Reflections On The Universal In Art
(reprinted from EPO June of 2002)
presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us
of the reality of the world and of ourselves, and while the intimacy of
a fully developed private life...will always greatly intensify and
enrich the whole scale of subjective emotions and private feelings, this
intensification will always come to pass at the expense of the reality
of the world and of men.
The author used to trouble theater directors with manuscripts. Some of them would politely return the work. Others would offer a a staged reading. In the labyrinth of contemporary American theater, it was not always possible to tell if this was because the gracious artistic director liked the play. It was not always wise to ask.
One piece, a story about how the son of a former Mayor gets the same position, Junior Gets a Job, which had some resonance with current events, employed one character, the boy's uncle, as kingmaker. There are charges of fraud and deceit from the competition. The boy denies everything. The uncle comes to his defense. The boy wins and gets elected. There was good laughter and fine applause from a pleasantly large reading audience. Afterwards, the actor who'd played Junior came up to me and broadly expressed what was apparently, by their nods, a common sentiment among the actors, of how clever I'd been to have the uncle be both the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Well, the author had planned no such thing and had been certain he'd written no such thing. The actors knew that; the artistic director knew that. A moment followed when the author replied: "The switch almost works now," he said; "I just need to make it absolutely clear why." "Great idea," said the director; "Smart," said the actor; "Uh-huh" said the stage manager.. The author didn't hear the rest -- just as well. You don't want to hear the offstage stuff, particularly when it involves dubious praise.
What the author had covered up (as the actors and director by their arch smiles) was a classic mistake-in-draft for a play, where the plot line had been momentarily confused and characters transposed. Presentation made what had been invisible into an obvious howler. That the unconscious model for that part of the plot might have been Courteline's hilarious Un Client Serieux, where prosecutor and defense attorney are the same man, and which the author had recently translated, seemed likely. But, hoping to keep his foot from deeper insertion into his mouth, the author said nothing further. Instead, he went home, chastened into paying closer attention, and, in the next week or two, reworked the script so that the uncle could plausibly be both prosecutor and defense attorney -- at least in the world of the play.
While such a view is in the shade at many universities, the example is a fine one of how universality is found in art. Notice that neither the actors nor the director wanted to change the characters, the plot, the details of place and time, nor the vaguely Texan diction of the play. All of these local specifics they understood and appreciated, even though not one haled from Texas, nor had any run for or held any office. Many were aware of a resonant pattern from the Kennedy and Bush families in politics, and of popular prejudices and opinions about that approach to public life. The reactions from the audience, particularly those not involved in theatrical production, were also telling. All of them lived in and many had been born in New York, a place where, despite residual familial strength in labor unions and neighborhoods, a least likely political scenario would be a child succeeding a parent in office. They still responded -- with laughter and applause, usually where the author and actors intended. What else is a common reaction but a quality of the universal in art?
If you look into a proven piece, such as the 16th century's Hamlet or the 20th century's Long Day's Journey Into Night, a beginning lit major might reasonably wonder why they're so widely performed, and in so many languages. Look at Hamlet's setting, a royal court with decisive national power. There are only one or two of those left in the world. Why would any modern be much concerned about a prince's distress about royal succession? Taken literally, it doesn't matter much to the prince if he's a king nor to anyone else. Taken metaphorically (after the fact) as a prince of business or politics, isn't that about merit these days, not blood? Or at least some variety of democratic approval?
Even in the post-Stalin days of the USSR, the Chairman of the party still had to seek approval from many people and organizations. And it's no news in business that if an eldest child of a business's principal owner can't cut it, he or she won't be the next Chair. The world of O'Neill's characters has become almost as profoundly remote as that of Hamlet: an aging road company actor living in a small-town, huge Victorian with a drug addict wife, an alcoholic for a son, and another son who wants to leave home. As a setting today, the aging Victorian, its lot now surrounded by a shopping mall and a tract development, has been knocked down for a split-level ranch; the wife is a physician in a local emergency room; the alcoholic son is in rehab; and the father, making a good living doing industrials for a drug company, has given the son who wanted to leave a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. And road company stars these days don't make a fortune (as O'Neill's father did more than a century ago); they tend to be either beginners doing their first real work or old stars keeping a foot in. And it doesn't end there.
The details and diction only add to the apparently remoteness of both plays. Whether the wordplay about the London theater in Hamlet, or the subjects of discussion between father and son in Long Day's..., or the peculiar diction and vocabulary of each -- without research it's hard to know exactly what they're talking about or why. Even the Harrison edition of Shakespeare, a popular academic version when the author was in school a very long time ago, had notes occupying a quarter of each page of plays. And yet, for some reason or other, both plays, intensely rooted in the time and place where they were written, are performed all over the world in dozens of languages and move audiences without notes. Hamlet has been available, in one edited version or another, for four hundred years. Long Day's Journey...has never gone out of print. There's something in these intensely local plays that appeals to an array of people that Shakespeare would not have known about and that O'Neill acknowledged only superficially. While one could make the excuse for opera that audiences only go for the music (arguable if one doesn't attend opera regularly), what excuse do the plays offer?
While it is hard to know what an audience's perceptions are, one can guess with Hamlet that the close detailing of plot and the intricate Elizabethan use of argumentation, persuasion, and metaphor frames a story that to a modern psychologist is the grand drama of adolescence -- the stage from which everyone leaps (or fails in the attempt) to adult life. In O'Neill's play, the early 20th century detailing frames less of a drama than a dramatic still-life, the same generational conflict blocked from fulfillment -- illuminating how failure to resolve that drama can devastate lives. And the ongoing battle between the father and Mary, his addicted wife and mother of the boys, has clearly fixated on her withdrawal from his tyranny into a dreamy existence of getting high. The details, unfamiliar, even in the relatively modern Long Day's Journey..., paradoxically create a glass held over a story familiar in a hundred different cultures. What would withholding them, in a faux universality, creating "timeless" stories without reference to locality, time and place, have done?
Henry Miller asked a related question of himself, watching a sleeping George Katsimbalis, the Greek poet and hedonist brought to light in the English-speaking world by Lawrence Durrell in the 1930's, and considered an important figure in the revival of Greek politics and culture before and after the Second World War.
I should smash your skull in now, would all be lost -- the music, the
narcotic vapors, the glissandos, the rugged parentheses, the priapic
snorts, the law of diminishing returns, the pebbles between stutters,
the shutters you pull down over naked crimes? If I bore you now with an
awl, here at the temple, will there come out with the blood a single
He doesn't have to answer. Art becomes universal, or perhaps part of the universe, when a writer's experience and imagination are shared. If the writer dies without doing this, the art is lost. If the writer chooses a living death, locking imagination and experience into an approved way of perceiving, whether that of the defunct Soviet Writers Congress, or of the current cults of speaking only of one's self (or material approved by the University Writers Congress), the art is lost. A closed mouth, whether a poet throwing poems in a drawer, or by another refusing to fill out the details beyond the poet's belly button, offers a universality more familiar to the dead.
Photo: George Katsimbalis is on the left