On Reading about the 50th Anniversary production of
The Connection in the New York Times
Sadly, I'm very old fashioned in some ways. I'm a dumb guy who continues to pay a Big Phone Company for a . . . wait for it . . . a land line. Can you imagine? A friend calls up. My land line phone still connects to the wall via a wire, and the telephone receiver connects to the handset via another wire. My phone consists of wire connections.
As a person who stands in that bizarre equidistant land between college graduation and Social Security, I remember a world that doesn't exist anymore. On the one hand, that lost world regularly puts men on the moon and brings them home. On the other hand, in the rural Iowa of my youth telephone service probably means a "party" line. Most folks share telephone service on the same land line. (This isn't a premium service to encourage communication for isolated urbanites.)
So my friend calls up and asks, "What's new?"
That's the question for now. (To be or not to be is a question for chumps.) What's new?
When I took Theatre History in college, the pedagogical scheme utilized an evolutionary structure of continual improvements that bring us irrevocably to the outstanding theatre world of today in which we wonderful, broad-minded folks can delicately pick and choose amongst a wide array of periods and styles. Everything evolved step-by-step. Dithyrambs lead to the tragic chorus. Neo-classicism leads irrevocably to its antithesis in Romanticism. That scheme provided a facile narrative structure, but it didn't prove to be a very satisfactory explanation of the periods of supposedly static periods of lack of theatrical evolution. Nor the sudden appearance of genius like Shakespeare or Aeschylus.
Nevertheless we're stuck with the question of the new. What's new? In the arts what do we do with the avant-garde that's not so avant anymore? How do we deal with the contemporary work that comes after apost-modern era?
How many posts can we build on that fence to the future?
With my academic hat on, I've always had a fascination with history. Who are those folks? As Harry Truman fondly noted, "The only new thing in the world is the history you don't know." As a practicing theatre artist, I've always had a fascination with what's the next thing. Where will theatre go next? What element will take us forward? Where is the theatre artist who will get listed in the future Theatre History textbook chapter for this period?
My infantile desire to know the future (and probably help shape or mold the future) only obscures the more beneficial issue of how to deal with the new.
Recently my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York, New York. We saw modern art that just seemed dated. By contrast we saw some work by Vincent van Gogh that seemed as if the paint dried this morning. Which was newer – the neo-Cubist, Picasso wannabes of the mid-20th century or older 19th century Vincent?
When we think about the new in art, we tend to think in terms of forms and techniques and styles. I'm not certain that we think about the new in terms of content. In the theatre we can use all sorts of new techniques in writing plays and putting them on. Can we use a post-modern style of meta-narrative mixed with non-linearity of story? Sure. Why not? Can we use mixed media to achieve a designed space for the production to happen? Sure. How about holographic scenery as new as tomorrow's ablest computers can provide? You bet.
In the end, though, does the new technique connect an artist with an audience? Does the piece wind up explaining some part of the inexplicable experience of being human?
A British actor once noted that Henry Irving could stand tall under a Victorian proscenium and proclaim the eternal glories and strength of an empire that stretched across the globe. By contrast, today's actors are in world with a far more ambivalent view of Britain's place in the world. Consequently they may embrace a more ambivalent or "realistic" acting style than Irving might have embraced. So, for example, is David Tennant's Hamlet avant garde in a meaningful way compared to Irving's?
My own answer to my question is a guarded yes and no. The avant garde-ness comes from folks working to connect art with an audience.
(Hope your back is better, Mr. Tennant.)
As I write this I finish a day responding to a group of outstanding young actors who don't have much memory of a world before the 21st century competing to win a scholarship established by an actress who never saw the 21st century. They're the new one. They're the ones working to understand the tradition of acting that's as old as Sophocles dancing in Athens.
And they're charged with bringing characters to life long into a future yet to be seen.
Now that's avant garde.