Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Reading Dante in 2021

We're about halfway through this reading project. We've been reading La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy.  Dante died 700 years ago, in 1321. 

I recently walked very quickly through the distilled collection of paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The main galleries are shaped like a huge H, and that reminds me of a book by Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, where she writes about the letter "H" as the basic building block of a ladder. At the museum, the center of that middle rung of the H that connects the two long galleries of Western paintings, there stands a large and beautiful statue of Buddha. Is there a hidden joke here? The Buddha stands at what would be the hinge of the "Enlightenment" between the classic past of the West, and the roar of its future. 

After walking through a range of sculptures by Rodin, the Buddha greets everyone as soon as the walk through the front doors. A guard stands near the Buddha, and guides members to one desk of the left and single or group ticket buyers to another desk on the right. That's how the art pilgrimage begins.

On the bottom floor you can find a very large collection of the oldest artwork in the building. It all comes from Asia, and from many different countries. 

My own mini-pilgrimage through the history of Western paintings began in a room with work created around the time Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, and in the century after Dante's time. The oldest Western painting in the collection shows iconic images covering the life of Christ. 

The collection proceeds through a range of explorations to make painting more elaborate and detailed, then more realistic, then baroque, then impressionistic, and it ends again with abstract art, and even a few geometric images from the Russian painters who were heavily influenced by mysticism. At the very end of the last gallery, there is a very large and colorful canvas by Sam Francis.

Here's the link to CJ Fearnley's page, Reading Dante in 2021. It's full of rich resources. You can skim the surface or dive deep. Your choice!

This reading project has inspired me to revive this long dormant blog. At the beginning, I had the intention of exploring the connections between poetry, plays, politics and prophecy. That intention seems more important now than ever.

Monday, September 12, 2016


This statement by Winona Laduke throws light on our whole range of global problems. 

"It's Time to Move On from Fossil Fuels."

As they say, at closing time in the British pubs, "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME." T.S. Eliot picked up the line for The Waste Land. It's now closing time on Spaceship Earth. Do we drink up and move on? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we... what? What is to be done? This is the heart of the issue. Where does the USA want to make an investment? Where do the people want to make an investment? Do they share the same goals? 

35 years ago, with the publication of CRITICAL PATH in 1981, Bucky warned that it was time to move on from fossil fuels. He warned us about Wall Street lawyers. He gave a shout on the massive transfers of wealth upward and outward. 

With the reunification of the Sioux nation we are seeing individual integrity at work. Bucky might say, they are operating like "the crew of a ship when the ships in danger. Spaceship Earth's in danger. Find out what needs to be done." 

Bucky was a profound theorist on democracy, believing that there is no group integrity, without individual integrity. Native tribes are showing us the way across the river and over the mountain range of corporate indifference. We must activate our own initiative to solve the world's biggest problems. 

From the Dakotas the battle cry is stated simply... "Water is life." Bucky, as a former US Naval engineer, would completely agree. We live on an ocean world. His Dymaxion Map teaches that all the continents are one island surrounded by ocean. The moral: "It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It couldn't be done before--- this taking care of everybody. Only a few years ago the technology of doing more and more with less and less reached the point where it could be done." 

For Bucky, our problems demand a comprehensive design strategy rooted in individual initiative and integrity. Bucky's design target was simply stated, "Make the world work for all of humanity." Start with Universe, and then, work your way down to your specific locality within Universe. He also said, "We have a choice... Utopia or Oblivion. But don't let up. Don't let up or we won't make it. Keep at your integrity more than ever in all your life before, and we will make it." 

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pleasure and change

Bertolt Brecht warned that if theatre fails to give pleasure, it fails in it's most essential purpose. He also wrote:

We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights, and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself. [A Short Organum for the Theatre - #35 (1948)]

Theatre should bring pleasure as it works to transform all fields of action. Without pleasure, it can't seem to do its job of capturing attention and putting it to work. The action of each character, in almost every play, either carries a seed of change or is a force to stifle the seeds of change planted by other characters. Characters want things, and there has to be a change if they are to get those things. Theatre can be more than the playing of a given game on a defined playing field. Plays, as they express themselves in space and time, can change the game and the playing field itself as the game is being played.

