God Bless Art

The saving power of theater in a global crisis

Photo by Johan VogelThe flag flies everywhere, even in the hearts and minds of Hollywood producers. An all-engulfing jingoism is fast devouring the nation, and I, for one, recoil from it. It's times such as these, with much of the world rattled by strife and stiffened by fear, that literary and artistic concerns—rather than serving as diversions—should become primary activities.

The theater has been dealing with thorny issues since its inception. For example, we know that what prompted Euripedes to write The Trojan Women was not so much the losses in Troy but the Athenian invasion of Melos. Melos was a small, self-sufficient island that, as a result of its refusal to join the Athenian alliance against Sparta, was overrun, starved and thoroughly appropriated by Athens in 416 B.C. Men who surrendered were put to death; women and children were sold into slavery. When The Trojan Women was performed in Athens after one year, it was clear to every Athenian that its message concerned the massacres at Melos; it presumably gave that nation's citizens pause. The war with Sparta, against which Melos had vainly resisted, ended shortly afterward in the total collapse of Athenian civilization.

Sophocles' Oedipus Rex begins with the question, "Why is a plague ravaging Thebes?" During the course of Oedipus' investigation into this horror, he discovers the answer: he himself, having unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother, is the cause of all catastrophes. Oedipus is a hero for us, not because he gouges out his eyes and discovers unbearable personal tragedies, but because he has the courage to doggedly pursue this knowledge in the first place.

Such theater still resonates. In 1943, in a Paris occupied by the Nazis, Sophocles' Antigone resurfaced in a new version by Jean Anouilh. Seemingly unaware of art's power to reveal through concealment, the occupying Germans didn't feel threatened by Antigone's defiance of a totalitarian bureaucracy that prevented her from burying her dead brother. But every Frenchman in the audience perceived the parallel to their national situation, and they came in record-breaking numbers. The Germans, uneasy, without fully understanding the threat, instinctively closed the play.

In the present jittery circumstances, I would propose Julius Caesar, not so much because of its preoccupation with assassination but because of one of the questions it raises: What is the appropriate response to political terror? Is it Cassius's willingness to fight evil with evil? Or Brutus's struggle to balance tyranny with measured resistance? Brutus is swept up in the counterterror, and the result is "havoc" that "let slip the dogs of war"—total dissolution of the state. In our crisis, Caesar might probe the ways in which vengeance further corrupts the body politic.

"Universality is a fundamental attribute of the artistic transformation," wrote Robert Cohen, and "the true artist always perceives in the immediate condition implications that are unbounded in space and time." By presenting us with a ritualization of suffering, by projecting those feelings of "terror and pity," we gain a perspective that helps us deal with terror and pity in our own lives; God knows we have an abundance of both at the moment. Gaining uncluttered insight into our own current situation is ultimately more reassuring than festooning our homes and cars with Old Glory or singing "God Bless America." The higher patriotism in any country comes from enlightened citizens who refuse to be lured into mind-deadening platitudes. The heat of international crises cries out for cool-headed analysis, ways of doping out the philosophic subtext beneath the furor of partisan passions; to reduce unwieldy abstractions such as God, Nation, Right and Wrong into the lucid paradigms one encounters in the works of Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen, Brecht, Durrenmatt, Frisch, Sartre and others.

The theater is not the United Nations General Assembly; I'm not suggesting that overwhelming international crises can be solved by actors and playwrights. But I contend that behind every great national crisis, there is a conjunction of philosophical strands that have somehow gotten crossed, and one useful way of uncrossing them is to delve into parallel crises that are found—microcosmically—in art. Rather than lose ourselves in art, we should try to use the creative accomplishments of the past 2,500 years to find our way. Such a path produces a sensation a hundred times more satisfying than escape. You might call it knowledge.

Marowitz is a director and critic whose latest books appear this month—Stage Dust: A Critic's Cultural Scrapbook from the 1990s (Scarecrow Press) andRoar of the Canon: Kott & Marowitz on Shakespeare (Applause Books). His last article for theWeekly detailed life inside the Cal State Long Beach acting program.
 
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