via Chris Wilkinson on the Guardian theatre blog: Scott Walters posted the text of a lecture he delivered to theatre students, a lecture on Tony Kushner, the sorry state of the education they’re receiving, and how undergraduate art majors should be abolished. His (and Kushner’s) words resonate with me so much that I am not only linking to the post, but reporting it word by word here.
If you remember, I was once accused of not having any right to write about theatre because I had studied geography – and I found that arrow missing the target so much that I never bothered rebutting. Oh yes, I had studied theatre! I had studied drama extensively in my general Croatian education, reading Beckett and Brecht and Shakespeare and not learning anything about theatre; but also, more importantly, I had studied philosophy and history and literature and geography and sociology and psychology there. And then, at Melbourne University, I did a number of theatre subjects and passed with flying colours, but I didn’t think getting a major was a worthwhile pursuit. Why? Because theatre studies were populated with students who didn’t seem to have two working brain cells to rub together: students who barely read even the plays we were required to, who had not even the minimal knowledge necessary to put those plays in (socio-culturo-historical-psychological) context. I remember (I will never forget) a student trying to answer a question about the political context of Mother Courage:
“Well… it was written in 1930… so that was after World War II…
Or, reading Hedda Gabler and finding out that theatre students were not able to name social classes, as in: aristocracy, clergy, working, and so forth. Not now, let alone in the 19th-century Kristiania. I was so dismayed by that conversation, I who had been reading performance scholarship just to catch up on all I might had missed by not studying theatre in my early undergraduate years, that I never bothered to major in theatre. I would argue, instead, that my education in geography and urban planning has probably equipped me better for writing about theatre. Because it has, at least, kept my brain cells alive.
But, with no further ado, here is Scott Walters’s lecture (follow the link to leave comments directly):
Lecture on Tony Kushner
This is a lecture I will be delivering in one of my classes today
I’ve gotten to thinking lately about this class. To me, our discussions seem sort of superficial — l ike we’re not really engaged in any decent way with the material. And I think it’s my fault: Somehow, the questions I am asking, or the attitude I am bringing to class, is not asking you to dig in and find the really interesting stuff.
This bothers me because I have a very strong sense of what plays are for: that we, as human beings, create stories not simply to “kill time,” but as a way of making our ideas about life more easily remembered. So while we can laugh and joke about, say, Phaedra’s mother having sex with the bull, the underlying message is about uncontrolled passion. It is trying to explain how people seem to “lose their mind” when they are suddenly obsessed with a person or an idea.
Playwrights only write plays about things that are on the minds of the audience. If nobody was struggling with passion versus social duty, then the story wouldn’t be compelling. So this tells us about the French society. It is the same issue being wrestled with in The Cid. And, in a different way, it is the same issue being wrestled with in The Misanthrope. It is Aristotle’s question “how are we to live?”
If you are a Jansenist, as Racine once was; if you are a Jansenist who abandoned your religion for the theatre; if you are a Jansenist who has many affairs, especially with women in the theatre; If you are a Jansenist who gives the same play to Moliere and his competition; if you are a Jansenist who, in order to get back to a respectable life, may have poisoned your mistress… Then suddenly Pahedra isn’t just an academic exercise, it is the story of your life! .The desire for an inappropriate partner. How do you DEAL with that? You WANT to do the right thing. but you don’t seem to be able to control yourself.
There’s a book by Jonathan Haidt, a U of VA psychologist, called The Happiness Hypothesis. In it, Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant. Any time the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.
The fact that this theme – the struggle between the Rider and the Elephant – is happening in a society completely committed to the dominance of the Rider, to the dominance of Reason, is no accident. These are serious questions: how can I control this Elephant???
