February 24, 2008

Flecks of Light, Points of Understanding, and the Gift of Sight: All Things Are Connected

Sunday in the Park with George, the work by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine about the painter Georges Seurat, occupies a very special place for me. Its concerns are certain of those that have been the focus of much of my own thinking, as well as of my work, for many years (when I was an actor in my twenties, for example, and writing now): the process of creation, the loneliness and obsession that are inevitably attendant upon that task, seeking for understanding and connection, and those blessed moments when we see something new, perhaps something that had never been imagined before -- until we imagined it.

Contemplation and analysis of such matters can become overintellectualized to the point of emotional atrophy. Such complaints are often leveled at Sondheim (usually unjustly, in my view), but I have greatly treasured Sunday in the Park for many years. More than a few moments in that show target my deepest emotions with high precision and reduce me to tears; I have wept for several minutes at the conclusions of both acts, even after watching the show many times. Witnessing the final realization of the creator's vision after a great struggle -- and in the case of notable achievement, it is always a struggle -- is almost certain to elicit a deep response from me. In discussions with others, I have learned I am far from alone in having these reactions. Unfortunately, I have never seen Sunday in the Park in the theater. But I have watched the performance of the original 1984 production, with the wondrous Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, on DVD, as you can.

Certain of these issues are mentioned in the New York Times review of a new production that has just opened. Ben Brantley describes it as a "glorious revival," and one original aspect of this latest incarnation sounds truly marvelous: "this production uses 21st-century technology to convey the vision of a 19th-century Pointillist to truly enchanting effect."

Brantley later explains this in more detail:
While the 1984 production used three-dimensional cut-outs to replicate Seurat's paintings, this one appears to draw those works — literally — into existence.

This approach allows the audience to envision the world as the George of the first act sees it, with landscapes and people, projected on scrims and small canvases, that alter as he sketches them on the island of La Grande Jatte, the scene of his most famous painting.


The look of the show feels like thought made visible, just as Mr. Sondheim's ravishing score, performed with gleaming delicacy by a five-member ensemble, seems made of painterly flecks of light and color.
Brantley then briefly explores these issues a bit more:
As a portrait of the artist as an embattled and rejected man "Sunday" has been read as a sort of apologia pro vita sua by Mr. Sondheim. Like his Seurat, Mr. Sondheim has been criticized for being chillingly cerebral and remote, for having, as the show's lyrics put it, "no life in his art."

No one could level such objections at this "Sunday," which celebrates both the bountiful chaos of life and the forms used to make sense of it. The musical's two Georges — the Seurat of the first act and his descendant of the second act, an American sculptor in the booming 1980s — keep telling themselves to connect.

This means not only connecting the dots, as it were, that turn disparate sensations into art. It also means building the bridges that, however briefly, allow someone else to see as you do.
And this is Brantley's conclusion, which explains part of my own reaction noted above:
That the second act ends as the first does, in a ravishing epiphany of artistic harmony, now feels more than ever like a loving benediction, bestowed by the show's creators on its audiences. Every member of those audiences, whether consciously or not, is struggling for such harmony in dealing with the mess of daily reality. How generous of this production — and it is the generosity of all great art — that it allows you, for a breathless few moments, to achieve that exquisite, elusive balance.
In crucial respects, this reminds me of a central theme in my essay several years ago about the supreme artistry of Maria Callas. In that piece, I excerpted Peter Conrad's wonderful discussion of Callas's art, and his description of Callas's "unsparing integrity." I then wrote:
This kind of "unsparing integrity" exacts a terrible toll. Yet when such demands are met, and Callas met them so often that the feat can only stagger us in its magnitude, the result is greatness of a kind we encounter only on very rare occasions in our lives -- and then, only if fortune favors us.

Callas was fully aware she was attempting a totality of musicianship, expressivity, acting and communication that can only be achieved at great cost. She transformed her body, precisely so that the physical embodiment would not betray the ideal. How could she portray a courtesan dying of consumption (in Traviata) or a fragile, virginal young girl (in La Sonnambula) if she were obese? She couldn't, so the weight was banished by an act of willpower. She had different rules for the purposes that engaged her, rules that were not ours: "Don't talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddamn rules." As Conrad explains above, those rules were applied most unforgivingly to herself.

