Quote of the Week with Bonus Explication!
“Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Right after Reagan died, I wrote a little (oh who am I kidding, a lengthy!) post about the force-feeding in meaning that is happening in this country. To recap briefly: I argued that meaning was being manufactured on two levels, both a quantity level (“we will all remember what we were doing when we heard Reagan died”) and a quality level (“everyone loved him. Our nation is in mourning”).
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea lately—about the manufacturing of meaning and why it is such a problem. Here’s some reasons: first, it’s authoritarian. What could be more dictatorial, more restrictive of our freedom than instructing us that there is only one way to interpret the world, and furthermore what exactly that way is? Second, it’s anxiety-inducing when you find yourself incapable of having the reaction everyone else expects you to have. Third, it’s alienating to have your reactions and interpretations mapped out for you in advance. Even if you would have those reactions and interpretations anyway, there’s always a part of you that will realize that you’re being programmed to have this response. Fourth, it turns everything into advertising. In his truly brilliant essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, David Foster Wallace writes about this very problem. While talking about the Manufacturing of Meaning done by a Frank Conroy essay in a cruise ship brochure, he suddenly launches into a tirade on how the difference between art and advertising is that art wants to give you something and advertising wants something from you. At first, the two seem unrelated, but in fact they go hand in hand. Dictating the meaning (quantity and quality) to you is the first step in getting something else out of you—your continued viewership, for example, or your vote on Super Tuesday.
I’ve been thinking about this Meaning Problem in both art and politics. I think the political instances are pretty damn obvious, because it’s so pervasive that our political landscape resembles nothing so much as a highway littered with billboard signs telling us that we’ll be sexier, livelier, smarter, more meaningful if only we agreed with this person or that person or voted for a party captivated by military/oil interests instead of a party captivated by finance interests. When George W. Bush said yesterday that the 9/11 Commission report didn’t contradict his claims that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked he wasn’t just protecting himself—he was re-mis-interpreting the report’s meaning, telling us not only that its meaning didn’t contradict him (when in fact it did) but that it wasn’t particularly meaningful or worthy of our attention because of this lack of argument.
Let me move away from politics to art, for a second. As a director, I am very cautious about dictating meaning to my audience. This puts me in a tricky situation. part of the director’s job is to help sherpa the audience through the landscape of the play. At the same time, telling your audience too much is infantilizing and reduces your audience to mere consumers instead of having a conversation with them. In other words, it turns your art into advertising. You are, in effect, demanding the audience have a specific reaction in order to get something from them-- their interest, their applause, their good reviews-- usually the reaction is something that will make them feel good about themselves. Creating a piece that allows the audience room to think and move and have their own reactions is a more interesting, human goal. At the same time, it’s an incredibly unsettling experience, because audiences will surprise you. Navigating the river that runs between anarchy and authoritarianism with your audience is a difficult, never ending learning experience.
Ambiguity is not the only strength of theater. I believe, however, in this age where film and TV have won the war for audience share and won it decisively, it’s time for us to think about what it is about theater that makes it theatrical. One of these things is ambiguity. One of them is live-ness. One of them is textual stylistic experimentation. One of them is anti-naturalism. One of them is flesh-and-blood humanity. Does this mean there’s no room for realism, or artificiality or even (gasp!) unambiguous moments on stage? Sure, but let us try to advocate in our work and our words for boldly theatrical theater, instead of overpriced live films and art as advertisement. Let’s challenge our audience by engaging with them instead of dictating to them. This, I believe, is the only way theater can survive.
(also, check out George Hunka's thoughts on the necessity of ambiguity in theater. I disagree with his swipes at Kushner and Wellman, but he has some additional thoughts on the subject you might find interesting.)