Theater, Dan Hodge muses, is an impermanent art form, and he stays up nights wondering why he labors so long to produce something so temporary.
He is directing Timon of Athens for PAC at Broad Street now and it is probably wonderful- I’ll be the second to speculate and respond without having yet seen it, as Adrienne Mackey has been railing against some inane reviews of the show this week, as well.
Hodge comes to the conclusion that to perform classic plays is to become part of a larger heritage. And it soothes him to step into that line of history and, although briefly, take hold of an heirloom handed through from Shakespeare’s time to ours, and then to pass it on.
I don’t find the idea quite as reassuring; I’m still wide awake at night.
Firstly, the fact that the classics have been transferred through so many decades in a long trans-temporal bucket brigade doesn’t mean, inherently, that the message bears repeating.
Works do not have intrinsic artistic value because they are old and well known, just as the fact that theater artists practice an ancient art form doesn’t give what we do inherent worth. Sure, we tend to act as though it does, tsk-ing over our beers that the philistines who don’t see our shows embody the downfall of culture, beauty and meaning. This petty sense of entitlement to an audience is something I hear a lot from colleagues in the theater, which is why I’m happy to know that there are sincere artists like Dan Hodge suffering from existential insomnia as they ponder the value of their work.
However, I don’t think “why do we do this work?” is the right question.
Most people don’t weigh the pros and cons and decide with grave caution to go into theater. Most, in my experience, are compelled. Any explanation for it is something developed to defend ourselves to other people who, not seeing the value, wonder why we would give ourselves to something that is neither lucrative nor lasting. But for the type of person who works in theater,’ for the love of it’ is often the most truthful response.
Yet, if theater is going to be any more than a niche experience for those who make it, the question that actually requires our asking is, “why should anyone come watch?”
Like Dan Hodge, I’m deep down and sleepless in the question of “why”. Not “why do I devote myself to something impermanent?” but ”where do I get off expecting anyone to give their time or their money to allow me to do it?”
If all that Timon of Athens is going to offer me as a viewer is a chance to be witness to some actors’ induction into a legacy, I don’t want to see it.
I don’t care very much about legacy. I don’t believe I owe Shakespeare anything, just like I don’t feel any responsibility to attend (or fund) the opera or ballet. These art forms provide a limited historical connection for the limited group whose birthright they are. History, in fact, tends to select and preserve what constitutes our precious cultural legacy with equal parts entitlement and randomness. Surely plenty of works of art aren’t around today because buildings burned, because the creators didn’t have wealthy patrons or because their tradition was oral, because the work offended a king, cardinal, viewer, reviewer or mom.
Is there truly value in filling in and sitting down to participate in the preservation of what managed to find favor and survive? If you have no personal investment in the history, it feels like a dry duty. No wonder Hodge fears that people see attending classical plays as taking their medicine. But in his hope that audiences will find a thrill and a challenge in the show, it’s clear that Shakespeare’s plays offer him, and all of us, something that has nothing to do with history, something that deserves the time and attention of a listener.
That which can be conjured by the incantation of a line of Shakespeare comes alive in an actor’s very ephemeral breath, drawn from the room where a group temporarily comprising the audience exhales. The value is in that brief moment belonging to the breathers, not in a new pinpoint they drop in the timeline of all exhalation.
This is a spell that can only be cast upon a listener who is present, in and only in a present moment. The script is just the instruction book for how to make the moment happen. And in that moment, if the charm is well cast, history and weight and legacy do not matter at all. The fact that it is temporary isn’t theater’s limitation; it is its sacred magic.
This is where the “why” is.
Not “why do I do it?” That’s a question for the people who never got you anyway.
Why should even those people be there to hear it?
That is the question.