Callas's art, and the manner in which the artistic demands she made of herself affected her life, often put me in mind of part of Victor Hugo's credo. Hugo, a magnificent writer whose work is sorely neglected today, wrote the following in 1827, in the preface to his play, Cromwell. That preface became the rallying cry of the Romantic movement in literature. But what Hugo said encompassed much more than literary matters -- it represented an entire perspective on human life and achievement, and a way of viewing the world and man's place in it:
[T]he modern muse will see things in a higher and broader light. It will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful, the grotesque on the reverse of the sublime, evil with good, darkness with light. It will ask itself if the narrow and relative sense of the artist should prevail over the infinite, absolute sense of the Creator; if it is for man to correct God; if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation; if art has the right to duplicate, so to speak, man, life, creation; if things will progress better when their muscles and their vigour have been taken from them; if, in short, to be incomplete is the best way to be harmonious. Then it is that, with its eyes fixed upon events that are both laughable and redoubtable, and under the influence of that spirit of Christian melancholy and philosophical criticism which we described a moment ago, poetry will take a great step, a decisive step, a step which, like the upheaval of an earthquake, will change the whole face of the intellectual world. It will set about doing as nature does, mingling in its creations—but without confounding them—darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime; in other words, the body and the soul, the beast and the intellect; for the starting-point of religion is always the starting-point of poetry. All things are connected.
For Callas, art at its peak had to express both darkness and light, the grotesque and the sublime: for her, too, "all things are connected."
On an impossibly smaller scale, some of these themes can be found in my writing. Before going on, I emphasize that it should not have to be said that it would never occur to me to compare my own work to that of a genius such as Callas, or to that of Alice Miller, whose heroic and pioneering work has inspired many of my articles (both past and upcoming). Such notions would be foolishly arrogant, and remarkably stupid. Here I am concerned only with what I see as an overall similarity in viewpoint -- or, as I said in characterizing the Hugo excerpt, a "perspective on human life and achievement, and a way of viewing the world and man's place in it..."

Hugo speaks of the interconnectedness of our experience, and Callas's artistry offers a series of embodiments of that idea, in portrayals of astonishing subtlety, complexity and emotional power. In the 1970s, I attended several of the master classes that Callas gave at the Juilliard School; many world-famous artists and musicians regularly went to them. We all knew this was an event of a kind we might never see again. I was lucky enough to be present at the class when a miracle occurred. Those classes offered many such moments, as do Callas's recordings. But there was one miracle in particular that no one in the audience that evening will ever forget, and it has already passed into legend.

Callas was working with a baritone on Rigoletto's great aria, "Cortigiani." Early in her career, Callas had performed the role of Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, and she made a marvelous recording of the opera. At this moment in the opera, Rigoletto's daughter has been abducted by the Duke's courtiers, and Rigoletto is desperately pleading for her release. The first part of the aria expresses Rigoletto's immense rage, and his denunciation of the men who took Gilda to deliver her to the Duke for his personal enjoyment. The dramatic genius of this scene lies in Victor Hugo's imagination, for it is his play (Le Roi S'Amuse) that the opera is based on. In his unending efforts to curry favor with the Duke he serves, Rigoletto has himself victimized many innocent people, those whom the Duke wished to destroy or from whom the Duke sought pleasures of various kinds. Now Rigoletto himself becomes the victim of cruelty identical to the kind he has inflicted on others numerous times. Because Rigoletto's daughter is the single pure and uncorrupted treasure of his life, the twist carries incommunicable pain. (It is the courtiers themselves, many of whom Rigoletto has mocked and derided and to whom Rigoletto has brought great misery, who abducted his daughter for revenge, believing Gilda to be his mistress. It is only in this scene that the courtiers learn she is his daughter.)

But Rigoletto's unbearable anguish is communicated through the drama, and through Verdi's music. Rigoletto's violent condemnation of the courtiers has no effect at all. The courtiers regard him with amused contempt and disdain, just as Rigoletto had regarded his own victims, including these same courtiers. Rigoletto realizes that he will have to beg to save his daughter. The moment of transition to the slower, more lyrical section of the aria occurs with the words, "Ebbene, piango" -- "Then, I will weep..."

Callas spent several minutes with the baritone on just those two words, building on her earlier comments about Rigoletto's psychology and his now violent emotions. She spoke of Rigoletto's hatred for the courtiers, of his frenzied fear about what has happened to his daughter, of his growing realization that the only hope for his daughter lies in his self-abasement before men he despises -- and his decision to beg, coupled with his hatred for the people who force him to do so. And Callas added one further, critical element: Rigoletto hates himself, for begging people for whom he has only contempt, for his past actions, for his understanding of the cruelty he has inflicted on others, an understanding gained at a terrible price, for the role he has played in creating a court society in which such cruelties are commonplace. He is consumed not only with loathing of that society and the others who inhabit it, but with self-loathing.

