I write to you not in a spirit of critique or challenge, not specifically about your most recent play (Concord Floral, which was terrific), but because I have thoughts I feel the need to air in the conversational space between us, with its exceptional acoustics, and I don’t want to wait for our next brunch.
Your work as a playwright has been justly celebrated of late. You’re now the youngest-ever winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama. Various ideas about, reasons for your work’s value have been floated. Many of them are grounded in the political. Your theatre creations are read and marketed as complex articulations of queer identity in the digital age; as “of our moment” instances of inter-disciplinary/mixed-media performance art; as temperature-takings of life in the contemporary suburbs.
None of these readings of your work are wrong. They’re apt enough descriptions of its surfaces. But they don’t capture why your offerings on these themes and in these forms are so distinguished from the many others of similar description that exist right now.
In Toronto theatre, as in many other artistic and intellectual communities, sometimes we say or imply that a work of art is good because it mirrors our current political reality, and sometimes we say or imply that a work of art is good because it’s old and venerable. But unless you believe that the accurate depiction of a political regime improves that regime, or that contact with the ancestral automatically improves us, these descriptions of art do little more than describe. They don’t express why it has value.
The so-called historicist view of human affairs is fashionable. This view asserts that there’s no trans-historical perspective from which to judge right and wrong, good and bad: that these notions are more or less constructed, the unique view of a particular historical moment and a particular culture. It denies the possibility of any natural, unchanging criterion of value or “right,” however general, by which to evaluate our moment and our culture.
The debate over “natural right” is a broad philosophical one, and I’m still too much a student of its key texts to offer a thorough treatment of it here. But the argument for natural right rests on a basic insight that I consider to have a profound importance for art.
The basic insight is this: that at the bottom of all momentary cultural phenomena, all hotly debated contemporary issues — beneath gender politics, racial powder-kegs, scandals among politicians — are a number of permanent, fundamental problems and questions that pertain to the human being as such.
Such questions have historical guises, of course. The permanent problems of how heterosexual men and women deal with the combustible energy that exists between them almost constantly, for example, look different now than they did in the 17th century. The costumes have changed, as have the language, the social permissions and restrictions, the costs of transgression. But the problems are more or less the same, and, since they’re ahistorical, they don’t admit of a strictly historical answer. A strictly historical answer to an ahistorical question doesn’t and can’t go deep enough.
It’s convenient to pretend this isn’t true. The “spirit of the time” or “Zeitgeist,” a word borrowed from relativistic German philosophy and redolent of its sources, is a seemingly straightforward way to judge the merit of a work of art or to market it. It’s easy to say a given work of art is better or more worthy because of its literal embrace of current situations or up-to-date artistic forms: the standard is obvious, objectively recognizable. Nobody could deny that David Hare’s Stuff Happens or Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End, plays about the Iraq war, had a literal relevance to audiences in the 2000s. Nobody can deny that Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls reflects a certain pocket of youth culture as it does or might actually exist right now.
The literal contemporary relevance of this kind of art makes it easy to approve if our standard (or our marketing pitch) is the work’s resemblance to the Zeitgeist. This art has other virtues too, of course, which support our approval: charm, wit, emotional intensity. But in these cases, we identify the success of the work not with how charming or witty or moving it is full stop, but by how charmingly or wittily or movingly it reveals the historical situation that justifies it and makes it seem “relevant” or “important.”
I suggest to you that this fascination with the Zeitgeist as an end in itself is a fad. It’s a fad that may have a tenacity reckoned in centuries and may consume half the globe, but a fad nonetheless. I suggest also that there’s resistance to it in every artistic community, but that resistance is often either inarticulate or disguised as support for the fad.
An obvious point of resistance, it might be thought, is so-called classical theatre. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, its forays into the production of new plays notwithstanding, is committed to the established classics of Western drama and therefore implies that it sees lasting urgency in those old plays, which implies that those plays have forceful, singular insight into the fundamental human problems and therefore have the status of genuine literature, an inheritance of human understanding — right?
Maybe. But that logic holds only if the old plays are conceived in its light, i.e. if the plays’ reach into the dark interiors of the permanent questions is seen and grasped and manifested in production. If, instead, the classics are understood to be good because they’re the tradition, or because their emotional surfaces resemble our emotional surfaces and so can still stir and entertain us (with the added benefit of brand recognition: who hasn’t heard of Hamlet?), they’re dead.
A production of a classic can be wonderful if, as does sometimes happen at our classical rep companies, the wisdom the play contains is understood and expressed in production as fully as possible, the “period” curios are seen as incidental to the play’s lasting meaning, and intelligent efforts are made to render the fundamental problems raised by the play as present and unreduced as possible — which may or may not involve efforts of textual editing or modernization of surfaces, and which necessarily involves a high level of technical craft.
The same principle is true of new work. The deceptive or mistaken claim of most self-styled political theatre is that the current reality understood simply as a current reality can ever be the satisfactory subject of a genuine work of art. The genuine work of art uses the momentary as a gateway to the permanent, the specific as a gateway to the general. This process is not just political but also moral. Emmanuel Levinas, writing in the shadow of World War Two: “To act for remote things at the moment in which Hitlerism triumphed…is, no doubt, the summit of nobility.”
