Pacino, Papp and the Sophocles Problem

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    It stirred up feelings and ideas that have been rattling around my head for a number of years?about stuff my friends and I all care a good deal about, like acting and art and "the classics" and theater. To be honest, I think I had a moment of panic on your behalf. Oedipus is a tough play. I don't think I've ever understood it, how it's supposed to work or what it's really about.

    What I don't get it this: Oedipus is supposed to be such a smart guy, such a superstar as far as figuring things out and interpreting meaning, but we essentially spend the whole play watching him fail to pick up on some very big hints. I've never known how that's supposed to play.

    Anyhow, I bit my nails and fumed a bit and told myself I couldn't see it, and then I thought of Looking for Richard, the documentary you made about trying to perform Shakespeare, and I realized I was being silly, that I was being like the drunk at the beginning of the film who shouts in the accents of Fat Bastard, "What the fuck do you know about Shakespeare!" before going on to explain how the Japanese are moving in on everything, Elizabethan theater included.

    I liked that movie. I particularly liked the way it managed to disarm us by making it absolutely clear?sometimes with levity, sometimes with commentary, but always with an infallible sense of judgment and perspective?that it knew what was bogus and what was real. When I looked at it again the other night I still liked it, although one or two things I'd forgotten about worried me a bit, and I had the impulse to pass along a couple of thoughts that occurred to me during Karin Coonrod's King John at the American Place Theater, which I saw a couple of days before your Sophocles announcement.

    It was, I thought, a divine production, breathtaking in many ways, but there was one performance that I just about thought was going to give me hives. It was by an actor in a central role. No need to mention names; the guy's friends may read this paper. Suffice it to say that he was one of the most self-conscious actors I've ever seen in my life. I was doing that thing where you're looking at your program because you don't want to look at the stage, when I made an interesting discovery about Ned Eisenberg, the actor playing King John, who I'd been thinking was awfully good and a little familiar. It said in the program that he had appeared in The Sopranos.

    This surprised me, first because I couldn't place him and second (when I figured out who he was) because it was a performance I'd paid attention to. He'd played the only remotely admirable character in the first season, an Hasidic Jew who stands up to Tony and his crew, refusing to give them what they want. Offscreen the character had capitulated, but we hadn't seen that, and so what had stuck in the mind was a bitter little exchange in which he told Tony the story of the Romans and the Jews at Masada, asking rhetorically where the Romans were now, to which Tony had replied, "They're here, asshole!"

    Good acting is hard to miss. It's also incredibly difficult to describe. (That's its nature: if you could describe it, it wouldn't be good acting.) Watching Eisenberg, though, I realized that he was taking the same approach to acting Shakespeare that he had to The Sopranos, and it was beautiful. The character in The Sopranos had been highly principled; King John is all about expedience and opportunism, and yet the same suggestion of a moral intelligence was what made Eisenberg's performance seem realistic here. Alone of the men in the company, he never for a moment seemed to be acting. I found myself wondering whether something like moral affect?not a character's moral ascendancy but his absolute conviction that he has moral ascendancy, that he knows what to do in a given situation, knows the moral score?is what's compelling to us right now. For some reason, that's lifelike.

    If good acting is indescribable, that's because it expresses something that cannot be expressed in any other way?never with such economy, certainly.

    That is its beauty, what makes it art. On the other hand, bad acting is highly describable, which is why so much of it gets mistaken for good acting by reviewers and journalists, whose job, after all, is to fill space rather than to be moved. To them describability is a godsend.

    I was wracking my brains trying to figure out what it was about this other guy's performance that made me so uncomfortable. I couldn't quite put my finger on it except that he had this irritating way of beginning each utterance with a half-stammer, as if to suggest he hadn't been expecting to speak. "This guy is driving me nuts," I whispered to my friend Janet, because I was shifting about in my seat and she was beginning to notice. "Why?" she asked, and I thought about it and said, "He's just so fucking Juilliard." I felt bad the minute I'd said it (and worse because Janet thought it was funny). I have no idea what Juilliard acting is like, I haven't attended a performance there in 15 years. It was just something to say. I went on feeling bad even after I found out it was true?the guy had been at Juilliard.

