There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend… One day the black will swallow the red.
I see a lot of plays. I get paid for it now, for one thing. But I don’t just see plays I get paid for. I’m more than a little addicted. I see as many as I feasibly can. We’ve discussed this, at length; as a child, I always dreamed of living the kind of life where I could go to the theater whenever I wanted. I am lucky enough to live that kind of life now, and I honor that wide-eyed teenager every time I buy my ticket (or am blessed enough to get a reviewer’s comp) and sit in a seat in a darkened theater and let the actors spin their web around me.
They’re not always good. That’s the thing about any art form, really; some will be very, very good, some will be so, so terrible, and some will be just middle-of-the-road. This can be because of any number of things: the actors, the direction, the set, the costumes, the writing. It’s also sometimes because of the baggage you bring to the table, which is something that’s often overlooked; the play could be wonderful, but you might hate it because one of the characters reminds you too much of your abusive ex or your unstable mother-in-law or the set is just too reminiscient of the unhappy home you grew up in. It’s very seldom that everything comes together perfectly. It’s (and I know this is going to surprise you, since, as the Irish say, my bladder is close to my eyes) seldom I cry in the theater; all of these elements coming together perfectly doesn’t happen very often, and in order for me to cry IN FRONT OF PEOPLE (a thing I don’t often do, as weepy as I am – my crying is almost always a very personal and very private affair) the stars really have to align.
Today I saw a play that made all the stars line up perfectly. Better than that: it made me think. It’s still making me think, hours later.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge art person. I mean, I love art. I respect art, and appreciate art, and love going to see art. But I couldn’t tell you what makes good art, not really. Or how it makes me feel.
What really impresses me, more so than the art itself, are artists. The creativity behind making a work of art. The thought process. The type of mind that can come up with something like that. And the demons that live in a mind like that. I lump all artists into this category, by the way, not just traditional sculptors and painters. Writers, musicians, actors, dancers, anyone who creates something new that wasn’t there before. I believe that all artists have something in common, whether or not it’s obvious; that creation holds a madness in it. Whether it holds it at bay or it brings it to the forefront depends on the artist. Anyone who is creative, especially one who is good at what they do, walks a fine line with the darkness in their mind.
Red is about Mark Rothko. I knew very little about Rothko going into the show. I knew he was a painter; I knew he was an impressionist. I knew his paintings were blocks of color, almost painful to look at in their intensity.
Other than that, very little. My artistic education was lacking. I’ll be the first to admit it. We didn’t discuss art in high school, and in college, as long as you were taking some sort of art classes, you were covered, and my art was the billions of theater classes I was taking.
The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City had just been built in the late 50s by the beverage company Seagram and Sons. (I think of Seagrams now, I think of wine coolers. I don’t know that they’d be proud of that legacy; apparently they used to be the fanciest.) They commissioned Rothko to paint a mural for the restaurant for a lot of money. He worked on them for at least a year or two, then visited the restaurant and decided, for a reason that’s never been completely explained, his paintings couldn’t hang there. He called Seagram up, gave him what is thought to have been a monumental tongue-lashing (Rothko was a firebrand, you guys) and sent him back the money. In the play, which I assume was researched, the amount was $35,000. In the late 50s/early 60s. He RETURNED it. The paintings were done, but he didn’t want them hanging in that restaurant.
The play (which won a number of Tonys in 2010) is about the years he spent working on the mural. In order for him to have someone to talk to (because it would be extremely strange for him to talk to himself for 90 minutes) he hires a young artist as an assistant at the top of the show, and the two of them spar. It’s a complicated relationship; a little father/son, a little teacher/student, a little peer to peer, a little antagonistic.
Let’s get the little things out of the way first: the acting was stellar. The set design was amazing – it couldn’t have been more of an art studio without you actually being in an art studio. They painted on stage, with paint flying. The passion was so palpable. The direction was tight and crisp. I had nothing at all to complain about.
It was the writing, though. The writing. Oh, my. John Logan’s script – such a brilliant work of art in itself.
The play was about the relationship between the two men, but it was also about art. Art on a lot of levels. First, the relationship between the artist and his or her work, but also the relationship between the viewer and the art. How the viewer should come to the work; how the viewer should view the work. How the work should make the viewer feel. How much the artist should art-design the viewing process – the lighting, the venue.
Even closer to my heart, it was about the internal struggle. The quote at the top of the post is from the show; Rothko compared death to the black and life to the red. When the black came for him, life was over. Everything he did was to keep the black at bay. He talked about how artists have to kill their muses (his being the Cubists, killing them with Expressionism); but when the up-and-coming artists came along (Warhol, Lichtenstein) and began to “kill” their muses, (i.e. him) he was furious – at them, for daring to challenge him, at the audience, for what he considered the dumbing-down of art.
“‘Pretty.’ ‘Beautiful.’ ‘Nice.’ ‘Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny, it’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation, living under the tyranny of ‘fine.’ How are you? Fine.. How was your day? Fine. How are you feeling? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. What some dinner? Fine… Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!!
HOW ARE YOU?!… HOW WAS YOUR DAY?!… HOW ARE YOU FEELING? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine. We are anything but fine.”
The passion in this. The fight against anything middle-of-the-road. Always straining for whatever is ultimate. Keeping the black at bay. The overwhelming need to create something beautiful, something that will last. Yes. Yes, I found a lot to relate to in this play.
Rothko, ultimately, was not able to fight the black. In 1970, he was found dead, having not only slit his wrists, but having overdosed on pills as well. The black won. He ran out of red.
He made something lasting, though. 836 paintings. Can you even imagine a legacy like this?
I left the theater filled with so many emotions. Hope and loss and pride and a deep feeling of being understood, somehow, by someone I’d never known, by someone who’d died before I was even born, by someone tied to me by something as tangential as a shared love for the creation of beautiful things and a brain that runs at a different frequency than the people buzzing around us.
I had a good day. The red kept the black most definitely at bay.