Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Overheard on the El

A: What I love about living in Chicago is that every night of the week, interesting people are putting on interesting work.

B:  But you never go to anything! Nobody does! And when I go to things, there are only eight people in the audience!

A: True, but knowing that interesting people are putting on interesting shows helps motivate me to stay home and try to do interesting work.

B: So you can perform in an empty club? There is something wrong with your logic, but I can't put my finger on it.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Can this democracy be saved?

Ballet is an undemocratic art form, for which biological freaks are chosen from the general population, usually abused when young, and abandoned after they reach a certain age. The relationship between the audience and the dancer is subjugatory -- the dancer expands the awe-struck audience's understanding of the physiologically possible, but the fleeting temporality of a dancer's career is a reminder of the power structure that made the career possible.

Ballet started under the Bourbon domination of France, and it is the favorite art form of many authoritarian governments. Goebels made an exception for modern dance, and Leni Riefenstahl, as a former dancer, reconceptualized political rallies and sporting events as elaborate dance spectacles, in order to serve the Nazi cause.  The alternation between tightly choreographic group dances, with individuality subsumed into the broader organism, and the specific heroism of the individual dancers, naturally supports fascist belief systems, and it is unsurprising that Stalin famously used the ballet as an effective subjugational tool throughout his empire. 

While choreographed spectacle is fascistic, amateur theater -- shows performed by people acting from a genuine love of theater -- is probably the most democratic art form. The multifarious responses to theater are, by their nature, more ambiguous and less easily controlled than the emotions aroused by dance and spectacle. The dichotomy between spectacle and art puts spectacle at one pole -- with the goal of cowing people into submission -- and art -- wanting to elevate individuals into a sense of self-worth -- at the other. Dance and spectacle exist in a clear hierarchy -- one can almost mathematically measure a dancer's exact location on a precise spectrum of professionalism; whereas theater is sloppier, weirder and more generous. Even a High School play can sometimes connect its audience to their core emotions, but three people watching the same performance by a "world-class actor" can be in complete disagreement -- one might see farce, another was moved to tears, and the third was completely unaffected. Theater provides surprising pleasures in unexpected places, while spectacle and dance are more literally quantifiable: with spectacles, politicians get more "bang" for their "bucks" -- a docile and unified public, who know and accept their place.

The current mayor of Chicago, a classically trained ballet dancer, has been closing schools, libraries and mental health centers, but remains eager to spend civic money on dance festivals and spectacles, revranding Chicago as a global destination for a certain type of mindless entertainment. But the dialectic teaches that you cannot defeat the human need for balance. If you shut down schools and devalue education, people spontaneously arise and share whatever limited knowledge that has fallen into their hands. If you try to guide Chicagoans towards vacuous mass spectacles, they will naturally gravitate toward personal, thoughtprovoking and intimate experiences. If you tell people that they are only meaningful as a tiny shard in a giant mosaic, they will reflect on their individuality.

The Hypocrites performance of "All Our Tragic" at the Den Theater is a countervailing force, rising against the dehumanizing tendencies of both popular and avant-garde entertainment. The script forms about nine hours of drama -- a Gesamtkunstwerk combining elements of the 32 surviving Greek Tragedies into an extended history of the House of Atreus and the Seven Sisters, with music, food, costumes, and blood, lots of blood (absent from the preview that I attended, owing to equipment failure). A common criticism is that Hypocrites' "acting style" over-relies on Schtick, and some audience members dreaded the possibility of enduring twelve hours of knowing asides and silly voices. In this case, however, Schtick was more post-Brechtean Entfremdung than Clichee -- it repeatedly recalibrated the audience to approach the genuine emotion with fresh feelings, never numb and alienated from the horror and tragedy as the constant interjection of twenty-first century comic sensibilities repeatedly pulled them back into themselves, allowing them to return fresh attention back to the stage. Further, if we are conceptualizing "high art" in terms of social control, "schtick" is both egalitarian and anathema to high art, so it was a constant reminder of the democratizing "low art" possibilities of Greek Drama.

The performance could be summed up as Wagnerian ambitions serving a counter-Wagnerian agenda. From the chaos of Ancient Greek tragedy, Sean Graney finds a common thread of democratic hope, presenting the plays as an Athenian tool for contemplating their nature as humans and their duties as citizens. This is a fresh an interesting approach to the corpus of extant Greek tragedies, usually categorized in a Spenglerian descent from Aeschylus (contemplating the relationship between human will and the divine order), through Sophocles (contemplating the irreconcilability  of different ideals) to Euripides (contemplating the chaos and conflict between different psychological motivations): Graney presents them in thematic and rough chronological order of the mythological events in the plays, with the sequence closing on the guarded optimism of the final play in Aeschylus' Oresteia.

I left the theater hoping that we are not necessarily living in an age of existentialist Euripedean self-interest and psychological disintegration, but maybe we can still approach our politics with the hope and possibility of the Golden Age of Athens, utilizing art's healing power rather taking it as a narcotic to blot out the pain that we inflict on ourselves. Was that the intention of the director, costume designer, lighting crew, gore manager, actors, and sound designer? Probably not: They are creating an art work, with a perspectival take on almost a hundred archetypical characters, a day of theater which the audiences lucky enough to experience will be thinking about and debating for years to come.

So that was my take, but I encourage everybody lucky enough to be in Chicago for this show to see it for themselves.  If you are interested in humanity, culture, politics, society or even just want to meet some Chicagoans and theater people (the actors and staff democratically mingle with the patrons during the food breaks -- a day of food was included in the ticket price), you should go.