Saturday, November 28, 2015

800 Words: Wye Oak - In Praise of Bad Music

November 12th was the night that Wye Oak performed with the Baltimore Symphony at the Meyerhoff, and it what every orchestral concert in Baltimore should be. During the long happy hour in the lobby before the performance, there were moments when a knowledgeable musiclover might feel as though he was transported to the 19th century, when a classical concert meant something completely different, almost opposite, of what it means today.
All of musical Baltimore was there - every good musician in town, every bad musician, every musical connoisseur, every musical groupie, seemingly of all ages, seemingly all genres, all cliques, all rivals. It was not so much a musical event as a musical gathering. In the lobby you see a former colleague about whom you still have murder fantasies, and you both stand socializing in concentric social circles as you chat up a potential new musical colleague, and pray that she isn’t eavesdropping so she can tell him to run away screaming before it’s too late. When you get inside the hall, you see that twenty feet in front of you stands the friend with whom you’ve fallen in love and she’s with her new beau, and she has to pass by you to get her seat, so you both pretend not to notice each other. Every seat is of an equal price, and since thirty of your friends are there, you awkwardly keep walking around until you find one who has an open seat next to him.

In other words, it was exactly what every classical concert should be. All due praise to Rafaela Dreisen and the BSO marketing department for making it happen so brilliantly. It’s just a shame that the music sucked.

Wye Oak is in no way a bad band. Their music is a perfectly pleasant melding of bland folk music with bland electronica. There are so many bland bands out there with big dreams that only luck can explain why Wye Oak attracts a national following while two dozen local indie bands almost indistinguishable from them languish in the obscurity Wye Oak also deserves.

In fact, as music, Wye Oak is modestly good, if not more than that. They create moderately interesting harmonic progressions and draw nice sounds out of their instruments with a rich, full wall of sound that - unlike so many rock bands -  they seem willing to dial down into softness. Their lyrics, utterly inaudible until you look them up online, are the usual metaphysical nonsense. They’re mildly better than your mind’s generic idea of what an indie band sounds like, but no more than that. Like so many indie bands, the aesthetic is more important than the music - any potential emotional content in their songs are flattened so that highs and lows, happiness and sadness, seem nearly indistinguishable. What I think people respond to them is the insouciance of their music, a Britpop like emotional flatness in the face of life’s vicissitudes that lots of people mistaken for emotional resilience.

...Actually, that’s not a bad description of the Smalltimore crowd who clearly responds so well to Wye Oak’s musicmaking - ersatz rebellion and faux solidarity masquerading as emotional strength and political commitment in the face of the overwhelming poverty all around us. Even so, if you have to give people what they want, you could do worse than Wye Oak.
The truth is that classical music in its alleged Golden Age was no better than this. There are few people in any generation who go to concerts and museums and theaters for transcendent experiences, they go as a social outing to pass the time and meet up with friends. Until the emergence of Wagner, most 19th century concerts were not meant to be transcendent experiences, they were vehicles for virtuosic performers to perform showpieces by composers about whom we’ve completely forgotten. They were operettas full of the kind of light entertainment that seems completely old-fashioned and stuffy to most classical audiences of today, who prefer their opera with high doses of grim suffering.

As classical music got more and more serious, its audiences became correspondingly smaller and smaller. Life is hard enough, so many people reason, without being reminded of how difficult it is when all you want is to be entertained. You have to admit, they have a point…

Would that the concert was more entertaining. The dull music was interrupted by a number of painfully pompous commentaries upon it in the form of interviews between the WTMD DJ Alex Cortright and the BSO's assistant conductor Nicholas Hersch. The tone of these interviews was so stuffy that I wouldn't blame half the audience for never coming to the Meyerhoff ever again.

The set by Wye Oak was preceded by a piece by John Luther Adams, a composer whose newfound fame is probably because he has the same name as the much better and better known composer, John Adams. John Luther Adams’s piece, again, was perfectly pleasant without being at all distinguished - a generic piece of minimalism whose only distinguishing characteristic is that it was so slow. And yet, there was something in the music to which the audience clearly responded in a manner they never would to more obviously expressive music. Like Wye Oak, this extremely white audience is clearly stuck in music of forty years ago.

Minimalism is a very loose term, but by-and-large, it was an attempt by composers of the rock generation to take the throbbing rhythms and simple harmonic progressions of Rock music and make sophisticated compositional designs above it. Like the great Rock musicians, minimalist composers had (have) a fascination with Indian music and Buddhism that is both helpful and condescendingly simplistic in the way they worked the sounds of India into their music. Nevertheless, there was a period when minimalism was enormously exciting: in the 1970’s and 80’s, the minimalism of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams was some of the most exciting classical music written on our side of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, but minimalism has long since curdled into something much more stale - Philip Glass is still writing the same aural doodles he wrote forty years ago.

