A Note on PEER GYNT from Brian Kulick
THOSE ACCURSED QUESTIONS: A FINAL NOTE
by Brian Kulick, outgoing Artistic Director
Yesterday, I was giving my sixteen-year-old son some money so he could buy lunch for himself when I had one of those moments of what I call temporal vertigo; that strange sensation where time seems to collapse and suddenly, in this case, it was me who was sixteen getting lunch money from my father. The thirty-eight years between these incidents having contracted into a circuit of several seconds of consciousness. A similar dizzying sensation confronts me now as I write this last program note for the CLASSIC newsletter as its Artistic Director, it seems like just yesterday that I sat down to introduce myself to the Classic Stage audience. Can it actually be thirteen years that have elapsed before this keyboard? That would mean, some forty or so “Notes From the Artistic Director”?! Who knew I had so much to say?
When I look back on that very first “Note” I can’t help but blush at my youthful audacity. In it I evoke the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and dedicate the theater to what he calls Proklyantya Voprosy. This Russian phrase roughly translates as “The Accursed Questions.” There are, according to Berlin, three fundamental questions that dogged the great 19th-century Russian novelists: “Why are we here?” “How should we live?” And perhaps, most importantly, “What must we do.” Those were the questions I wanted to ask with the programing of CSC. I suppose, if I were brought before an aesthetic court of law and asked to defend my self and my choice of programming, I would still evoke those three questions as the driving force behind this thirteen-year conversation I have had the great opportunity to undertake with the audience. I have tried to keep these questions alive by presenting Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, and many other great writers of our past and present. What unites these writers is a desire to pose these questions and, provocatively, leave the answers up to us.
When I am asked about my favorite moments as Artistic Director, they always revolve around being part of the audience experiencing one of these “questions.” I have two such moments, which I hope you will indulge me in sharing with you. The first, I have mentioned before, in these notes. It came at the end of the first act of David Ives’ NEW JERUSALEM, a play about the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The play takes place in a synagogue where Spinoza is defending himself before a rabbinical tribunal, things are not looking so good for poor Baruch and then, out of the blue, he blurts out, “But I can prove the existence of G-d.” The tribunal agrees to hear Spinoza’s claim, adjourning for a brief break that coincides with our intermission. This was one of the rare times where CSC lost not a single audience member during the break. Everyone returned: believers, atheists, and agnostics alike, all eager to hear this Jewish “kid” prove the existence of G-d. It was one of the most wonderful hours I’ve ever spent in the theater because of the quality of silence. This silence had the weight and density of a collective kind of listening, which comes on those rare occasions when a group confronts an unresolved core issue. And in so doing, we are reminded of the fundamental plurality of our existence. We are dislodged from our alienated “I” and momentarily returned to our social selves. We are not alone. Our concerns for existence rhyme with others and in that rhyming a community can be re-discovered.
This “community of concern” that can be found in the theater is different from those moments of other social gathering, say at a political rally or at a service in a house of worship; perhaps because when theater really works (which is very rare) it allows us to collectively experience a question just before its answer is articulated by the slightly restrictive vantage points of politics or religion. When theater is at its best, we find ourselves, for two or so hours, living within the tension of an unresolved question and discovering our commonality during that very suspension of knowingness. Afterwards, we return to the world where our over-eager institutions step in to try to explain everything for us. In their endeavor to do so, they can, inadvertently, end up dividing us with their well intentioned, but often reductive, answers. I say reductive only because reality will always exceed our comprehension and any explanation is bound to fall short of the confounding complexity of being-in-the-world; but a shared experience (like that of theater), free of the need of explanation, can bring us all together before the immense density of certain fundamental problems; returning us to our basic commonality of simply not knowing.
Another electric moment for me happened during the fourth and final act of Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS. Here again the CSC audience seemed to hold its breath as these characters were making their last life-altering decisions. In these final moments of the play, the audience seemed to be converted into a convocation of recording angels whose job was to bear witness to these poor souls who were incapable of escaping their quotidian purgatory. Experiencing this reminded me of that quote from La Fontaine, “To cry for oneself is human; to cry for another, divine.” At the end of THREE SISTERS, Chekhov confers upon us, the audience, a kind of secular divinity, where we see these characters and do not judge them, but rather, simply, understand them. For a moment, two hundred or so disparate audience members feel as one for the destiny of another. We have been released from the relativistic mode of empathy (a 19th-century word invented to explain our individual and private relationship to an expressionist painting) and brought back to a much older and all-embracing word known as sympathy. A word whose etymological origins capture the experience of ” feeling with.” That tiny, little word “with” enfolds myself, a fictive other, and an entire audience, all joined by a common concern. That is the power of theater and its gum-stuck machinery comes to life around those burning questions of existence, uniting us in the process as we confront the mysteries that life presents.
It is especially meaningful for me to see John Doyle, our Associate Director and soon-to-be Artistic Director, take on the same sort of accursed questions with his mounting of PEER GYNT, a play which explores these problems from a Nordic, rather than Slavic, vantage point. I look forward to returning as an audience member and experiencing the plays and questions John puts forward during his tenure at the helm of CSC. I know 13th Street is in store for a fresh and bracing chapter in its ongoing history.
Finally, I wanted to take this opportunity to once again thank you, the devoted audience, for your support over these years. My mentor, Gordon Davidson, used to say, “In order to have great theater, you have to have great audiences.” And I experienced this year after year with all of you, the greatest audience in the whole of New York City. Thank you for making CSC such a vital and necessary space for the continued exploration of the human condition.