There are two things I find disconcerting about the arts nowadays. One is that many of us have become very well trained consumers of the arts. We know perfection and are keenly able to point out imperfections. And we pay good money to have them not be be there. Whether it’s a movie, a song, a video, a picture or a play, we know how they’re done and we know how they should be done. And even though I can spot flaws and failings a mile away, as well as the best of them, I am learning to not indulge myself too much. I’ve tried to create good art myself, and have found that even achieving mediocrity requires great effort. And so I’ve come to be turned off by knit picking criticisms of other people’s hard work.
The other thing about the arts these days that I find disconcerting is that it’s almost the norm now that artists of all kinds have a bottomless pit of creative and thoughtful ideas about life to present to us, but very rarely are they able to present us with situations of conflict and give us equally creative, thoughtful and workable, let alone satisfying resolutions. Often the ending of a conflict between people, or the conflict within a character is at best left ambiguous, without comment, or at worst we are shown how bad behavior brings bad consequences and someone, or everyone dramatically and spectacularly dies in the end.
I more than suppose this a postmodern mindset. Although there may be a narrative going on we don’t really know where it’s going, or if it’s really going anywhere anyway and so we’re unable to end our stories. As if maybe there are no resolutions. Just endless creative presentations about cruel justice and how ironic and funny life can be.
“Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School for Orphaned and Afflicted Girls Presents Jane Eyre” is a recent London example of this phenomenon and I was able to attend the final performance. In this play we are presented with an array of young girls and one young man who are physically, intellectually and emotionally damaged beyond repair. They are tasked with being actors in a theatrical presentation of Jane Eyre. The purpose being the Head Mistress’ attempt to make them attractive to potential parents. We witness the final dress rehearsal. The entertainment, the drama and humor we enjoy is these people’s inability to pretend to be people they aren’t. At least part of the problem that landed this tragic group in Mrs. Ballyshannon’s School in the first place is their inability to adequately separate fact and fiction. In other words, they can’t “act”. They are constantly challenged to find ways around not being able to physically or personally do what their characters require of them. Actors speak their lines to other actors who can’t respond in character and so take the lines personally. A crippled actor on crutches is required to dance, and can’t. And one wonderful display of this is when the sole male character Hans can’t speak the lines of his “character” Rochester without constantly interrupting himself to remind us that it is his character and not him who is saying these things. That this is not how he himself really feels. It is all very engaging and entertaining.
The layering of a play about a play about a book being performed by people who can only display their own real stories was a complex undertaking and was by and large successfully executed. The dialogue is very well written, and all the actors are “in character” all the time. This was one of the best features of the play. At any given time you could focus on any number of the nine actors on stage and be engaged. Even while interacting with each other, everyone was in their own world. This gave the play an underlying sense of chaos and and loneliness as it really would have been. And at the time this was very believable and impressive to watch.
Then, the story, and the story within it abruptly concluded when the characters, no wait, the actors… whatever, when everyone lost complete control of candles being used as props and both projects went up in flames. During all this the most “insane” character, who was caged during most of the story, having been set free, tears off her clothes and leaps into the arms of the wheel chair bound “director”. (Yes, even the Head Mistress, Mrs. Ballyshannon herself, was crippled and afflicted). Lights out.
I left the theater to the recorded sounds of a flaming inferno and went back to my real life. And what was my take away? I suppose I could just give kudos for a good production and move on. Or I suppose I could analyze it all in an art context, with some thoughtful criticism of oppressive Victorian morality and consider how and if the 21st century world has changed in any significant way. Or something along those lines. But the play itself, in true postmodern fashion, offered me no comment or
even a potentially workable conclusion.
And that’s my problem. I have to see the play not only in it’s own artistic context, but in the larger context of the purpose of art in my life. I have, quite frankly, partaken of far too much art that presents a picture of life to me with the postmodern message “No comment” as a conclusion. That’s not enough anymore. It’s an all too conventional cop out, and has become tedious. Much great art does more than that and much good art at least tries. Don’t get me wrong. This play was one of the best written and performed plays I have ever seen in London. And it lingered with me, but for the wrong reasons.
Because these days, when I partake of art and think about it on the way home, I look for a take away that’s worth taking away. And forgive me if I’m knit picking, but once again, it just wasn’t there.
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