The real musical developments of today happen internationally in a movement even more loosly known as ‘polystylism’, which takes its cue from the Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke, who interpolated as many modern western techniques as he could get his hands on in the midst of Soviet repression. Just as every discovery in Schnittke’s world was like a musical earthquake that shook the foundations of what was possible in the Soviet Union, the most important recent development in music is the astonishing proliferation of global music we’re now able to listen to that is a mere Google or Spotify search away. The best composers currently operating at their peaks, 40-60 something composers like Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, James MacMillan, Michael Daugherty, Jorg Widmann, Thomas Ades, John Zorn, and a host of others, who skewer the music of the entire globe for their ideas and create music like a giant feast with fusion dishes comprised of ingredients from every country. Even the best musicians in Rock, musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Bjork, Radiohead (make your own list), know that the best musical material comes from our unique ability to listening to music from all around the world and all eras and incorporate the best of it into your own personal voice.

A concert comprised of Wye Oak and John Luther Adams is a concert that doesn’t take in anything like the astonishing diversity of modern art music. If this concert gave the audience a real sense of that diversity, they probably wouldn’t like what they heard nearly as much. For well over a hundred years, classical music burrowed itself further and further into its notions of integrity and art, and as a result, hardly anybody listens to classical music anymore. Perhaps what we need to survive is the same kind of bad music you get in every other genre. The music may suck, but at least it’s ‘our’ music and performing it will help orchestras survive into another generation. And who knows, maybe before long a few of the people who like Wye Oak might ay even learn to love Mahler or Jorg Widmann...

Friday, November 27, 2015

800 Words: What is Theater For?

I’m going to start this article with the most left-handed compliment I can think of. In my by no means expert opinion, two of the three best plays in the very small canon of American Theater are August Wilson’s two Pulitzer winning plays from the late 80s: Fences and The Piano Lesson.

It would be ludicrous to pretend that either of the two is close to flawless, and I can easily think of well over a dozen musicals I’d prefer watching to either that are better constructed, more entertaining, and more moving. Some of them aren’t even by Stephen Sondheim!

But the only other work of American ‘straight’ theater that strikes me as anything more profound, more affecting, more entertaining, more original, than that pair by Wilson is that hackneyed to the point of wholesome irrelevance play that every high school has mounted for seventy-five years: Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Our Town is a work of perfect balance. It uses the most bizarre, the most avant-garde, the most alienating grab bag of techniques the theater ever knew how to produce to give the most spiritual possible illumination to the ordinary, the banal.

America doesn’t do theater. Sure, every nerd acted in a few plays in high school, but very few of us have anything to do with theater thereafter. We are, literally, the country of movies and TV. There is almost no reason for an American theater to exist. The best plays, the few plays all cultured people still go out of their ways to see and read and remember, were all premiered by the early 60’s. A Long Day’s Journey into Night is most people’s choice for the ‘Great American Play’, and in America’s cultural memory, it’s a piece of the mid-50’s. But Eugene O’Neill wrote it by 1942 and only allowed it to be premiered after he died. He's fundamentally a playwright of the inter-war years when London, not New York, was still the center of the English-speaking theater. There’s no question that O’Neill’s a great American playwright, but there’s little that’s American about O'Neill. Both A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh could just as easily take place in Ireland as in America.

By 1947, Tennessee Williams wrote his two immortal plays - The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. He wrote a number of plays in the 50’s that could still join those other two in the ‘canon’, but everybody seems to agree that his last play that touches greatness is Night of the Iguana, which premiered in 1961. He spent his last twenty years as a sad drunken celebrity, celebrated for accomplishments that were a generation in the past but knowing that there's no way he could ever equal them again.

Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, The Crucible in 1953, A View from the Bridge in 1955. He went silent for ten years, during which he married, divorced, wrote screenplays for, and mourned, Marilyn Monroe. After A View from the Bridge, he lived another 50 years. He wrote many more plays as an older man, all of which were premiered with the best actors and directors in the best theaters on Broadway with extreme advance hype. Some of them did respectably well, yet everyone who hoped that Miller would once again speak with his old voice was disappointed.
Miller and Williams were both dinosaurs by the time they were fifty. When American movies were as good as they began to be in the late-60’s, there was no reason for theater to merit people’s attention. Year by year, more of the best talent went westward to California, and Broadway had the ‘leavings.’ During the first half of the century, if you wanted to understand America, you had to spend some time in New York or Chicago; but in the second half, you had to spend that time in the West.

In the following generations, if you were at gifted writer of dialogue, it was almost a given that you went into movies, not theater. A screenwriter doesn’t have nearly as much power as a playwright, but in today’s world, a successful screenwriter makes thousands of times more money and has an audience thousands of times as large. Even if the power dynamic between director and writer is reversed in movies, it is this very reversal which ensures that the director who interprets his work will be hundreds of times more competent than the directors who generally get their hands on a playwright’s work in the theater.

Generally speaking, to be a writer in contemporary America that devotes himself to the theater rather than film or TV, you either have to be one of three things: insane, mediocre, or of a specialty much narrower than an American. Arthur Miller understood what it meant to write plays that speak for the American everyman, but if you asked him to write about any other subject, he wouldn’t know how to do it. In an era when the world is dominated by niches, a work of art can’t plausibly presume to speak for everyone. 