Callas explained all this, and then the miracle happened. In a voice that was almost completely destroyed and which now only existed in shreds, but which remained unique and immediately recognizable, she sang that phrase: "Ebbene, piango..." And every emotion that Callas had identified was in those two words; all of them and more were expressed in those few seconds. To this day, and having listened to numerous performances of this aria, I have never heard any baritone approach what Callas accomplished in that brief moment.

I gasped, as did many others in the audience. You could hear the gasps throughout the auditorium. I thought, as I know several hundred other people simultaneously thought: "Of course! Why didn't I ever imagine that before? Why didn't I understand that was the way it should be done, the way it must be done? Yes: I see." This is the same issue identified in the Times review of Sunday in the Park with George: making connections "that, however briefly, allow someone else to see as you do." With her unsurpassed artistic imagination and her great interpretative gifts, and with a voice now left in tatters, Callas allowed us to see what she saw. She shared the miracle with us, and gave us the gift of sight. Callas's art is an unending series of such miracles.

All acts of creation seek similar ends, whether the acts are of interpretative creation, of writing or musical composition, or of many other kinds. In the first instance, the artist or writer seeks to make his own vision real. His first audience is himself. For many creators, and certainly in the case of a supreme artist such as Maria Callas, that first audience is the most demanding. There are rare moments when such an artist will contemplate her creation and say: "Yes. That's ... right. I achieved almost exactly what I sought. I caught it." In certain respects, that is the greatest reward of all.

A few artists will paint or write and then put their creations under lock and key, never seeking and sometimes intentionally preventing anyone else from viewing them. But most artists and creators seek to offer their works to the world in some manner. We live with others, and some of our most meaningful moments arise in communication with other people. We form friendships and romantic relationships with those who make us feel especially well understood, and we hope to offer the same inestimable value to those we care for and love. We all are familiar with those moments of perfect understanding, when we know to a certainty that another person sees exactly what we see and views it in the same way. We value such moments beyond measure.

As I discussed in the earlier essay, and as was true for Victor Hugo, all things were connected for Callas. The particular color and weight of her voice, which she intentionally varied from role to role to suit her voice to the particular character, every musical inflection and emphasis, each choice in phrasing, the expression given to every word, the character's overall temperament as well as the very particularized dramatic truth of each moment, the composer's musical style and period, her physical gestures and the ways in which she held her body and moved in performance -- all of these elements were analyzed separately, and then combined into one indivisible whole. Each part was intricately woven into every other; when she performed, you were aware only of the totality of the musical and dramatic truth.

We are blessed to have a recorded document of Callas in a staged performance of Act II of Tosca. You can see all of what I have described in that miracle. The voice is in serious decline; only a year later, Callas would give her final performances in staged opera. Despite all the technical vocal problems and deficiencies, the miracle remains. You may need to make certain mental adjustments when you watch it. The performance is scaled for a large theater, not the camera. It may strike you as overdone at certain moments. But imagine sitting in a theater with a few thousand people, and alter your perspective accordingly. (I note that the direction and camera work for Tosca are adequate, but not much more. And why, including at some key dramatic moments, the director is not focused only on Callas's face shall forever remain a great mystery, and an aesthetic crime for which the director deserves severe punishment.)

One especially striking aspect of that performance is its seemingly complete spontaneity; moreover, Callas's performance is remarkable for its realism, which is additionally notable since Tosca is, after all, nineteenth-century melodrama. It is truly as if Tosca feels a wide range of emotions, including the most violent emotions, in this particular situation for the first time. It is as if all of it is happening at that very moment. Yet we know that Callas was meticulous in the preparation of every aspect of her performances; every movement was planned with great care. This was true not only because of the demands of Callas's artistic standards. Her eyesight was very poor, and she was sometimes close to blind on stage, particularly under the glare of stage lighting. So movements were occasionally measured in counted steps; she had to know exactly where she was going, and how many steps were required to get there. (Interestingly, for his legendary performance in My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison prepared in part almost exactly the same way, but not because of failing eyes. He spent hours alone in the theater, measuring precisely how many steps to take on certain lines in some of the songs. In effect, he choreographed a significant part of his role. In Callas's case, I note that even with this kind of preparation, she was open to improvisation, particularly with a colleague as gifted as Tito Gobbi in Tosca. Often, unplanned reactions and movements were incorporated into the staging when they were particularly effective.)

