This weekend early copies of The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1957-1965, the third volume of four of the writer’s collected correspondence, were available at the Strand Book Store, a volume of great promise for those interested in the post-Godot work. During these years Beckett wrote both the play Play and the novel How It Is, the start of Beckett’s final creative period which produced the masterpieces of the third “trilogy,” Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho. The letters continue to reveal a generous and circumspect gentleman of letters, and in his letters to Barbara Bray, he begins to be far more open about his creative process. There are still surprises here (among them that Zero Mostel was a serious early contender for the lead role in Film).
My reading of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life had an immense effect on me and my critical and creative work about ten years ago, when I was able to pursue both more assiduously. I nodded to it when I named my own short-lived company “theatre minima,” and the influence of the Frankfurt School courses through my 2011 book of theory (if it can be called that) Word Made Flesh. “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” — this, the first sentence of Dialectic of Enlightenment, completed by Adorno and Max Horkheimer in 1944, underscored the feeling I’d had for years: that the same human spirit and consciousness that led to the highest accomplishments of art and science was also responsible for the death camps, the gulags, and, for that matter the videos released by Islamic State. The presentation of the corruption of this spirit, the close contemplation of that corruption, became for me the most important project that drama and theatre could possibly undertake in the early years of the twenty-first century.
So it was with no small pleasure that I read Alex Ross’s essay in the September 15, 2014, issue of The New Yorker, “The Naysayers: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the critique of pop culture”, this weekend. Engendered at least in part by a reading of Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’ new biography of Benjamin, Ross, a respected music critic, is especially keen to examine Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” “a masterpiece of contingent optimism that praises mass culture only insofar as mass culture advances radical politics,” as Ross describes it. Adorno’s reaction to the essay undermined Benjamin’s contingent optimism. Says Ross:
In a 1936 letter, Adorno complained that his friend had too cavalierly consigned bourgeois art to the “counter-revolutionary” category, failing to see that independent spirits — the likes of, say, Berg, Pablo Picasso, and Thomas Mann — could still carve out a space of expressive freedom. (Adorno believed that Benjamin was too much under the spell of Brecht, who appeared ready to cast highbrow forms on the rubbish heap.) Benjamin, Adorno said in his letter, had “startled art out of every one of its tabooed hiding places,” but he was in danger of falling under new illusions, romanticizing film and other pop forms. Adorno wrote, “If anything can be said to possess an auratic character now, it is precisely the film which does so, and to an extreme and highly suspect degree.” The cinema was the new Chartres, a venue of communal rapture.
This is an insight as profound as any found in Benjamin’s essay. Pop culture was acquiring its own cultic aspect, one neatly configured for technological dissemination. Why, after all, would the need for ritual subside when the economic system remained the same? (Benjamin once wrote, “Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.”) Celebrities were rising to the status of secular gods: publicity stills froze their faces in the manner of religious icons. Pop musicians elicited Dionysian screams as they danced across the altar of the stage. And their aura became, in a sense, even more magical: instead of drawing pilgrims from afar, the pop masterpiece is broadcast outward, to a captive world congregation. It radiates and saturates.
Those Islamic State videos — also infinitely reproducible in a digital age — radiate and saturate as well, just as other examples of terror porn have infiltrated public life. A recent advertising campaign for a TV show featured a worm crawling bloodily out of a human eye; this image was inescapable; you could find it on the sides of buses and on posters in subway stations. Nary a comment about this anywhere (and try explaining the image to pre-school children who ask just what it is). About ten years ago in Vienna I saw an advertising campaign that featured full-frontal male and female nudes for a museum exhibition, similarly displayed on the sides of trams and on billboards. I can only imagine the unhinged dithering such a campaign would engender in the US, whether New York City or Topeka.