In the generation after Williams and Miller, the dominant American playwright is unquestionably David Mamet. There’s no doubting that Mamet is a great playwright of a certain kind, but there’s something almost sociopathic about his plays. His plays are less considerations about human feelings and failings than they are elaborate mind puzzles which trap his characters inside a maze of suffering and rarely ask his audiences to feel anything but contempt for his case studies. It’s not surprising that as he draws closer to old age he’s become the textbook definition of a hectoring conservative. Mamet is also smart enough to do as much work in movies and TV as he does in theater, but even David Mamet hasn’t had an unqualified theatrical hit since Oleanna, his dangerous and ballsy 1992 examination of political correctness that would be picketed every day of a modern Broadway run. 

Edward Albee is also a great playwright, but he’s a playwright of narrow vision and focus, without much horizon beyond displays of great contempt for the rich Wasp class to which he still belongs. His last unqualified hit was 2002’s The Goat, which I had the great pleasure of seeing in 2004 London during only it’s second run with Jonathan Pryce and a very young Eddie Redmayne (though he’s exactly my age…). But great as Albee’s plays can be, they are as nasty and sadistic as Mamet’s and far less universal than Mamet’s in relatability. In the early 2000’s, he’d scored in The Goat, which was a hit because, like all his other hits, he sends up the taboos of rich intellectual WASPs, and he was only able to make a hit in the 2000’s by including bestiality. But even when the theme of the play is bestiality, it’s a miracle that Edward Albee could ever score a hit in the 21st century. He has about as much relevance to contemporary culture as a fainting couch.

Speaking of no relevance to American life, how is Neil Simon suddenly so unremembered and unloved? For thirty years, he was easily the most beloved playwright in America, portraying New Yorkers in a manner that made them instantly relateable outside the New York bubble in a manner Woody Allen’s movies never were. Nevertheless, like Woody Allen, Neil Simon represents a world that no longer exists; the world when New York was the center of culture, the world when plays were more important than movies; when Broadway connoted even more frision in people’s minds than Hollywood, the world when all the songs everybody knew came from Tin Pan Alley. For most people, Neil Simon’s main attraction was nostalgia for that era. In an era when people are finally too young to feel that nostalgia, his name suddenly disappeared. 

There are others who are also-rans at best. At this point, Sam Shepard hasn’t had a hit in nearly thirty years, and by now is as well remembered for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (itself not a particularly well-known movie) as he is for any of his plays. Tracy Letts is rather derivative, Christopher Durang’s popularity subsists on schtick that improv comics do every night, while John Patrick Shanley and David Auburn seem like one-hit wonders. I still haven’t seen anything by Horton Foote or Lanford Wilson, and I’ll be seeing my first Donald Margulies plays in a week or two (hopefully, more on them in the next issue). 

America is too diverse to ever be captured on anything so small as a stage. Modern theater, with all the lumbering history it carries within itself - is unfit for a stage as grand as America. Few in our visual age will ever accept a new playwright who flits as Shakespeare did from place to place in thirty seconds with only words to paint the scene. Few in our ironic age will ever accept a sincere attempt by a new playwright at Shakespearean flights of rhetoric. Few in our democratic age will ever accept the Greek idea that the most tragic figures must fall from a height. Few in our era of widespread creature comforts will ever accept the Ibsenite idea that every trip to the theater requires the audience to see a politically radical upending of society’s expectations (though that doesn’t stop today’s theater from trying...). These demands for scenery in place of language, for everyday characters no more articulate than the man on the street, for the continual flattery of traditional mores, makes for the kind of experience that renders drama as limp as Hamlet elocuted by Keanu Reeves. Drama requires use of language to describe the world rather than visuals, it needs grand mythical characters rather than everyday men and women, it needs radical tinkering with deeply held beliefs, and these are the most un-American choices an artist can make.

This is why the most interesting modern American dramatists are the ones who choose a very narrow focus within America. The distance which most of us have from narrow subjects is what makes us able to see the characters involved as people larger-than-life. August Wilson can write a character like Troy Maxson and in him we see not only a conflicted father and adult coping with the effects of extreme racism and abuse, but the eternal pain and dashed hopes of the entire Black experience in America. Tony Kushner can resurrect Roy Cohn from recent history, and in him we see thousands of years of homosexual self-loathing. Wendy Wasserstein can create Heidi Holland, and in her we see not just a naive girl in New York, but perhaps the first generation of women in world history with opportunities that begin to approach the opportunities of their male peers. In each of these cases, it’s the fact that most Americans can’t relate to the particulars of these characters that make them charismatic and compelling.  