I hope you will watch Act II of Tosca in its entirety, and more than once. And watch the last eight or ten minutes of that act very carefully, beginning just before Scarpia's death. You see Tosca desperately searching Scarpia's room to find the safe conduct that will permit her and her lover to leave Rome, until she realizes with horror that it is clutched in the hand of Scarpia, the man she killed just moments before. You see Tosca desperately looking around the room to make certain she leaves no personal trace behind, and you hear her desperate, pathetic gasps and whimpers of terror at what she has done and what may yet happen to her, and as she observes the required religious rites for the dead man. If you do not believe that all of this is happening for the first time at that very moment, you are not watching the same performance I am. The same is true of Callas's performance throughout Act II, and in all of Tosca. (I know that, because I saw her last performance in the role at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on March 25, 1965. I stood in line for two days and two nights to get that ticket, and I would do it again tomorrow.) It is only a great artist who can prepare every aspect and every moment of a performance in minute and exquisite detail, and then erase all evidence of that preparation and leave the audience with only a superb re-creation of life being lived in every second, seemingly more real than life itself. Careful reading of press accounts of Callas's career establishes that Callas realized this miracle in almost all of her performances, in all her roles; her recordings prove the claim many times over. The vocal quality alone might vary, sometimes wildly in the last years; the musical and artistic imagination, commitment and vividness never did.

In my work, I write what I do in the first instance obviously because I view the subjects that I address in detail as of crucial importance. After many years of exploration, and investigation and consideration of numerous perspectives, the themes and ideas I now advance are those I think are true and that have unusual explanatory power. I note that I do not view these ideas as the final word on the relevant subjects, or anything close to the final word (which I further do not think is possible in that sense). I have learned the folly of such pronouncements through often painful experience. And those who have read me for several years, or who have looked through the archives, will see that many aspects of my thinking have altered and gone through various modifications over time. The changes I suggest in how we think and interact are those I believe are especially critical, if our culture and our world are to alter in ways that are more conducive to human happiness and fulfillment.

In somewhat the same way as described above -- and again, here I speak broadly only of the general issue involved and not at all about the nature or scale of the achievement, if any -- I view all of my writing as connected. The sanctity of an individual life is always my most fundamental concern. I frequently write about the immorality and criminality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, just as I write about the immorality and unforgivable nature of an attack on Iran in the present circumstances. With regard to an attack on Iran, the crucial nature of personal responsibility greatly concerns me, as do the specific means by which we could take action to avert such a catastrophe (which will remain entirely possible with a new Democratic administration, if it does not occur before Bush leaves office). I write about foreign policy (and developments within the U.S. of great significance) because of the supreme value of a single human life: these are the same issue for me, viewed from different perspectives.

The great heroism of a man such as Ehren Watada must be noted, and Watada helps us to understand the absolute necessity of saying No when one is ordered to perform a monstrous and evil act, such as torture or the murder of an individual who has never threatened you. The heroic actions of high school students who oppose our government's occupation of Iraq deserve to be heralded, and young people such as these, who teach us how to be adults, must be supported. These subjects matter to me because I view nothing as more sacred than an innocent person's life, and I am always searching for those individuals who act to protect that irreplaceable value. In the same way, I discuss the crucial need to resist evil and to break the rules, especially when those rules are purposely designed to stifle thought, vitality, truth, and even life itself. Another issue is closely related to that last: the necessity of considering when and how to withdraw one's support from a regime that is perpetrating evil.

Maria Callas's achievements are described in detail in some of my essays because her particular vision and her unending, passionate dedication to it constitute one of my most precious lodestars. It is a model that guides my own, minor efforts, it is a goal toward which I hesitantly dare to aspire, it provides the spiritual sustenance that fuels my own struggles. I write about Maria Callas because this is the only tribute I can offer her, and because doing so makes me profoundly happy.

Each of these subjects, and the others I write about, and every issue within those subjects raises its own problems and questions, and all of them must be analyzed separately. But finally, they all interact and they all inform each other: they all connect. That, at any rate, is the goal toward which I strive.

One aspect of creating in this manner is always exhilarating and more exciting than almost anything else I know, even when it scares you to death. The conclusion of one work is forever the beginning of another; the work once again begins anew. At the end of Sunday in the Park, the George of the 1980s reads from Dot's notebook of a century before, the notebook Dot used to learn how to read and write and in which she recorded her thoughts about Seurat. As George reads Dot's words, we hear at the play's conclusion:
White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite.

So many ... possibilities.
And so we conclude for now, and turn to another blank page.

So many possibilities...and perhaps, just perhaps, we will see something new.