“The philosophers, sociologists, and critics in the Frankfurt School orbit … are, indeed, having a modest resurgence,” Ross writes. A resurgence in the study of drama and theatre as well, maybe more than modest. Although most Frankfurt School critics focus on music when discussing the aesthetics of the movement, drama plays a not inconsiderable role in Frankfurt School aesthetics too. Benjamin’s essay was written under the influence of dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who was also a friend of Adorno; Peter Szondi wrote two monographs that placed drama and tragedy under the lens of Critical Theory (he also wrote a fine volume of essays about the poet Paul Celan); finally, Adorno’s last great work of criticism, Aesthetic Theory, published posthumously in a provisional version, was to have been dedicated to Samuel Beckett. The academy is coming around to the study of the Frankfurt School and theatre too, not least with the upcoming publication of Adorno and Performance, edited by Will Daddario and Karoline Gritzner. Another timely consideration is that of the auratic dimension of theatre — that the reproduction of an artwork mechanically or digitally undermines any elitist idea of the “aura” that surrounds the original work. Theatre it would seem by its nature is the most inherently auratic of the arts, necessitating that the spectator be at a certain place at a certain time to experience the work, but the recent mad rush to find ways to digitize theatre for wider dissemination and thereby dissolve this aura has come up with no better way to do it than the broadcast of the work on the Internet, in movie theatres via projects like National Theatre Live, or on television.
The relationship between philosophy and drama — and especially philosophers and dramatists — is important, but it’s also important to be careful in defining precise influence. British dramatist Howard Barker has cited Adorno as an important figure in his thinking; Richard Foreman frequently references Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, and Peter Kingsley in essays and interviews; and of course Beckett frequently re-read Schopenhauer over the course of his long life. It might be best to say that the work of these philosophers informed the work of the dramatists here; none of these three dramatists seek to stage the thoughts of the philosophers they reference, but these thoughts may be described as guiding stars in their own aesthetic thinking.
For myself, the Frankfurt School writer to whom I’m most sympathetic is Max Horkheimer, arguably the founder of the Critical Theory movement with his “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks for an Institute of Social Research,” the 1931 speech with which he took the chairmanship of the Institut für Sozialforschung; his postwar works, Eclipse of Reason and especially Critique of Instrumental Reason, reveal a close affinity with Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Closer readings of these works also somewhat contradict Ross’s statement that “The Frankfurt School’s indifference to race and gender is a conspicuous flaw”; see, for example, this excerpt from the Dialectic of Enlightenment; and there’s no doubt that the writings of Horkheimer and Adorno echo more loudly these days with the frightening recrudescence of anti-Semitism — my two daughters, by many legal, political, and theological definitions, are Jewish, while I am not. So I worry.
Few contemporary dramatists and playwrights read philosophy, alas — they are more likely to have deeper knowledge of video games and popular television series than they are of the body of Western metaphysical thinking. “These implacable voices should stay active in our minds,” Ross concludes (and he means those of Adorno and Benjamin, not Don Draper and Carrie Bradshaw). “Their dialectic of doubt prods us to pursue connections between what troubles us and what distracts us, to see the riven world behind the seamless screen. ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism': Benjamin’s great formula, as forceful as a Klieg light, should be fixed as steadily on pop culture, the ritual apparatus of American capitalism, as it has been on the art works of the European bourgeoisie. … Above all, these figures present a model for thinking differently, and not in the glib sense touted by Steve Jobs,” Ross concludes. The Frankfurt School has important lessons for our time. We can listen to them, or we can click away to Buzzfeed.
Ross’s complete essay for the New Yorker is available online here.
John Haynes is one of the greatest theatre photographers that I know of; his newly-redesigned Web site is home to many photographs and portraits that range across more than a half-century of British theatre, some of which (like the portraits of Beckett and Haynes’ documentations of plays by Edward Bond) have become emblems of an era when plays were written by and for adults rather than aging adolescents. I can also highly recommend his collections Images of Beckett and Taking the Stage. In the meantime, enjoy an hour or two browsing through some of these most stunning images of contemporary theatre; I’m grateful to Mr. Haynes for making them accessible to us.
Originally posted at Superfluities Redux in September 2010.
