In a relatively recent opinion piece, Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks wrote the following:
True lovers of the performing arts know that, as much as it’s consoling to feel the powerful resonances of old works, the true measure of a nation’s artistic vitality is what the art-makers are creating right now.
When I read that quote, my immediate response was an enthusiastic, heart-beating-out-of-my-chest “YES!” –which is, of course, just a fancy way of saying that I agree with him. (A lot.) In fact, I loved the quote so much that I immediately shared it on Facebook and via email with several friends. I wanted to spread the joy.
Not much later, however, I happened to tweet the same quote in response to a discussion I was having… and several of my Twitter friends immediately took issue. One is a Shakespeare-phile, so I could of course see why she’d find it frustrating… but she didn’t actually dismiss the quote out of hand. She argued that by staging new productions, they ARE creating new work. I can, naturally, see where she’s coming from… but I disagree.
To me, the fundamental premise of theater is storytelling, not storyREtelling. Unless the story is new, the art isn’t fully new. (The tellers are always, by definition, new, since theater is live in the present moment.) Old stories help us understand the past. The have relevance to the nature of humanity, of course, but human nature evolves — the modern mind is in many ways different than the 17th-century mind — and thus many old stories have a shelf-life. New work helps us understand human nature, too, but also lets us grapple with the present tense and imagine new futures. Without new art, we cannot fully comprehend the world in which we are living.
That’s why I agree with Peter. (Though he may, of course, have meant something radically different.) To be clear, I’m not advocating for any kind of doing-away-with the classics (especially not Shakespeare). I merely think we ought to preference new work far more heavily than we do, both as audience members and as art-makers.
What do you think?