But if you want to create a mythology for the whole of America rather than a small part of it, it’s almost a given that you can only do it with the immensity and flexibility of the modern screen. I recently found a list of the 100 greatest screenplays from the Writer’s Guild Association of America. Obviously, they needed to skew the list towards more contemporary movies to make people pay attention - it’s generally taken as a given that as special effects gradually subsumed movies, Hollywood screenplays gradually became more simple-minded just as Broadway did. By and large, that’s probably true, but look at this honor roll of screenplays from just the last 50 years they listed:
Chinatown, Annie Hall, Network, The Godfather (I & II), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction, Tootsie, The Shawshank Redemption, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, Fargo, The Usual Suspects, Midnight Cowboy, American Beauty, The Sting, When Harry Met Sally, Goodfellas, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Schindler’s List, The Sixth Sense, Broadcast News, All The President’s Men, Manhattan, Apocalypse Now, Back to the Future, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Ordinary People, LA Confidential, The Silence of the Lambs, Moonstruck, Jaws, Terms of Endearment, Jerry Maguire, ET, Star Wars, Dog Day Afternoon, The Lion in Winter, Thelma and Louise, Amadeus, Being John Malkovich, Raging Bull, Adaptation, Rocky, The Producers, Witness, Being There, Cool Hand Luke, The Princess Bride, Harold and Maude, Field of Dreams, Forrest Gump, Sideways, The Verdict, Do the Right Thing, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Wild Bunch, and Memento.

You don’t have to like, see, or even have heard of all these movies to notice the difference. It also doesn’t hurt this point to admit that a handful of these were written by professional playwrights, or that three of these were plays before they were movies. And yet, most of these, were they made 30-50 years earlier, would have been created to be plays, and most of them would make damn good ones. It’s probably only a matter of time before Broadway, so risk-averse by now that they fashion nearly every new musical from a hit movie, decides that if they can make musicals from movies, why can’t they make plays? Translating a screenplay to a play takes a lot less work than translating a screenplay into a musical.

There was a time, perhaps only a brief one, when it truly wasn’t like this. In the 1950’s, Small Town America, fresh from its ‘European excursion,’ had a real fling with culture. American young adults of the 1950s spent their adolescence in the 30’s, when they watched movies whose directors were European theater technicians, scored by eminent European composers, featuring villains played by eminent European actors. Many of them spent the 1940’s going on ‘trips’ to Europe, where they saw people living in situations which seemed to them of a deprivation and degradation unimaginable even to the most desperate throes of The Great Depression. These soldiers saw firsthand that culture and art was all which Europeans had to sustain themselves through a century of death. When the American soldiers returned, they had their own grief through which they had to process, and even Hollywood’s best movies of that period weren’t reliable guides through it. 

It would be another twenty-five years before movies as good as Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter could truly explore the full darkness of war. In the WWII Era and its aftermath, it was mostly in that European form: the Novel, that Americans could process what it meant to survive a war: just in mid-century America, we had A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Naked and the Dead, The Good Earth, The Thin Red Line, Johnny Tremain, Battle Cry, Catch-22, The Winds of War, The Caine Mutiny, Johnny Got His Gun, The Hunters, From Here to Eternity; a little later, we also had alternative, more actively pacifist, takes on war like Slaughterhouse Five. If you wanted to read international or classic fiction, you could also process war by reading War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Goodbye to All That, Gone with the Wind, The Quiet American, Homage to Catalonia, Doctor Zhivago, Empire of the Sun, Red Cavalry, Life and Fate, Journey to the End of the Night, Men at Arms, Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings,The Last of the Mohicans, Covenant with Death, Parade’s End, The Debacle, All three parts of Henry VI, The Aeneid, The Iliad, and the Peloponnesian Wars and so many others. Nevertheless, war is a canvas much too vast to be contained by the theater stage, even in Shakespeare, war was more often something almost incidental to the plots rather than central. If Shakespeare couldn’t do it, then there was no point when American theater had anything profound to say about something so consequential to life as mass death. Even so, American theater certainly benefitted from the renewed American attention to profundity.

There can’t be much more than half-a-dozen plays from this era that will still command a substantial audience in a hundred years, but when you combine the output of great plays we all love with the great novels of the period we still read, and the art we still look at with the musicals we listen to, you begin to realize that this era was glorious. Until now, it seems the best that ‘the arts’ will ever do in America, and it was completely over in less than twenty years. 

America is not a house made to shelter playwrights and novelists and composers and painters. Creativity incubated within the European model of solitary creation can’t possibly sustain itself in a country that demands a headline a week from its celebrities. There were literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young intellectual celebrities whose genius-level inspiration dried up by the Kennedy Assassination. The arts are a European plant which we attempted to put down on American soil - there was no way the plant was ever going to take root without substantial mutations. It is probably impossible to be a great artist and also be a modern celebrity. 

This is why the appearance of August Wilson is so encouraging. He’s no Shakespeare, and he doesn’t need to be. In 400 years, he’ll probably be considered a compelling but minor voice - of his ten plays from the “Pittsburgh Cycle”, his reputation’s truly only made from four of them: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences, and The Piano Lesson. Of those four, only the latter two seem to inspire genuine love in their audiences. When I saw Fences at Everyman Theater last week, I realized that it was as profoundly moving a play as anything I’ll ever see in a theater, but even so, it’s a play with very serious flaws. 

