Friday, April 09, 2004

More on Art and Politics

I thought I’d respond to George Hunka, Noah Smith and Dan Trujillo, all of whom have posted plenty of food for thought both on this site and outside of it.

The argument that I was trying to make (albeit not very well) is that you cannot escape politics, so you might as well embrace it and ask yourself a few political questions while examining your work. As Hunka points out via David Mamet, politics and political correctness can often get confused. To me, artists should ask themselves questions of representation. This matters because, as Mamet points out, telling the truth is one of the basic jobs of theater. How you represent people (And groups of people) on stage is an issue relating to telling the truth. At the same time, Mamet is right, getting bogged down in questions of representation is a pointless PC exercise that, at the end of the day, will keep you from doing any work. My problem with Mamet is not his representations of women, it’s the dramatic fall off in quality of his projects starting with Oleanna, in which he finally seems to embrace the reactionary within himself and get further isolated from anything real or true.

My example of Angels in America was not, perhaps, the best one to use. I was holding up Millennium Approaches as a good example of what is possible in terms of overt political conversations within a play. Why it works for me is that Louis and Belize have this intense political conversation that manages to illuminate them as characters and stay related to the dramatic and thematic events of the play. It’s a fairly Herculean task to try to do this, and I think Kushner deserves some kudos for it. It’s one of the reasons why Millennium works so well, Kushner manages to cram discussions of politics and a very real debate that is going on in the world into these characters’ mouths and make it believable.

The far better example from Kushner’s oevre would’ve actually been “Hydriotaphia or the Death of Sir Thomas Browne” but considering I’m one of 5 people I know who has ever read that play, I decided to ignore it in favor of Angels.

(I’m curious, George, as to why you “loathe” Tony Kushner. Is it his art, his politics or both? I think exploring why we dislike certain overtly political writers and like others would be a good way to guide the conversation. I love Kushner, although I don’t think him flawless. I think he writes bloated, messy madcap plays that contain enough moments of lyricism and clarity and real brilliance to keep them together, most of the time. “Bright Room” and the second half of “Homebody/Kabul” both suffer from a kind of didacticism and sloppiness that can occasionally intrude on his writing, but Hydriotaphia, Angels and Caroline Or Change are all wonderful and deeply moving theater pieces. And PS: I know Dan Trujillo and I both love Caryl Churchill, I was wondering what other people thought of her and why they thought it.)

And but so anyway… (to quote David F.W.) what is the place of politics in theater? Perhaps where this conversation is starting to go (especially via Noah’s highly entertaining post on this) is what is the writer’s job? What is the director’s? How do these two jobs relate to politics? I’m beginning to become of the opinion that the questions about politics and art change depending on what your role in the theatrical process is and what kind of play you’re doing. Certainly, politics is going to have a different place in Richard Foreman’s work than it is in, say, Neil Simon’s. It’s interesting that Foreman is so much a part of this conversation, considering his latest work. If one reads the reviews of Foreman’s “King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe” one will see a major debate: does the overt anti-Bush content finally ground a Foreman show in something beyond his own (often sexual) neuroses, or does it corrupt what is essential about Foreman’s work? I tend to come down on the former side rather than the latter. For me, this was the first Foreman show I saw that I can clearly say that I enjoyed (rather than learned a lot from, or I’m happy I had the experience of or whatever) because for once there was something approaching a point in his madcap world of funny noises and deadpan vaudeville.

Anyway, I also just wanted to briefly touch on Aristotle, since Noah brings him up in his posting on art and politics. Why are we so beholden to Aristotle? I understand that he’s an important voice, and I’ve read Poetics plenty of times, but he really isn’t the alpha and omega of what theater can be. He’s a guy advocating a specific vision of drama that didn’t really exist even in his own time, to fit a very specific cultural/religious function over two thousand years ago, and his writing on comedy is lost forever. Furthermore, audiences and artists both seem to hunger for the more ambiguous Euripides, who was the least Aristotelian (and least well liked) playwright of his age. To me, it’s like when I read critical essays written in the 1990’s and all they talk about is Freud, as if no one has bothered to try to understand the human mind since then, or like Freud solved everything and Hamlet really is an everyman only because he wants to bang his mother. In other words, his theories form the foundation of a kind of theater, but theater’s come a long long way since then, often in spite of Aristotle.

(Noah also has lots of good points about satire and getting audience to see theater, both conversations I definitely want to be having sometime in the near future here on Parabasis. As per usual, your thoughts are welcome in my lonely comments section.)

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