A play in one act by Clifford Odets. New York premiere: Longacre Theatre, 26 March 1935. Scenic design: Alexander Chertoff; produced by The Group Theatre, Inc.; directed by Sanford Meisner and Clifford Odets. Performed on a double-bill with Odets’ Till the Day I Die. With Abner Biberman, Russell Collins, Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan, Ruth Nelson, Clifford Odets and others. Closed July 1935 (144 performances; an additional 24 performances were produced at the Belasco Theatre in September 1935 in repertory with Awake and Sing). Text: Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays, New York: Grove Press, 1993. Includes introduction by Harold Clurman and preface by Clifford Odets.
In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well into his first term as President, and he was not yet “Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” The Depression had ignited considerable leftist (and rightist) political activity, an activity reflected in the popular culture as well, and the end of the Depression was still far in the future. Gregory LaCava’s very strange 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House suggested that the activist FDR administration might lead to a fascist dictatorship — a not necessarily unwelcome development, the film implied. The films of the Warner Bros. studios, along with a successful line of gangster pictures, included social-realist depictions of working class life as well, including They Drive by Night (Humphrey Bogart and George Raft as interstate truckers) and the 1932 Taxi!, with James Cagney and Loretta Young, in which Cagney tried to organize independent cab drivers into a union (and in which the Irish Cagney spoke Yiddish).
The New York taxicab industry is also at the center of Clifford Odets’ early Broadway play, Waiting for Lefty, produced in 1935. Set in a taxi union committee meeting room, the union leadership and the drivers themselves argue whether or not to call a strike. Six short free-standing scenes, performed by the drivers, demonstrate several instances of social injustice, some relating to the condition of the taxi drivers and others not (a chemist is asked by an industrialist to work on a poison gas project; an internist is fired from his job at a hospital when it is discovered that he is Jewish). The more activist members of the drivers union finally convince the rest of the drivers to strike for fairer wages, undermining the authority of the union leaders, themselves backed by guns and violent thugs.
Although ostensibly about a taxi drivers’ strike, the play through its Brechtian free-standing episodes argues for job actions in protest of the injustices exhibited by the owners, the union leadership and the government. As the union leadership paints the more extreme activists as “red boys,” a speaker says, “I ain’t a red boy one bit! Here I’m carryin’ a shrapnel that big I picked up in the war. And maybe I don’t know it when it rains! Don’t tell me red! You know what we are? The black and blue boys!” (6-7) But this ambivalence towards Socialism and Communism is not maintained throughout the play; a doctor caught in the mechanisms of the American health care system says, “I wanted to go to Russia. Last week I was thinking about it — the wonderful opportunity to do good work in their socialized medicine —” (28)
Interestingly, conformity in the status quo is also an indication of the lack of masculinity among the men of the play. In the first vignette, Joe’s wife taunts him with a variety of insults — “Who’s the man in the family, you or me?” (9) — and threatens to leave him for another man (11).
Though each of the vignettes displays one form or another of social injustice, the victims themselves inevitably decide to fight the injustice. Joe decides to “look up Lefty Costello,” another driver who had apparently been organizing a strike; the chemist punches the industrialist in the mouth (13); the internist decides to “study and work and learn my place” (29) — while earning his living as a taxi driver. And the play itself ends with the union membership triumphantly overruling its leadership. As a character named Agate Keller (played by Elia Kazan in the Broadway production) proclaims:
Hear it, boys, hear it? Hell, listen to me! Coast to coast! HELLO AMERICA! WE’RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS. WORKERS OF THE WORLD … OUR BONES AND BLOOD! And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We’ll die for what is right! put fruit trees where our ashes are! (To audience): Well, what’s the answer?
AGATE and OTHERS on Stage: AGAIN!
ALL: STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!! (Curtain) (31)
A similar revolution is called for in Till the Day I Die, a longer one-act play with which Waiting for Lefty was originally paired. The first American anti-Nazi drama, Till the Day I Die is set in Berlin in 1935, as an underground organization plots to overthrow the Nazi government; like the characters in Waiting for Lefty, they are tempted with various forms of collaboration; like those characters, they also decide to act decisively rather than accept the status quo. (Contemporary theatregoers would also hear echoes of Waiting for Lefty‘s condemnation of anti-Semitism in the dialogue of Till the Day I Die, drawing a subtle but explicit parallel between the cultures of Depression America and Nazi Germany.)