Rather than dramatizing Troy Maxson’s story, we simply hear about it in retrospect. The fight between father and son is circled around for so long that by the time we see how it happens, it’s almost anti-climactic - and perhaps it’s meant to be. A character as dominating as Troy Maxson requires that the wattage on all the other characters be turned down, but Wilson could have turned the theatrical screws still tighter by making Troy’s wife and son into legitimate counterweights with enough personal baggage that the outcome of psychological battles between them are not a foregone conclusion. 

And yet, when Troy Maxson describes his wrestling match with death, you can hear echoes within it from Jacob wrestling with the Angel to Gilgamesh wrestling with Enkidu, from Reverend Barbee’s sermon in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Martin Luther King’s Mountaintop speech. The isolation of Black culture from White American life means that Wilson can employ a heightened, Shakespeare-like form of Black rhetoric without sounding absurd to white ears. The effect is the kind of awesome sublimity that reminds you why some of us sit through mediocre production after production, hoping that once in a blue moon, we can experience a moment exactly like this.

Fences works because every family prosperous enough to afford a theater ticket has a man or woman as iconic as Troy Maxson - the all too vivid link to what your family was like when times, difficult as they may still be, were so much harder. Whether your family’s Troy had anything near as hard a life as Troy did, seeing Troy at this dramatic juncture is like seeing a home movie of a legendary but long-deceased grandparent with the full power of their personality scorching from the screen. Or remembering that iconic moment in your life when your most larger-than-life relative relates everything to you about what made him the person he was. It’s the work of oral history that every family can only wish for.

Within the universe of August Wilson is a reorientation from one kind of play to another. Ever since Ibsen and Strindberg, theater has been a refuge where political radicals can dramatize the social ills of society in a confrontational manner that forces the audience to reconsider everything about their place in the universe. 

The problem with this view of theater is that it views art as nothing more than a subordinate arm to social justice. Nevertheless, it’s a model that worked brilliantly for theater for a long, long time. While the great Russians - Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - bewitched the world with novels whose only limitation was the human imagination, the great Scandinavians - Ibsen and Strindberg - trapped audiences in their own living rooms and mercilessly showed them what was wrong with their lives. Was this use of theater as a didactic tool of any ultimate benefit to mankind… well… Who cares? What’s done is done. 

This model did, however, work as theater for a long time, because such questions of social justice are not just political. They force each of us to ask questions about the state of our own souls, our well-being, our place in the world and the universe. That, ultimately, is what any powerful work of art should be able to make us do. At least in that sense, history proved that social justice is a subordinate arm to art. 

But with every passing generation, that copy of Ibsen’s original revelation gets dimmer. We have long since realized as much as we’re ever going to that it’s wrong to trap women in the role of bourgeois housewife, and that modern society places impossible demands on families that require obscene dishonesty and hypocrisy to fulfill. Ibsen survives because we can all relate to the situations he describes, and our great-grandchildren will probably relate to them too. 

Politics is never far from art, and hopefully this ‘magazine’ will be a living testimony to that fact, but art is much larger than politics. Art is not simply a hammer to create the society we want to live in, it is, among many other things, a space where we can contemplate exactly what society we want to live in long and hard before we ever pick up that hammer. The saying allegedly goes: “Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.” Before we even agitate for any social change, we have to be as sure as humanly possible that the social change we long to see is the correct change.
This is why it is so crucial for us all to seek out artists who can render so specifically what it’s like to be a person whose experience is so different than your own - who can point out all those subtle places where their experiences are just like yours, and all those perhaps more obvious places where the experiences are 100% different. You can, perhaps, get this perspective by seeking out people who are different from you in your own life, but you can never truly be an outside observer to your own life. It is only through the balance sheet that great art brings us that we can get something resembling an objective view of what life is really like. 

You can’t separate art from politics, but you can separate politics from art. The truths art elicits are deeper and more elusive than anything that can be captured in any political ideology. Anyone who cares about art more than politics can immediately spot an artist whose first duty is to his creation as easily as we can spot a hack who uses art as a nail on which he can hang his message. It’s by art that we will acquire a deeper appreciation of the best way to approach politics, not the other way around. 

In 2015, David Mamet seems more and more like another dinosaur - his plays are a bit like Scorsese movies with a proscenium and without the violence. So now that Mamet has been put out to pasture, just about everybody who watches theater would agree that the two great recent playwrights who are still relevant are August Wilson, even though he’s been dead for ten years, and Tony Kushner.
Both Wilson and Kushner have long experience as political radicals. Perhaps the passion of their radicalism animated them to create what they did, but politics was not the point of what they wrote. The point of what they wrote was to humanize types of people who otherwise would have very little humanity in the eyes of your average upper-middle-class white theater audience.

Tony Kushner is THE playwright of our era. And yet he’s basically known for a single play, Angels in America, which was premiered twenty-two years ago. Granted, the play is actually three plays presented over two nights, but in some ways, there lies the problem. There is no questioning that Angels in America is a powerful work, but its power comes in spite of the fact that there are parts of it that seem almost unwatchably bad. He’s tried, twice, to replicate the success of Angels with similarly ambitious canvases, I’ve neither seen nor read either attempt, but both received mostly negative reviews. 

