Friday, September 10, 2010

The relative worth of Troilus and Cressida--and of art and literature in general

Artists, writers, and lovers of art and literature sometimes find themselves depressed or irritated by what they consider the simplistic and narrow-minded judgments of those who object to some of what they love.

A discussion of this issue recently took place on a website called "Dawning of a Brighter Day" sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters. I'm adding here two comments I made. (See

The first comment has to do with a switch that was made on the BYU theater schedule from Troilus and Cressida to Romeo and Juliet. The second comment is more general.

. . . [F]irst, on Troilus and Cressida: When I learned it was going to be performed at BYU, I was surprised, but I added a requirement in my Shakespeare syllabus for my students to see it. (Now I'm requiring them to see Romeo and Juliet--mainly I want them to experience live Shakespeare.)

I was surprised because I had a hard time imagining the large audiences drawn from students and the community for a main stage production being ready to have a good experience with one of Shakespeare's oddest and most astringent plays. I thought it might work better on a smaller stage for a more self-selecting audience. But (I thought) I guess it depends mainly on how it's done. The play can be done in any number of ways, from something approaching a romantic combination of sweetness and pathos (with plenty of dark undertones, to be sure) to something unredeemably harsh and cynical. For myself, I'd prefer something somewhere in the middle.

I saw a powerful production of the play in England some years ago, one that may have been a bit harsh for BYU but that otherwise came close to the right balance for me--except that there were moments so overwhelmingly erotic that I don't believe I could experience such moments very often without real danger and damage. Anyone who could handle them better than I could must be a lot stronger than I am, or else self-deceived or far gone into desensitization. Though the production has found a place firmly in my memory, I seem to have survived intact. Am I a better person for having seen the play? I don't know. "Better" can mean so many things, from wisdom to sensitivity to compassion to strength.

I already knew the play pretty well. Professionally I need to know it: it has a significant and peculiar place in the Shakespearean canon. Seeing the production added a few nuances to my Shakespearean expertise. Like most of what Shakespeare wrote, the play is a masterpiece in its particular niche, though not as moving or profound or enlightening (by a long shot) as plays like Macbeth or King Lear or The Winter's Tale--or Measure for Measure, to take a play with closer affinities to Troilus and Cressida. T&C helps shatter naive idealism about love and war, but apart from that, I find it harder to make a case for its value than for most of Shakespeare's plays.

Even kept intact, I can imagine it performed at BYU in a way that might work, though some of Pandarus's lines might cause some squirming, and it would be hard to imagine audiences knowing quite how to handle Thersites, with his constant stream of invective and vulgarity.

I don't know much about how it was decided not to do the play at BYU, but from the little I know, I doubt it was done (entirely) in a simplistic way depending on "Platonic" binaries. The play really is problematic.

Of course, so is Romeo and Juliet, though not in the same way or to the same degree as T&C. Plus it has a place in the cultural consciousness that T&C lacks. It will be interesting to see what's done with R&J. I can imagine anything from a sensationalist soap-opera style production to a profoundly sympathetic and illuminating rendition of the play. That's one of the perils and gifts of live theater: the moral value depends in great measure on the particularities of the production and unfolds (often surprisingly, unpredictably) in the very moment the performance takes place.

General thoughts: I agree with much in Eric’s post and in the comments. But I also find much said that, even while objecting to oversimplification, tends to simplify the issues and to characterize alternative views as naive, erroneous, and simplistic when there are in fact intelligent versions of them worth attending to.

In practice, I sometimes find myself on one side or another. I have recommended a film I consider wonderfully moral but which is then objected to by at least a few viewers, who of course I imagine to be narrow minded and judgmental. (Mostly, I just feel sad that they don’t see what I see in the film.) On the other hand, I find myself depressed and sickened by language, images, and assumptions in films that I want to, and to some extent do, enjoy. I have a son who objects to any editing of films, presumably including editing for airlines and for television. But as for myself, I am deeply grateful for effective editing that spares me being assaulted by things that deaden my sensitivities and make my inner life harsh, dissonant, confused, and ugly. My wife and I find deeply disturbing the thought of certain music going through our younger son’s mind. On the other hand, I love and teach works of literature that are challenging and, in their own way, disturbing (I would say redemptively disturbing) as well as inspiring and edifying.

How much damage do we need to risk as part of the process of learning and growth? As some have noted, our whole mortal experience is based on the assumption that some risk is required. But I see people who have acquired a taste for destruction—for the tang of chaos, violence, and lust—minus any discernible progress toward light and goodness.

C. S. Lewis, who loved literature and music with a passion, who was eclectic in his tastes and exceptionally intelligent and learned, nevertheless placed literary and artistic values much lower than ultimate ones. “If we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.” Of course, a souvenir is not the same as awareness. A souvenir is something we cling to, or that clings to us—like the lizard on the oily man’s shoulder in The Great Divorce. When it comes right down to it, Lewis argues, “the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.” Happily, we don’t normally have to choose one or the other—and in fact, remembering how infinitely less important the entire world of arts and letters is than any one person allows that world to reveal itself at its most delightful, illuminating, and enlivening; whereas clinging to music, art, and literature as if they were our salvation (like idols of a sort) kills them.

No comments: