An Immodest Proposal

Success Has Gotten Us Where We Are. Why Not Try Failure?

What, in a defense against all that, can artists rediscover that would restore some of their lost standing, as figures of integrity rather than celebrity, as spokesmen for our culture rather than for its dollar-power? Well, they could rediscover quality: They could write, stage, and appear in plays which they believed to be good in themselves, and which gave them pleasure, rather than wasting their lives for the sake of their bank accounts. Next, they might sit down and ponder the sorry state of the world, and to what needs to be said about it that the theater could say, but is not yet saying.

This calls for thought; even more, it calls for reading. Wherever you find a great theater movement in the past, you find voracious readers—Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, Shaw and Granville Barker, Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill. It's no coincidence that Duse, who grasped the value of Ibsen when the Italian theater in general was still a welter of semi-literate posturing, said the ambition of her later life was to found a library for actresses, where they could study greatness in quietude, away from the noise and triviality of the commercial theater. Playing Rosmersholm, Ghosts, and The Lady From the Sea became for her a mission in life. It undoubtedly didn't hurt that the mission's daring made her an international rebel and hero. Ghosts, which had been banned in every European city when it first appeared—it had its world premiere in Chicago—was still a forbidden object when Duse took it up.

Like many of the crusading female stars who took up Ibsen's cause—Alla Nazimova, one of the first graduates of Nemirovich-Danchenko's school, became her American equivalent—Duse was seen by those who did not idolize her as a sort of failure, a problem case who should have kept busy fitting herself into the preordained commercial patterns, instead of taking complex risks. Such people were delighted when she attempted Shakespeare's Cleopatra and failed to stir audiences. Very few people admired Duse's Cleopatra, but the very few included Anton Chekhov, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Bernard Shaw, and Henry James. It proves the wisdom of aiming for quality: That way, if you can only win a small audience, it will be the very best small audience. Bear in mind, too, that Duse and Nazimova, in taking up Ibsen, believed not merely that they were going on a social crusade, but that they were interpreting the works of a great theater poet.

Duse's admirer Henry James once wrote a sly, sad short story about a James-like writer who keeps trying to churn out a commercial hit, but whose instincts play him false every time, leaving him with another subtle masterpiece that will only sell a few dozen copies. He finally accepts his fate, realizing, the narrator tells us, "that there was something a failure was, that a success, somehow, ineffably wasn't." This un-American sentiment, from one of America's most cherished writers, makes a useful moral touchstone for artists just now, bitter as it may be for those raised, as we all are, to love money and applause. At a time when things are in transition, it's possible that the audience is waiting for some alternative to the glittery items they currently pay so much to be fed. They, too, read the news, and know that our faith in the corporate life has led us down a wrong path. Perhaps they are saying, like Donald Barthelme's Snow White, "Oh, why can I not hear some words that are not the words I always hear?"

The artists who find those new words will be in a very good position, though they may have to struggle for a long time first. They might find a note of encouragement in the story of Gertrude Stein's lecture at Oxford. When asked "if she thought she was justified in writing as she did," she replied that she had been writing that way for many years "and now they wanted to hear her lecture, which did not prove anything but on the other hand may tend to indicate something." Those looking for indications of a change will take the hint.

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