The problem with Angels in America is that politics keeps creeping in. It isn’t simply enough to portray Republican opponents as real people who perhaps have terribly mistaken beliefs. Instead, Kushner feels the need, over and over again, to sermonize against their beliefs, just in case we don’t get the message - as though this would come as any kind of provocation to your average theatergoer, who is liberal enough that they would agree with anything Kushner has to say about Republicans. When you add to this that Kushner uses the play to champion the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg, even though more evidence turns up of her guilt with every decade, this sermonizing turns into an unpardonable sin. In 2015, as Republicans become more and more insane, Angels in America seems more important than ever, perhaps even prophetic; but time and distance do weird things. In a few generations, nobody’s going to care about the political fights of our time, and these passages will probably feel as stale to us as Clifford Odets inveighing against capitalist robber barons during the Great Depression. 

Angels in America works not because of its political agenda but in spite of it. It works because of Kushner’s obviously deep familiarity with his subject. Just as August Wilson can capture the rhythms and flavor of what it means to be black, Tony Kushner can capture the rhythms and flavor of what it means to be gay. It works because of it humanizes gay people to liberal hypocrites who support gay rights in the abstract but judge the gay people in their own lives. 

And there lies the rub. At least in the cases of August Wilson and Tony Kushner, unlike the case of Arthur Miller, we encounter artists who clearly know whereof they speak. Both Wilson and Kushner understand from the inside how people like their characters think, how they talk, what they talk about, and what they do. Arthur Miller’s great strength is that he can write so generally that his ‘everymen’ feel mythical, as though they could be standins for you or I or anybody else. But Miller, for his considerable strengths, could never write Willy Loman as anything more specific than an American everyman, or Eddie Carbone as anything but the ‘boobus Americanus.’ So how much more out of place would he have felt had the world of letters demanded him to write more specifically about what it meant to be a New York Jewish immigrant as Henry Roth or Bernard Malamud did? If Arthur Miller had to spend his career peppering his plays with local color, his is a name we’d probably never hear.

If a writer tried to do what Arthur Miller did today, it would be risible. American experience in recent decades is so diverse that the only everyman that everybody agrees represents all of America is Homer Simpson - a badly drawn TV cartoon avatar whose only limit for the situations a writer can plausibly put him in is, once again, just the human imagination. 

Movies and TV have rendered theater almost irrelevant in America. As a way of rendering the entire American experience, there is no way theater can compete with them. In musical theater, Stephen Sondheim managed the trick, but only because of his deep familiarity with older, more Europe-influenced, forms of music theater - vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, classical music, and other such genres which hold no interest for his erstwhile successors. 

Until somebody figures out a way to continue Sondheim’s way of doing music theater, we’re still stuck with the diminishing returns of the Ibsen model - socially relevant dramas that take place in a living room. What we need in something as small as the theater is small subjects, and record all the minute details of life in very specific circumstances, and giving them the full attention and dignity they deserve. And by doing that, we can create something universal. The audience will see these people who appear so different from them, and experience the exact sort of mimesis Aristotle said that great tragedy should inspire in us. When we watch Troy Maxson, everybody sees own father. When we watch Louis Ironson, everybody sees their close cousin who mysteriously dropped out of their lives as an adult. When we watch Joe and Harper Pitt, everybody sees the couple next door with a husband who’s clearly trapped in the closet. When we watch Berniece or Lena Younger, everybody sees their own mother or grandmother whose unshakeable love and faith kept their families together. When we watch Boy Willie or Walter Younger, everybody feels their own desperation to prove ourselves to a world that conspires to make us fail. 

It’s only by recording the small subjects in front of our noses that today’s playwright can create anything universal. The more specific the subject, the more universal it gets. Everybody knows people like these characters, and by the audience seeing the similarities in these characters to people in their own lives, drama does, yet again, what art is supposed to do.

Monday, November 23, 2015

800 Words: Left in Dark Times: Liberalism and The Right Wing Left Wing, Paris, Beirut, ISIL, Bernard-Henri Levy, and America - F-K


  • 11,300,000 undocumented residents of the US.
  • 30,000 gun deaths a year and 300,000,000 privately owned guns.
  • 8,000,000 unemployed, another 5,500,000 also unemployed but not seeking work
  • Nearly $20,000,000,000,000 in debt.
  • 3,000 lobbyists merely to represent banks in Washington, accompanied by untold thousands of regulatory lawyers, research staffs, think tank analysts, and public relations firms, for which banks are paying untold billions of dollars to create favorable policies.
  • Americans consume 1,850,000,000 barrells (1 barrell = 42 gallons) a day, and have enough natural gas pipelines within its borders to cover the distance from the Earth to the Moon at last 7 times.
  • At least 7 lost nuclear weapons.

