At the end of the 19th century, following the emergence of technological invention, surging cities, and thinkers like Darwin, Freud, and Marx, disruptive rumblings—foreshocks—shook the world of the Western arts.
By the 1920s, the philosophical and aesthetic earthquake of modernism had separated artists from their artistic forebears. Impressionism made clear that art was a self-conscious act; the “-isms” that followed became increasingly abstract. Musical composition meandered from harmony; literature no longer presented reliable narratives; and dance, theater, and even opera distanced themselves from straightforward storytelling.
Fine art, literature, music, theater, and dance turned to innovation as a primary aesthetic creed and Ezra Pound’s “Make it new” defined the movement.
The arts suffered a major aftershock in the 1960s when feminists and minority voices, long underrepresented, surfaced. The healthy influx of voices revitalized the performing, visual, and literary arts, but further separated art from its roots.
Today, that rift may be closing a bit. Classical music blogs are offering complete works rather than snippets; opera singers like Joyce DiDonato are reinvigorating the public’s appetite for baroque music; the Atelier movement in New York is re-exploring representational painting; and Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, is captivating audiences with spectacular all-male productions of Shakespeare, to list a few examples.
But the more than 100-year disruption to the arts of the past provokes questions: Are the classics worth holding on to? Do they have a place today?
In the first of this series of articles which asks practitioners of the classical arts—actors, musicians, singers, writers, dancers, painters—as well as those associated with the arts—curators, galleries owners, producers, educators—to respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
For Jim DeVita, an actor, director, and playwright, the classics grant us a sophisticated language with which to discuss complex ideas vital to our welfare.
“We need complex language to communicate ideas so that we can make changes in our lives, our culture, and so that we can live fully. We need vivid language. It gives us a vocabulary to communicate what’s in our hearts,” he said in a phone interview on June 27.
The actor first fell in love with language—a love that turned into a long marriage—through a life-changing moment.
Although classical theater repertoire has been his bread and butter for a good part of nearly 30 years, he considers himself a blue-collar kind of guy. He flunked out of community college twice and spent five years as a Long Island fisherman.
We need vivid language. It gives us a vocabulary to communicate what’s in our hearts.
“I didn’t like Shakespeare. It made me feel dumb. It was beyond me,” he said.
During his third stab at college, he attended Ian McKellen’s one-man performance, “Acting Shakespeare,” when it toured New York in 1983. Upon hearing the great Shakespearean actor, suddenly the language opened up and flowered for DeVita.
“You didn’t have to be a Ph.D. to understand it. It was accessible,” he said. “I didn’t get every word, but the metaphors I was getting, and I was attracted to that,” he said. “It was a real hook.”
Not only did DeVita finally get it, but he also remembered thinking, “I want to do that,” and the next part of his trek became “how do I do that?”
DeVita eventually chronicled his journey to master the acting craft in a funny, touching one-man piece, “In Acting Shakespeare,” loosely based on McKellen’s show. It was so successfully received that DeVita took the performance to New York in 2013.
That hook of understanding difficult text became deeply embedded in DeVita. Not only did it pull him toward acting, it became his professional goal and labor to make Shakespeare accessible to others. He has worked at a classical repertory theater, American Player’s Theatre (APT), in Spring Green, Wisconsin, for most of his career.
Classics Challenge Us
DeVita understands that, inevitably, some will dislike certain classic texts or certain authors. Not everyone will enjoy Shakespeare, for example. He himself doesn’t enjoy all cultural icons.
“I don’t like Wagner,” he said.
But he feels that artists have been partly responsible for the general disenchantment with the classics. If a performance leaves an audience mystified, it can have the unintended effect of eliciting a feeling of stupidity.
“I’ve seen some amazingly beautiful performances of Shakespeare—beautiful in a visual sense—but audiences walk away from these performances understanding little of what they’re hearing. They don’t take away much and are left with a negative feeling.”
DeVita believes that it is the artist’s responsibility to clarify difficult texts: “It’s my fault if you don’t get it.”
As much as Shakespeare is a challenge to watch, it is even more demanding to perform. It takes a good deal of training to make sense of and transmit Shakespearean language. Even in the fundamental task of speaking extraordinarily long sentences, certain rhetorical skills are necessary.
“I know some wonderful actors who get lost” in Shakespeare, he said, because they lack the training.
DeVita has spent a lifetime working on those skills and is always learning more. He’s performed some roles three or four times and finds each bout challenging.
But the challenge is worth it—even in practical terms. APT holds theater camp for high school students every summer and also takes theater into the classrooms. He’s seen the effect on young people exposed to the classics and to their heightened language. Students gain skills in writing and thinking and in understanding images and metaphors.
Re-engaging in the Conversation
DeVita is currently appearing in the one-man play “An Iliad” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare for APT. The play’s conceit is that the Poet is doomed by the gods to tell the story of the Trojan War until humans stop going to war. The Poet has not been very successful, DeVita explained.
With a healthy mix of topical prose and Homer’s poetry, war’s impact is shown through graphic imagery, which reveals every facet of wartime experience: It shows bravery but also cowardice, abject weariness, and brutish barbarism. It shows “what happens to us when it comes down to survival.
The play also tries to show the Greek and Trojan heroes as real people. Achilles and Hector, for example, are depicted as fathers, as brothers, and as friends. It tries to make the audience see that the soldiers killed are just boys, much like the teenage boy from Nebraska who might be sitting in the theater seat next to them.
DeVita has played the role before in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s large 700-seat theater. In order to fill the large auditorium, the director decided that the Poet should be played as someone who could have walked out of any war, and the audience’s role was to watch as the Poet re-imagined the experiences. The audience acted as witnesses.
In the current production, because of the intimacy of the 200-seat Touchstone Theatre, the director chose to involve and re-engage the audience in the discussion about war. Instead of a soldier, DeVita plays the Poet as a classics professor, and the evening becomes an intimate conversation with the audience in which the professor says to the audience, “I need you to go through this with me.”
“The Poet is close enough to look an audience member right in the eye and ask him: ‘Can you believe we’ve been doing this and keep doing this?’
“It’s a play about war—not an anti-war play—but a play that demands we discuss it,” he said.
This is an important question. Some plays are only for fun, for their humor, but some plays ask audiences to think about questions of vital importance and demand: “We need to talk about this.”
The Classics Are Relevant
Revisiting classics re-engages us in a discussion that has been circulating for ages.
After working for so many years on classic texts, DeVita concludes that the nature of our situation may change for the better or for the worse, but our basic humanity does not.
“It’s breathtaking how similar the ancients were to us—across borders, throughout time—we have not changed,” he said.
For this reason he believes that it’s unnecessary to try to make an old, classic text relevant.
“It is relevant. A text doesn’t last 400 years if it’s not relevant. It doesn’t last 2,500 years.”
It’s unnecessary to try to make an old, classic text relevant.
DeVita goes on to explain: “It’s certainly not only the ancient texts that inquire into these deeper questions and provoke thought. What fascinates me about the ancient texts is just how long we have been asking ourselves the same questions and provoking the same thoughts: Free will? God? Destiny? Fate? Goodness? Evil? Abuse of power? Forgiveness? War?
“There is something very powerful in the knowledge of our shared humanity—how unoriginal we actually are. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, I actually find it kind of freeing.
“The physical world around has changed enormously over the past centuries, but humankind has not. Those Greek audience members sitting in an amphitheater 3,000 years ago were wrestling with the exact same unanswerable questions we still wrestle with today.
“We have been doing so ever since humankind first learned to communicate with each other. We are still writing about them, and we still gather to listen to these stories.”