure of splendor in peoples’ hearts.

Splendor, indeed, is what makes life worth all the trouble. But how do we know it when we see it or hear it or read it? How does the search for splendor affect the marketplace of ideas?    

Art and money are, of course, inseparable. Museum directors, theatrical producers, musicians and authors must keep in mind public tastes even as they try to introduce more challenging material—in short, the real stuff of art.

A few years ago, the Ivoryton Playhouse staged a powerful play about political prisoners. It drew poorly, and many patrons left at intermission. It is not possible, executive director Jacqueline Hubbard lamented later, for the Ivoryton to survive by being on the cutting edge. Yet it is a conundrum. Everyone complains that audiences are gray-haired, and asks how younger people can be attracted. But gray hairs are what keep these places open. And they tend to love the familiar.

Judging new work, even for those whose livelihoods depend on it, is not a science. Even experienced people can be wrong.

In 1964 a new musical played the Shubert in New Haven, long a testing ground for Broadway. After the opening performance, Sylvia Cooper, a ticket broker and founder of Show Bus Tours of Norwalk, wanted to know what fellow brokers thought of Fiddler on the Roof.

She had a lot riding on her decision regarding how many tickets to buy from the producers, so she asked one competitor for his opinion. Shaking his head, he said, “My son, who goes to Yale, says it’s too Jewish.” Later, Cooper was glad she didn’t listen to the “expert” but to her own heart.

These days we still have those who push us toward the unfamiliar: Yale Rep, Hartford Stage, Long Wharf and Real Art Ways among them. In June, New Haven hosted the 17th International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The event, to be sure, made certain there was a popular draw—Rosanne Cash. But it was just as interested in giving voice to the Imilonji Kantu Choral Society from South Africa, and the Yuval Ron Ensemble, which musically unites Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This is creative stuff—unfamiliar, yes, but offering the promise, as does all worthwhile art, of exultation.

There is a new slogan for Connecticut’s promotional efforts for the arts and tourism at the Department of Economic and Community Development (state support for the arts is now hidden beneath this inartistically titled bureaucracy). My question is this: Is “Still Revolutionary” simply a marketing line, or do we possess the will to make Connecticut, brimming with creative people, a place that genuinely encourages and cultivates new realms of beauty?
 

Avant Guarding

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