These are just some of the problems of America that could destroy the world…


“Isn’t America, for such people (who hate it pathologically), guilty of starving the world and of flooding it with its commodities? Of ruining the climate and of pillaging the planet’s resources? Isn’t it guilty of fighting terrorism and stirring it up? Of making war on Islamism after having encouraged and nourished it? Of being a country without a culture that is flooding the world with its culture? Of being the homeland of materialism that at the same time is the seat of a spiritual revolution that is as grotesque as it is fanatical? Of having been too late to enter the war against Hitler…--and, when it finally made up its mind, of using methods that could have been Hitler’s?...”

  • Bernard-Henri Levy - Left in Dark Time


“Far, far away, in the New World, a real place, not a dreamland or a paper construction--where, we’re told, people have come from every end of the earth, people with different skin colors, different languages, different histories and traditions, different gods, different heroes, have decided to come together, to agree on a contract and to gather in a nation--there is a country, America, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s project, that almost unthinkable doctrine that all people needed to do was make up their minds, then say it and swear to it, in order to create a political body left the skies and descended earthward, where it actually came to pass.

At first, nobody can believe it.

They say it’s so absurd that it can’t last.

It goes against the grain of things and it will necessarily fail.

They say, they repeat: it’s nothing, it’s ridiculous, a remake of Glaucon’s “City of Swine” in the Republic, an experiment, a flash in the pan--it will fall just as it rose, in a cloud of dust and a burst of laughter, once reality strikes.

But here we are.

Time goes by.

The experiment has staying power.

The country Renan thought was impertinent scoffs at the serious nations.

The impossible state becomes a power, a real one, that in 1898 declares war on a large European country, Spain, and wins.

The country on paper becomes a prosperous nation as well as a political actor of the first importance which intervenes once, and then again, in the affairs of Europe: and which, during World War II, saves it.

In the darkest hours of that dark age, moreover, while a whole segment of humanity is threatened with being washed away in the flood of Hitler’s hatred, that country becomes a a place of hospitality and asylum unequaled anywhere else on the planet, making the mocked, condescended to America a gigantic Noah’s ark.

Even better: while Husserl warned us in his Prague and Vienna lectures, the idea of Europe is about to sink utterly; while in Germany, from the heart of Europe, a regime claiming to unify the continent under its leadership is busily emptying that continent of its substance, amputating the best of itself, destroying its very soul, it is once again America, that supposedly “soulless” country, drunk on “materialism” and therefore “devoid of spirit,” which, in an extraordinary return, like that remainder of Israel that the biblical prophets said saved what it can from the times of catastrophe and holocaust, grabbed from the lames of nihilism the works, the books, what’s left of the libraries, the remains of the values and the people who will allow, when the time is right, to reignite the flame, the other one, the unconquered lights of the Europe of Husserl and Kant.

First, all those great minds--all those German and French Romantics, all those who were opposed to the spirit of the Enlightenment and of Rousseau--were terribly wrong, and the very fact of America--the reality of this nation made of men of different origins, of blacks and whites, of Europeans and non-Europeans, of Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Indians, Asians--is the living proof of their mistake.

Second, when traditional nations engage in the apparently unstoppable process of collective suicide; when the disaster is unleashed by those nations that ended up taking most seriously the “natural” and “anti-Enlightenment” program that had been opposed to America for two centuries; when neighboring nations, with their ancient ways of knowing and doing, with their heavy jaws and their bodies so nicely rooted in the supposed soil of their antique and collective history, throw up their hands in the face of the Beast, or frankly take his side, it’s the little, fragile, precarious upstart, the one we thought was so congenitally defective that it would hardly be able to walk without crutches--so you think it’s going to rush to someone else’s rescue!--that little upstart comes to our aid and saves us.

European anti-Americanism is born there.

From that humiliation.

Or, to put it more precisely, from a double and repeated humiliation.

First of all, more recently, from the classic resentment of the debtor toward his benefactor.”

  • BHL: Left in Dark Times


And here is where it gets tricky. Both Levy and his friend, the philosopher Pascal Bruckner describe Europe as suffering from a reverse Oedipus complex about America in which the mother loathes the child upon whom she’s become dependent.

Yet, in 2015, who hates who more? All throughout the American heartland, there are conservatives who loathe the social welfare programs upon which, by every statistical measurement, they are particularly dependent over all other American regions. They loathe the modern welfare state, which they see as a  of weak, fragile, decadent, European social democracy.

Modern European social democracy came in the 40’s and 50’s out of the success of Roosevelt’s New Deal; but Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs - the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, medicare, medicaid, Social Security reform, Job Corps, National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities - all these programs happened because of the demonstrable success of the European welfare states. In that sense, Western Europe is very much the mother of modern American welfare, and just as Western Europe resents its dependence on America, Middle America resents its dependence upon Western Europe.

This paradox is still more complicated by European hypocrisy. When considering the success of European social democracy, please remember these three things:

  1. These countries can be so extravagant in their social programs because they exist under the shield of American military might and its $670,000,000,000 per annum budget.
  2. It is comparatively easy to create the trust required for a functional a social welfare state in which nearly everyone shares the same ethnic background, history, and race. Europe took care of the racial problem that causes Americans’ mistrust of one another in the most grotesque way imaginable. The increasing presence of Muslims in Europe is eroding trust in the European social contract, and a full 20 percent of Europeans are already re-embracing incarnations of that old, extremely grotesque way to solve the same problem…
  3. Do I really need to remind anyone that when Europe’s military that oversaw the world, their record of conduct was not even as decent as the Americans?