As I got to thinking about this, I was reminded of a lecture I gave a couple of times when I was angry at my students. Now, I’m not in the least bit angry with this class, so I haven’t been tempted to deliver this tirade to you. But as I read my notes, I thought: this is good stuff – this is stuff that you guys ought to hear! And truth be told, when I delivered these lectures in the past when I was angry at the students, it was hard for them to hear what I was saying because it sounded like I was just yelling at them. Sort of like that Far Side cartoon of a pet owner yelling at his dog in one box, and what the dog hears in the other: “blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger.” So I decided that you should hear this lecture, and hear it at a time when you aren’t in trouble! hope you’ll be able to hear the message, because it is something I am passionate about. And I hope you will have questions or comments for me afterwards. Ready?
I was angry with you Monday.Partly that was the onset of a migraine, but mainly it was frustration at your lack of interest: how will you keep other people interested in your work if you are so little interested in it yourself? And also your lack of respect – not of me, but of the art form that you want to be a part of. And I was angry at my own inability to communicate the reason why that respect, and why enormous effort and knowledge and wisdom, is necessary.
Monday before class I was reading playwright Tony Kushner’s impassioned speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education that was published under the title “A Modest Proposal” in the January 1998 American Theatre. How many of you have ever read American Theatre? How many of you have ever read an issue cover to cover, not just an article or two? Well, in “A Modest Proposal,” Kushner stands in front of thousands of college theatre teachers from across the United States in 1997 – I was there to hear it — and says that he thinks that all undergraduate arts majors should be eliminated, and instead students should receive a liberal arts education. I want to read a large chunk of this speech to you, because Tony Kushner is one of the most interesting artists we have today, and because what he wrote connects to why I was angry – in fact, may have caused why I was angry.
I was reading this essay before class, and I was beating myself up over the simple-minded vocationalism of this class, where I teach you a few measly techniques for taking apart plays. And I got here and started asking questions, and it became instantly clear that many of you hadn’t even bothered to read the damn chapter. To hell with Aristotle, Brecht, Hegel, Marx, and Kristeva – you didn’t even want to read seven lousy pages of Walters and Pritner.
And then when I took you over to the library, most of you wandered around aimlessly because – oh my God! — there were other people on the computers. Standing there amidst almost a million books, most of you sat around waiting for a turn to use the computers. Why didn’t you browse? Why didn’t you know, through repeated use, exactly where you could find books about August Wilson or theatre criticism? And then some of you told me, with a mixture of bewilderment and pride, that you hadn’t been in the library for a long time, or that you didn’t like to come to the library, or you grumpily told me that you already knew how to use the library. Then why aren’t you reading? Why aren’t you cramming your head full of knowledge – all kinds of knowledge: history, philosophy, art, music, political science, feminist criticism. Do you think that what you know right now is enough to justify allowing you to use, even for one second, one of the most powerful tools known to humanity: a theatre? What makes you think that you have anything worth saying to anybody else
In one of my gen ed classes, I asked the students if I offered them a diploma for which they wouldn’t have to come to class, would they take it? Half of the students said yes. Explain that to me. Explain why anybody is so damned anxious to become an unthinking cog in the capitalist machinery that they would willingly give up their one chance to actually learn something that might make the world a more interesting place in which to live. Why are they so proud of their ignorance?
I can’t answer these questions. All I can do is say, loudly and with all the passion I can muster, that if you want to be an artist, if you want to be allowed to play with the powerful tool of the theatre, then you damn well better have something interesting to say. I don’t care how many good performances or effective designs your create while you are here, as long as you can’t think in any but the most superficial way, I have failed. As long as you don’t regularly go to the library and check out books just because you are curious, I have failed. As long as you would rather play video games than learn something that might illuminate a little corner of the world to you, I have failed. And I hate failing, because when I fail, it means YOU have failed, and the theatre will continue to be a wasteland of musicals made from movies and TV shows, and plays that are the equivalent of a post-meal belch.
