Musings on John Logan’s play “Red,”

Great news for anyone in the Greater Washington area (I’m including Charlottesville):  Arena Stage in DC is extending the run of John Logan’s play Red until March 11.  It’s a dynamic little two-character piece of theatre about what’s near and dear to us all: the spirit of creativity, and passion, and art, and light (or the lack of it), and life and death, and what’s-it-all-for?

At the core of the play is the story of artist Mark Rothko’s 1958 commission to paint a series of murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant.  He completed the work, but after looking at the restaurant in the making, and imagining the clink of forks on plates and the indifference and pretentious snobbery of those who would eat there, he refused the display and returned his commission.  It was not a “conversation” he wanted to have.

Alone on one of my New York theatre binges, I’d seen Red when it first came to Broadway two years ago.  As soon as I saw it would be a part of Arena’s current season, I was eager to see it again, this time with my wife Joan, who wrestles with artist demons of her own.  She’d escorted me through a Rothko exhibit in New York a number of years back, a collection of some of his finest abstract-expressionist “color fields.”  I have to admit that I did not burst into tears when confronted with his work, as many have apparently done.  To the contrary, I suppose my initial reaction to his work was not atypical:  “Red squares?  Lots of black?  So what?  A child could do this!”  I should never be admitting any of that in print of course, because I do understand that “art” of this magnitude comes from personal passion and an obsessive emotional need to express some kind of perceived truth to the world, whether or not the world is listening.  Whatever the result, “work of art,” “color field,” … to cavalierly dismiss it as child’s play is an insult to Rothko and to all artists (and for that matter to children), to all of whom I offer my apologies.

Yasmina Reza successfully tackled the same themes a few years back with considerably less depth but considerably more humor in her play, Art, in which a white canvas with diagonal white lines is at issue.  I’m currently involved in an upcoming reading of that play next Sunday (the 26th), so the issues surrounding the nature of art are much on my mind.  There are some compelling parallels which illustrate very different approaches to art and to our lay responses to art.

Joan and I have been debating the “nature of art” for the totality of our 47-year marriage and then some.  Is it really a conversation with the viewer?  Does it need a viewer in order to be “art”?  Or can one create an artistic masterpiece and leave it in a closet for no one to see?  Must it be communication?   Like “Can there be theatre if there is no audience?”  … Or “Does a tree make a sound when it falls in the forest with no one to hear it?”

Interestingly, Joan has amended her assessment of Rothko as an artist, in part because of the Rothko presented in the play, and also as she read more of the man whose work she once loved, and may still.  “ But I can’t find in the man what makes me feel good about myself as an artist.”   What’s missing, she believes, is a spiritual connection to the world around him that seems to vanish once an artist gains self-confidence and savors prestige.  Suddenly, he begins to plead “You must look at me, because I see, I feel, and even I “understand” the truth that you can’t.  And the truth is vital to you, and I need you to see it, to listen to me, because I am “the artist,” the creator, and through me you may be saved.  Once Rothko crossed that bridge to self-importance, it seems inevitable that he would dismiss the work of his colleagues as irrelevant, as he does in the play, and berate his viewers, folks like me at his exhibit years ago, for our unwillingness or inability to listen to his “conversation.”  It’s a heavy burden to bear, and it leaves little time for laughter and generosity.  To me, a process that leads to depression, isolation, cutting off an ear, or suicide appears less creative and more destructive.

Alternatively, Joan and countless others consider themselves as mere conduits for a creative spirit that passes through them and uses them to reveal “truth?”  Maybe.  Or perhaps a more limited truth of the moment, a passing feeling, a fleeting insight.  They take little of the credit for themselves, and have a lot more fun in the process.  Knowing the weight of the world doesn’t rest on their shoulders, they have more time to sit back and laugh at their struggles, to keep them in perspective, to take joy in their work.  It’s a fundamental difference in one’s view of how we each fit into the greater whole.  And the difference is in where we place ourselves in the universe of human perception and awareness.  Once we occupy the center, we have lost our way, and tend to have little of use to say.  Neither humility nor respect are any longer possible.

In my mind, this is exactly the mighty struggle of all artists in any field who seek answers to Who am I?  Why do I do this?  What is my role as artist?  What am I saying?  How am I validated?  The play intriguingly explores the questions, but never gives us the answers.  Neither will we find them elsewhere.  Rothko was a deep thinker, a philosopher, a scholar, a would-be controller, with firm ideas about theatre and color.  Playwright Logan has invented the character of Ken, the assistant, to be his alter ego, as well as the audience stand-in.  The play becomes an internal debate about the function of art, its foundation in passion, and its corruption in commercialism.  It’s an exploration of the rational versus the emotional side of being human, a struggle to give a fair shake to our intellect.  But ultimately it makes clear clear that our Dionysian emotional side will out itself despite the best attempts of sense and reason to control it.  It is not lofty philosophy which carries us through life.  At the end of the play it is Rothko the cruel bully, the humorless, the pain-filled, the self-absorbed, the lonely, the needy who has the final word.  At the end of his life, it was Rothko, the needy, the depressed, the self-destructive who had the final word.  He committed suicide in 1970.

The most powerful and emotionally fulfilling scene in the play is the dramatic duel the two characters have in “priming the canvas.”  It’s a tightly choreographed messy process in which they silently cover a roughly eight-foot-square white canvas with red primer paint in less than five minutes.  And that’s only the beginning of a play in which action supersedes and illustrates words.  The full gamut of the artist’s process is played out before us.  The actors build the frames, stretch the canvas, mix the paints, wash up the mess.  Debate it may be, but this is not a play about words.  It’s about the emotions that drive the action, that only then struggles to be defined in words.

Playwright John Logan, 53, is careful to balance the “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” aspects of his work, and as a theatre artist is clearly dealing with the same issues as his subject.  (No, he is not the son of Josh, but…) He is no theatre greenhorn.  He’s a major Chicago playwright, who then went into screenwriting, turning out in a relatively few short years Gladiator, The Aviator, Star Trek: Nemesis, The Time Machine, The Last Samurai, Sweeney Todd, Rango, Coriolanus, Hugo, and the new James Bond film, Skyfall.  Not a bad resumé … and one that illustrates the dance between commercial interests and more serious artistic intent.

     Red came to Broadway with its original Donmar Warehouse London cast, Alfred Molina as artist Mark Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant/apprentice Ken.   Here, in a production which originated in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the roles are more than adequately filled by veteran Washington actor Edward Gero as Rothko and Patrick Andrews as his assistant.  It’s fine work.

I’m a great fan of the folks at Arena Stage, and I always urge friends to get up to Washington to see their work.  As I’ve said previously, I grew up in the Washington Area, and first saw an Arena production on a school trip, I think probably in 1955, before they’d moved to the Waterfront area.  And for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the magnificent new theatre, which completely incorporates the old Arena, roof and all, and changes the Washington skyline, just go.  It’s yet another expression of the strange codependence between art and commercialism:  beautiful, functional, expensive.

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