20th century political tyranny, in its fascist and other totalitarian forms, conceived and promoted itself as the product of progressive historical processes. In the Nazi concentration camps, in the Soviet gulags, in the ordinary cities alongside them that were aware of them and lived in complicity, the fundamental knowledge of the inalienable dignity of the human being as such was trumped by a historical, political idea that offered a vision of collective redemption.
A powerful fact that often gets missed, when artists declare a desire that their work should resonate politically, is that any work of art that engages deeply with the fundamental problems of the human being as such grants to the human being her proper dignity and sanctity, contra Hitler, contra Stalin. In so doing, such art has a political power, and stands in opposition to some of the worst atrocities of modern times, in a far more profound way than does a play that debates and laments what’s in the newspaper headlines.
It’ll be objected that, at the other end of the spectrum, religious dogmatism has resulted in just as much bloodshed and misery as moral relativism has ever done. But such religious dogmatism is a form of political authority: it doesn’t guarantee or even make likely a genuine philosophical orientation towards, or hunger for, what’s true.
The alternative in the arts to relativism, to historicism, to our fixation on the Zeitgeist, isn’t dogmatism of any kind. The alternative is instead a living interest in and commitment to the fundamental human problems that transcend all historical and cultural distinctions. An interest in and commitment to, in other words, a truth that isn’t exclusive to our moment or to the social divisions that exist in our moment — even if that truth necessarily wears the costumes of our moment. A belief that such a truth exists, quite independent of whether we can ever have certain or total knowledge of it.
Which brings me back to your work, Jordan. I believe that what matters most in your work, and why your work matters, aren’t the pop culture references or the live video feeds or the politics of queer identity, though such details are interesting, add texture and specificity, and are inseparable from the whole. I believe that what matters most in your work, especially in what I consider your most accomplished work (Concord Floral, Post-Eden), is its wisdom. Its imaginative breadth and colour. Its moral intuitions, sometimes almost childlike in their clarity and force.
It’s much harder to talk about the wisdom of a work of art than about its political features. Part of the problem is that most wisdom has a self-evident character: any gloss on it changes it, makes a different point. Criticism deals best with this calibre of art, perhaps, when it more or less suspends evaluation and instead offers a high, revealing, loving description of the work — what Susan Sontag calls “an erotics of art.”
That’s a worthy project, though it’s not my project here. Another honest and helpful response to wisdom, I think, is just to point to it and say: “Look. Look at this. I believe this is beautiful and true. Not ersatz, but the real thing. See for yourself, make up your own mind.”
That’s what this letter is doing. Besides using you as a sort of straw-assistant to make some philosophical points, it seeks to say to anyone who reads it: Look at this Jordan Tannahill fellow’s work, and consider, if you respond strongly to it, that your response may be to its wisdom, to something that transcends social distinctions. And consider the possibility that wisdom, even if we can’t all agree on what it is, may be nevertheless a much higher criterion for value in art than most of the other ones we bat around.
Wisdom, as Keats and Plato knew, is closely related to beauty. When we’re moved by the beauty of what’s wise and good, the experience has the character of poetry and bears only a superficial resemblance to the way we’re moved by easy sentiment or horrific violence, though all of the above can be intense. The former experience is, quite simply, worth more. It connects us to, rather than alienates us from, what’s highest and best in ourselves.
This is partly why the trendy distinction between “pleasurable, commercial entertainment” on the one hand and “hard-hitting political art” on the other is a false one. Both kinds of art, insofar as they don’t rise above those categories, are likely to be trash. Both mistake means for ends. Both are blighted by a basic flaw: neither takes the human, what’s most essentially and deeply human (which includes a more profoundly understood vision of the political), as its main area of concern.
What I love about your best work, Jordan, one of the qualities that make me feel close to it and you, is that the basic human problems — questions of love and alienation, cruelty and mercy, death and the dreams that transcend it — mark so clearly the territory in which it moves. Its fundamental concern seems to me to be character, the nature or various natures of the human being. To say it has wisdom is to say it reveals a mature understanding of character and how character shapes or is shaped by civil reality and spiritual possibility.
Like the work of all masterful or potentially masterful artists, your art, if it’s to grow, will (it seems to me) become more deeply what it already is — commit itself more completely and consciously to the riddle of character, search for an ever more precise and inhabited vocabulary to express its discoveries.
You have a shrewd sense of how to package your work to appeal to the current fashions, and maybe sometimes it’s even the fashion that leads in your work; the balance you strike between the essential question and the contemporary style is part of your talent. And such a balance is necessary. I don’t suggest that art can ever fully escape its time, evade its era’s fashions, or that the artist should want it to.
But not to take the fashion for an end in itself, not to mistake the surfaces for the depths — this is crucial. And it’s one of the gifts of your work.
I think we said you’d get the next brunch if you won the GG, right?