I agree with Kushner: all undergraduate arts majors should be abolished, if by undergraduate arts majors we mean vocational training. On Friday, we will have a departmental post-mortem to discuss our most recent production, and what is the question that is most on everybody’s mind? Was it a good show? Did we do a good job? Did we think the set “worked”? Did we believe the acting? But nobody is going to talk about what the play said, and whether we actually believe what it said. Nobody is going to talk about how that message applies to us, and whether it is something we should take seriously. Nobody is going to talk about whether our community needed to see this play.
Because we don’t care. All we care about is how many butts are in the seats, and whether they applaud at the end. The arts, including literature, including the teaching of the arts in elementary and secondary school, are suffering because the artists and teachers don’t think anymore, and they don’t ask their students to think anymore.
If you want evidence of the vapidity of the world of theatre and film, watch Inside the Actors Studio any week it is on. The actors are charming, they are well meaning, and they can sometimes talk about their own work a little bit, but most of them have no ability to place their work within a context, to explain why their work is important to the society in which we live, to refer to other important works of art. And just what the hell do Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck, and Jude Law have to say about acting that we need to hear, much less about the arts? And if you need more evidence of the vacuousness of this show, think about the resounding idiocy of the portentous host’s, James Lipton’s, final questions
+ What is your favorite word?
+ What is your least favorite word?
+ What turns you on?
+ What turns you off?
+ What sound do you love?
+ What sound do you hate?
+ What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
+ What profession would you like not to participate in?
+ If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
These are narcissistic parlor games that any idiot can play. How can we go in front of a Congress that is filled with philistine idiots who want to cut arts funding and make a case for our importance when what we do is so insipid and shallow that we can’t defend it?
Now is the time for you to engage with ideas, to learn to think, and to actually DO some thinking and some talking and some arguing. You can’t say, after seeing a play by Samuel Beckett, one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, “Well, wasn’t THAT uplifting.” You should be struck down by a bolt of artistic lightning from the sky for saying that. You can’t sit there like a petulant teenager pouting about having to be in by midnight. This is your education – do you really think you have nothing left to learn? You can’t sit there without making an attempt to think, to feel.
Because if you want to be a major in drama or in literature, you need to care. It isn’t that you have to like Beckett or Pirandello or O’Neill or Ibsen. It is that you have to open up your mind, open up your heart, open up your gut. You have to OPEN UP. And THINK about it – what it means, why it is in this anthology, what it is saying and how it applies to your life. And you have to do that not just in this class, but in all your other classes: in Humanities, in Political Science, in Biology, in Sociology. So that when you do a play, write a novel, teach a student, raise a child – you have something profound to contribute, something that gives you the right to read that book, do that play, teach that student, raise that child.
W. H Auden once said that “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.” You must become worthy of reading a great play. You must bring something to the table.
In the play Look Back in Anger – the play that started the revolution in the English theatre in 1956 – the playwright John Osborne has his angry young protagonist cry “Oh heavens how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! I’m alive! I’ve an idea.” Me too.Yes, you are tired – we are all tired. But I have news for you: this is as rested as you will ever get. Once you get out of here and are working a job to put food in your mouth and a roof over your head, and you’re trying to create art in your spare time, you will be much more tired than this. And that is what it is to be an adult. How will you keep your imagination alive? How will you keep yourself inspired? How will you keep yourself creative? And how will you justify the effort that it takes to do that unless you have a reason for being an artist, a purpose for doing a play or writing a novel, a reason for being???
And so I ask you to start now, to start today. Show a little ordinary enthusiasm. Open up. THINK. ARGUE. QUESTION. If you feel angry about what I have said, ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. If you agree with what I’ve said ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. Form your own ideas, but form them within some context and with some rigor. Tony Kushner is right: you are a big-headed hominid that caused your mother a lot of pain trying to pass that huge cranium out – you owe it to her to use that brain thoroughly and completely.
With what time is left, I want to do two things: I want you to question me, argue with me, think with me about some of the things I said, and Kushner said; and then I want you to question each other, argue with each other, think with each other – in this class, or outside of class when we run out of time.