This is an Oedipus complex in which each side is both parent and child!


If we toppled Saddam in Iraq just to have an unlimited oil supply, wouldn’t it have been easier just to make a deal with him?


...when John Le Carre tells us, in The Constant Gardener, how pharmaceutical laboratories are “white collar arms dealers, who, hidden away in their offices, are organizing genocide in Africa”, when Le Monde diplomatique writes, based on fragile at the least and sometimes frankly delirious evidence, how a company like Nestle, flagship of the Empire, is promoting--the better to sell its products--a baby formula it knows will easily kill a million and a half infants per year; when the same Monde diplomatique starts talking about Synarchism, a kind of Trilateral Commission, with its Platonic ideal of invisible “sentinels” watching over the interests of the “Triad” and exercising, in so doing, a power that is as total as it is “diffuse, opaque, and almost unfathomable”; when, added to this myth of the Trilateral Commission sinking its fangs into the planet, the better to dominate it, comes--in the same text and in others of the same ilk--the notion of a power that is limitless because it is completely hidden from view, belonging to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Aspen and Davos forums, or the Bilderberg Group; when, finally, the Iraq War, support for Israel, the idea of Turkey entering Europe--in a word, the entire foreign policy of the United States--can be explained by the secret agenda of a group of neoconservatives, who we take care, in passing, to mention, ever so gently, are mostly Jewish and have taken over the president’s brain, we’re on a completely different terrain. This is no longer analysis but magic. We’re no longer talking about concepts; we’re talking about the occult. We’re showing a world whose motor is no longer class struggle, creation of value, contradictory interests, or even the passions of men, but a game involving masks and hidden motives, a taste for disguises and the desire to see through them, the return of hidden imams, doublespeak, the false-bottomed suitcases of reality.... This huffing and puffing; this policeman-like approach; this obsession with manipulations, intoxications, and other disinformations; this desire to give their activists an explanation for the things that have been hidden since the disorganization of the world; this regime of coherence that is a bit too perfect, in which everything is hidden in everything else; and, on the other hand, this shadowy unity, this system of generalized correspondences… Anti-Americanism was the progressivism of the imbecile: will anti-imperialism become the conspiracy mongering of the major intellectuals?...

We see a world in which the masters of the Empire, their allies, their clients, are the bad guys--and the good guys are those who resist them, with arms if possible.

We see a world in which, on the one hand, we have the United States, its English poodle, its Israeli lackey--a three headed gorgon that commits all the sins in the world--and, on the other side, all those who, no matter what their crimes, their ideology, their treatment of their own minorities, their internal policies, their anti-Semitism and their racism, their disdain for women and homosexuals, their lack of press freedom and of any freedom whatsoever, are challenging the former.

What happens, then, when you’re not a member of this anti-Empire front?

Who are you if you aren’t Chavez, nor Ahmadinejad, nor Al Qaeda, nor even Fidel Castro…

What happens to you if you think, like a Burundian Tutsi, that the fantasy of Hutu Power, and not a scheme carried out by a Texas oilman, is the source of your problems? Or, like a survivor of the extermination of the Nuba, in the most distant corner of the Sudan, that it’s your uniqueness that singled you out for misfortune and explains the determination of the Islamist regime in Khartoum to get rid of you? What is your place in the world if you’re Sri Lankan and caught not between the forces of the Empire and the anti-Empire but--much more simply, and, unfortunately, prosaically--between the Tamil Tigers and the government army in Colombo? What happens to you if you’re Burmese, Tibetan, a Syrian Kurd, a Liberian? What’s to become of you if the disaster you’re dealing with has nothing to do with the evil of the Empire, its conspiracies, its plots--but everything to do with the corruption, for example, of a state apparatus, or of unscrupulous national elites?

Well, nothing.

You’re out of luck.

No right to complain, and therefore no right to survive….

You’re a hundred times less important, a thousand times less interesting to progressive consciences, who have much less reason to fret about your particular case than about, for example, a humiliated-Muslim-who-has-resorted-to-terrorism-in-response-to-that-humiliation.

That’s the problem.

That’s the crime of those who think that the Empire/anti-Empire division is the greatest question of the day and that the rest, everything else, has to be subordinate to it...

...some weak notions notions derive a potent energy from their very weakness; [this is] a real concept, a whole theory--a theorem, strictly speaking--which, together with anti-Americanism, hatred of Europe, and rejection of liberalism, might have a bright future ahead.

In any case, it’s certain that this is what the concept of Empire is about.

It’s certain that its only real function is to annihilate whole chapters of contemporary history, killing, one more time, millions of men and women, whose first crime was being born and whose second was dying the wrong way.

BHL: Left in Dark Times