Merriam-Webster defines pretention as an aspiration or intention that may not reach fulfillment. What we call pretentious in day-to-day life, is often a person’s attempt at something bigger than the person is capable of achieving. The gap between the intent and execution is a visible, laughable failure.
(Fail again. Fail better.)
A child learning to walk is pretentious whenever she falls. Talking in a language one doesn’t speak well is pretentious. Saying “explicate” when one only knows the meaning of “explain” is pretentious, too. Volunteering for a job one has never done before is pretentious. April Wheeler is pretentious, and so is Synecdoche, NY.
What this equation doesn’t account for is that the path to success goes through failure. That pretention is a sign of hard work. (Let’s refer from calling it ambition. Ambition often takes the easy route.) The tragedy of April Wheeler is not, as has been implied, that she and her husband had no talents, but that they didn’t strive to develop what talent they had. To assume that our gifts are finite, and fully formed at birth, is to be blind in the face of reality: dyslexic writers, hoarse singers, women who divorce at 50, Eugene Ionesco, Rosalie Gascoigne. To admire talent that’s “fully formed”, and to condemn “pretentiousness”, goes hand in hand. To cut tall poppies is to look at the result without looking at the path, to fail to appreciate the work, to fail to appreciate the courage of working harder than necessary, of searching beyond what one knows, to look at art (person, country, act) as a thing, not as a part of a process.
Perfect, beautiful objects are everywhere: our world is littered with remaints of the past, achievements of history. We could import the past and make it anew until our ears are red, and we would be surrounded with beauty, just like we can surround ourselves with modern Provincian furniture in modern Georgian houses. There is no pretention there: there is only blissful refusal to work, to seek, to fail. (Even the aesthetic failure of the nouveaux riches is a path, a process, a failure that gets better with time. The refusal of a modern Georgian should not be confused with the learning stumble of the owner.)
In the theatre, the pretention of the hopeful theatre-goer (to be enlightened, to be inculturated, to feel and learn and think) will clash with the pretention of the hopeful theatre-maker (to shatter the form, to break the rules, to shock). Two types of courage clash, and there is nothing phillistine about that. Not until we condemn pretention.
What remains, in some strange magic-realist world, is the seasoned performer, on stage for the seasoned spectator, in an intimate duet only they know the rules for. Some sort of love. Safe, blind and aloof.