    The fact is that we don't really know what we're looking at when we watch actors trying to perform Shakespeare and other "classics." For this, I blame Joe Papp, who, during the 30 years he held sway over classical theater in New York, never really kept up with what was happening elsewhere in the world (except in the broadest sense?he'd probably heard of Peter Brook). As a result, a number of things happened. One was that training and creativity in that particular sphere went elsewhere. Other outlets for revivals sprang up, the Mint Theater and Theater for a New Audience and the Willow Cabin Theater and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and, for a while, the New Theater of Brooklyn. That it took so long for some of them to establish themselves can be partly attributed to the fact that Papp and those who emulated him always pulled so much focus. (Julie Taymor was directing brilliant productions of Shakespeare for years at Theater for a New Audience. Down at Astor Place I don't think she could get a haircut.)

    Under Papp, the New York Shakespeare Festival failed to establish itself as an important (or even sophisticated) purveyor of classical drama. Consequently, we have no idea how we want to see Shakespeare or Sophocles performed. No one in this town has ever really sat down and tried to figure out how to marry contemporary acting with classical theater. We don't know where to begin figuring it out. That documentary you made did a better job of articulating the problems facing contemporary actors and audiences (also a better job of addressing them organically) than Papp did in several theatrical generations.

    Another effect Papp had on production of classics was that he rather queered for us the concept of actor-driven revivals. Because he didn't distinguish between actors and stars, because he only valued actors (if he valued them at all) for what he perceived as their box-office draw, we tend to think of "celebrity" revivals as vanity productions?with justification in some cases, but it isn't always that simple.

    I wouldn't have known this if I hadn't gone to see the Alec Baldwin Macbeth, which I did because I wanted to see Liev Schreiber's Banquo. Baldwin didn't set the Thames on fire or anything, but there was a moment when you understood why he had wanted to play the role: you saw something he'd felt he understood about Macbeth's character or his situation and that he wanted to try to convey. I couldn't articulate what it was (good acting, again) but it had something to do with macho guys carrying on in the face of almost certain failure and it was moving and it was true, both to real life and to the theatrical moment.

    There's another thing we forget?again, because Papp wasn't doing his job all those years?which is why we go to see old plays over and over again in the first place. One reason is that acting changes. That's partly because reality changes, but it's also because acting itself alters our perception of reality?like the Turner painting that assures that you will never look at the sea in quite the same way again. Our view of reality changes in response to art and acting itself changes what looks real to us. There are things that can no longer be done on stage or screen, because Brando did them or De Niro or you did.

    Of course, meaning changes too, which is another reason we go to see old plays performed. I once sat in on a company reading of Tartuffe that some Steppenwolf actors were doing?just goofing around, trying to see if it might be something they'd want to do at some point down the line. They decided not, I guess. It was electrifying, though, because at that particular moment (the autumn of 1995) the play was about the Simpson case. The actors didn't do anything to make that happen, and most of them weren't even aware of the fact. But it was so.

    I don't know what Sophocles' Oedipus Rex would be about now, or Yeats' version of the play. I don't think anyone could know without seeing it on its feet. My guess is that you'll fool around with it for a while and decide to go with some more contemporary idiom?adapted by a group of actors or a David Mamet. I do think?and perhaps this is why I brought up Ned Eisenberg and King John and The Sopranos?that more than any other piece of classical drama that play is about that misplaced moral apprehension that fascinates us right now. Oedipus is the original clueless guy who thinks he knows the score. Every other tragic hero of whatever stature probably derives from him in some sense. He's the hero of Detective Story, the villain in Ghostbusters, the man of honor who thinks he can stand up to Tony Soprano. "Where are the Romans now?" "They're here, asshole." That's the play.

    I should knock off now. I could go on about this stuff for hours, days, but you've probably got a rehearsal to get to. Don't feel you have to write back, by the way. I'm not one of those people who write letters to get letters back. I might get in touch again some time, just to shoot the shit or let off steam. Meanwhile, best wishes for the workshop-performance. I hope you nail that sucker.