If the theatrical plays fail to be as faithless and unpredictable as our economy, then how can they hope to illuminate the machinations of our present practices of political economy? Today, economics pretends to be science, while denying it is a political process closer to the arts. Certainly accounting statements and balance sheets have been the great works of fiction of the last 40 years. They are works of art that have had a huge impact on the world around them. If fake balance sheets can change the world, why can't plays? The denial of politics, the devotion to gossip and half baked commentary, and a blind faith in fake sciences makes the whole process more brutal than it needs to be. Economists pretend objectivity while initiating and supporting economic warfare through all means possible.

If theatre is a smaller field of action that comes to life within a larger field of action, then directors, actors, designers, technicians and producers must all realize that all the larger fields change daily. Their rules are constantly rewritten before too many people can learn them. A play and its production elements may stay basically the same, but if the structure of oppositions is sound, and the spirit of performance remains alive, the audience will often think the play has been rewritten in light of shifting current events. A well thought out theatrical structure does not need daily reworking if the overall structure is sound and the vision complex, but it must be able to breath with fresh life each and every day.

Actions brought to life within a theatre can lead to fresh perceptions that can arouse the will to act differently in the world outside the theatre, but only if each performance is awake to the moment with all the many resonances of that moment. Theatres resonate. They expand and contract with each shift in action. They expand and contract with each audience that moves into and out of any particular performance. They expand and contract with each production that moves into and out of a theatre's larger season. Theatres expand and contract with the arc created by each season of plays presented within them. Even skeptics believe in the ghosts of past performances that linger in the air.

If a theatre takes its role seriously, it can be the soul of a city, illuminating all the larger expansions and contractions... the local fears and longings that Einstein claimed to be the major motivations of man. Theatre can do that for a city better than films manufactured for the nation and for the world. In theatre, you have to be there, or travel a great distance to be there. If it can genuinely settle into its place and time, it can reach out to the Universe.

The loss of repertory and the scheduling of very short runs robs both artists and audiences of the experience of living with a strong work of art over a substantial period of time. Present conditions preclude the creation of great works of theatrical art. The work of great theatre companies reveals itself over time. In today's world, there is no time because time is money and there is no money. Imagination dwindles under false equations.

Theatre is repetitive and ritualistic, but, like all good ritual, it must stay awake to itself. Unlike more traditional rituals, it also constantly reinvents itself, even exchanging whole ritual structures for one another in a well designed repertory. Is this why Plato hated poets and playwrights? Was it because they didn't hold still and deliver the appropriate and approved truths? Were they too alive?

Monday, June 16, 2008

What's a play to do?

Aristotle defined tragedy as an imitation of an action. Comedy also imitates action, but Aristotle believed comic actions have different qualities and different characters to act them out. For the Greeks, an action was a movement of spirit, usually from inside to outside. (See Francis Ferguson's introduction to the Poetics for a detailed discussion of this idea.)

I use the Greek and Elizabethan plays as models for leaping off into the idea that a genuinely vital theatre for widely diverse audiences will inevitably crash collide poetry, politics and prophecy. If it wishes to do so, theatre can strike at the heart of our most volatile conflicts, cracking them open to fresh air and cleansing winds.

Is theatre actually our best and most underused tool for voyaging into conflicts that threaten to undermine society and culture? Can it help us decide whether we should crack our eggs at the small end or the large end?

Is there a plague loose in the land? Can theatre help cleanse the land? Was theatre originally designed to be a purification ritual? In its many failures to do that, can we find the key to building that better mousetrap... to catch the conscience of the King? And if we succeed, will the world beat a path to our door?

That is the hope of all theatre people... a blessed fusion of money and meaning. We continue to strive after the most effective fertility rites.

This will be an exploration of poetics... the theory of making things. A poem is a made thing. A play is a made thing. However, to make a play come alive in a theatre, then others must be willing to step into it. This is true of both traditional and experimental work. A willingness to step into a play can be triggered by either love or money, sometimes both.

And why is it that scriptures, poems and plays so often fold into and out of each other?