A question of content
It seems to be a recurrent trend in the arts groups with which I am affiliated, that the artistic director decides that there are only three forms of play…
And maybe some nice safe suspense.
I find this sad and foolish for any number of reasons.
The first and more general being that while theater and opera both have a history of the humorous and the comedic, they also both have a fine history of the tragic. Shakesphere, just to name the numero uno luminary of all of theater, is actually far better know for his tragedies than for his comedic works. And let’s not leave out Isben, Kafka, or Miller either.
Opera is the same way – while Barber of Seville and Nozze Di Figaro are definitely core parts of the repertoire, so are Rigoletto and Tosca.
So for that matter, are movies.
But lately we have been seeing a lot less of the dark side of things; which is deeply ironic considering how dark our world really is. We have become shallower and more prone to escapist genres that allow us our happy endings.
But I find this a bit strange to say the least – originally the arts were a form of self study, a microcosm for the world where the elders or the betters attempted to teach the next generation how to deal with life more fully and rationally.
A good example was the prototypical commedia del arte with it’s archetypes, morals, and culturally relevant story lines. (By the way, the word “comedy”, originally meant “story” – hence Dante’s Divina Comedia, which is not even vaguely funny.) But more importantly they were balanced- some funny, some sad…all facets of life were duly represented and humans of the time were exposed to both Don Basilio’s butt and Hamlet’s soul. And we included stuff for every age – children to adults because societies are not made up strictly of any one age group.
Everyone learned to deal with everything. Our stories all originally had morals and those morals had to do with how to live life in the societies and cultures wherein they were told. And life is not always peaches and cream. Rarely is, in fact.
One reason that repertoire included more than just comedy was because realistic or tragic stories existed to demonstrate just how bad things were and are and also how much worse things could be in the hopes of creating an empathic bond with the “viewer” in the hopes that the viewer would then in some way aid in the solution to the problems presented. They served as warning signs of things that were wrong in a society – laugh at a tyrant and he is not so scary, he can be overthrown, know the victim’s suffering, feel their pain, and you are less likely to allow insanities like waterboarding to pass.
And the children’s lit genres existed to educate our children on how to behave in our society, and also in the rudiments of knowledge that allow societies to work – from “Thou shalt not kill” because the witches will get you, to we need Mr. Sun to make the plants grow so we don’t starve, Children’s theater has always served a legitimate function.
The arts used to serve as a moderator on our behavior, as comic relief to keep too much pressure from building and as a reminder that sometimes such pressure is necessary. That is why the first thing the wise dictator controlled were the artists and the educators. It’s why winners write the history books.
We don’t do that anymore – these days, stories have become parasitic rather than symbiotic. We now use them for three reasons only – positive propaganda, making the monied feel safe, and tame entertainment. The wade through the ocean of the soul of popular culture these days would barely get one’s feet wet.
Hence all the shallow, fluffy and meaningless art.
Now I have heard the argument that comedies and safe suspense (where you know whodunnit and can feel scared, just a little bit, without thought or real fear) are the bigger money draws. And I have seen the numbers that prove that this in no longer true. Well rounded venues make the most money – especially in a society where horror, dark fantasy, fantasy, and actual mysteries are making a comeback. I am not saying that art company should do only dark stuff, okay? That does not work either. It’s the balance that is critical.
Current studies in sociology and psychology have shown that the coming generation of people are feeling increasingly isolated and lonely and that the social activities curve is arching more and more toward group functions like social websites, group sports – especially soccer and football, interactive movies, concerts and so called activist groups. And we all also seeing increasing trends toward the supposedly more meaningful retro periods. We feel a need to belong and a need to make a difference with greater frequency. We want to belong… at least among younger participants (say 35yrs and down)…and that’s our audience, people…especially as the Boomers age, settle, and grow not just older but more rigid in their ways.
You want to make cash in the short term – do Beethoven’s 9th and Figaro every single season. The Boomers will love you because they love the familiar and the secure, but here’s a harsh reality, the Boomers are dying off.
You want to make money and make a difference in the long term – Hell, you want to exist in the long term- than present a full spectrum of broad ranging materials that will appeal to everyone from the Ivy Leaguer WASPs to the Steampunks. The idea is large audiences who will remember, not small ones who have had their insecurities quieted and will forget you the next day. Add into that a children’s venue and you bring in parents who want something to do with their kids, while cultivating a whole new batch of arts patrons.
So in short, there is more to art than mindless laughter, sex, and the timid shocks of the occasional profanity or shallow violence. We are holding a mirror up to Life – so let’s make it big and full and loud. And let’s make it accessible to everyone. For their benefit – and for our own.