The romantic faith in social change through revolution is passionate in both plays, and as early examples of American agit-prop political theatre they display extraordinary anger. The dialogue is drawn from street language rather than the high-flown rhetoric of Robert Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Maxwell Anderson’s more self-consciously poetic dialogue, and there is a seeming interest in revising the form of social realism from Ibsenite representation to Brechtian “alienation” — three years before Our Town, the audience is presented at the start of the play with “a bare stage.” (5)
But the interest is only seeming. Odets would abandon this formal experimentation with his future plays, turning back to Ibsenite representation; Odets would grow to resemble Shaw, not Chekhov as critic Saul Maloff suggested, in his belief that the social realist stage could be exploited as an explicit avenue towards social change. One is caught up here in the question of the efficacy of the stage in provoking this revolutionary change, and Waiting for Lefty suggests that it is the form of theatrical performance itself, especially in its American flavor, that may render Waiting for Lefty and other agit-prop plays ultimately poor substitutes for social action. Although Waiting for Lefty ends with “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!”, it also ends only to be repeated again, night after night after night, the cultural form of theatre dependent on repeated performance. The emotional energies cathected in the performance and reception of the play, exemplified through collective appreciation in the form of applause, directs those energies that may be invested towards social change towards self-approval instead. Although the fictitious taxi drivers may be ready to take to the streets at 8.45, the performers and the audience are aware that the curtain will come down and that the very same play will end in the very same way the next day: always on the verge of action, always with the dream of good intentions, but somehow stuck in neutral, the theatrical form containing within itself the seeds of its failure to serve as an instrument of social change.
On Sunday, October 12, at 5.00pm, leading British pianist and Olivier Messiaen biographer Peter Hill will join Marilyn Nonken for performances of two of Messiaen’s works for piano: the epic 1943 Visions de l’Amen and the New York premiere of 1961’s La Fauvette Passerinette, discovered among Messiaen’s papers last year by Hill himself. The performance will take place at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street, in New York; tickets are $20 (with a two item minimum) and $15 (standing room).
The solo La Fauvette Passerinette was nearly complete when Messiaen abandoned it to concentrate on orchestral pieces. “The music shows considerable differences with the earlier Catalogue d’oiseaux, with the birdsong more richly harmonised and with a new sense of development, as the music of the main soloist, the sub-alpine warbler, transforms from the lively but lyrical interplay of the opening into a brilliant, almost jazzily-syncopated closing toccata,” according to the La Poisson Rouge Web page for the event. Hill will then be joined by Nonken for Visions: “The seven movements of Visions de l’Amen trace a trajectory from the nebulous pianissimo of the opening ‘Amen of Creation’ to the extraordinary brilliance of the final Amen, in which all creation is received into Paradise. This is one of Messiaen’s most spectacular works, taking in the rhythmical layering in the second Amen, inspired by planet Saturn, the ecstatic harmonies of the Amen of Desire, and the chorusing birds of the Amen of the Angels, Saints and birdsongs. The work ends with unforgettable virtuosity, Messiaen’s theme of creation surrounded by pealing bell chimes on piano 1, as the precious stones of the Apocalypse ‘chime, clash, dance, color and perfume the light of Life.’”
Marilyn Nonken recorded Visions de l’Amen with Sarah Rothenberg a few years ago; the New York Times said that the duo offered a “powerful performance … Ms. Nonken and Ms. Rothenberg … demonstrate a deep understanding of this shimmering, colorful score.” Below you’ll find Hill’s introduction to La Fauvette Passerinette, and below that, a sample of the Nonken/Rothenberg recording of Visions de l’Amen (you’ll need Spotify to listen to it). More information about the concert can be found here.