Most people consider me reasonably well-read. And yet my scholarship contains some rather glaring gaps that I've managed to fill by acquiring a Wikipedia-level knowledge of many things. Years ago there was a Facebook group entitled "No, I Have Not Read That Great Literary Classic--But I Saw The Wishbone Episode" (for those who didn't watch PBS in the late 90s, "Wishbone" featured a literature-obsessed Jack Russell terrier who liked to cast himself in the lead roles. To this day it composes my entire knowledge of Ivanhoe). I have never actually read Proust, Nietzsche, or a Dickens novel outside of A Christmas Carol. I know who Rosebud is but I have never watched Citizen Kane.
Gradually, I've attempted to fill those gaps as time and opportunity allow. In some cases I am flabbergasted that I hadn't taken the time to consume them earlier--I am probably one of five people on Earth who can claim to have watched the Star Wars films in chronological order. In other cases, I feel had I encountered these works earlier, I may not have had the capacity to truly absorb them into my being.
Such is the case with Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George and The Fervent Years by Harold Clurman.
In the case of Sunday in the Park With George, like Ivanhoe, for years I had possessed a working knowledge of the musical inspired by the life of painter Georges Seurat. But for whatever reason, the characters and the music never electrified me the way my nine-year-old self was by the iconic fairly tale types of Into the Woods. But on a recent Bernadette Peters Youtube-clip binge two months ago, I discovered a link to the filmed production in its entirety and watched it while at the airport during a recent trip to Chicago.
And that shit moved me.
Throughout the play, Georges Seurat and later his descendant George both struggle with issues of art, commerce, and emotional isolation. I encountered the song "Finishing the Hat" a few years ago and immediately related to the idea that, when caught up in the creative process"you have to watch the rest of the world / From a window / While you finish the hat." The idea of missing out on life in pursuit of some murky artistic ideal terrified me. Towards the end of the play, George finds himself at a creative crossroads and encounters the spirit of Dot, his great-grandmother and the model for Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. George is petrified that he doesn't seem to have clear path now that his long-time collaborator has ended their partnership and his grandmother has passed away. I myself have had a rocky couple of years since grad school ended, with grants and possibilities falling through and apartments and jobs proving terrible. "Stop worrying where you're going--move on," Dot says to him. "If you could know where you're going, you've gone. Just keep moving on." Like all artists, George also yearns for originality. He expresses his desire to figure out "how to get through, through to something new." This is also a major concern with my work--wondering if my plays are edgy enough, dangerous enough, surprising enough to make a significant dent in the discourse and make it all worthwhile. And here's where Dot (and Sondheim) deliver the real kicker: "Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision--they usually do." This lyric is especially poignant when you realize that Sunday in the Park With George came for Sondheim after a series of stinging commercial flops, and it seems he was attempting to redefine his relationship to art and professional success.
My journey to The Fervent Years took a slightly different course. While I hadn't actually heard of the book until my roommates recommended it a few days ago, I had been familiar with the basic story of the rise and fall of The Group Theatre since my sophomore year of college. The coming together of such titans as Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Lee Strasberg, and Sanford Meisner is essentially watching the Avengers of the American theatre unite to conquer the banality of the early 20th century commercial landscape. My roommates and I mused how epic it would be to write a screenplay based on these events, and I could already picture in my mind's eye the scene late in act II where Stella Adler returns from spending two weeks with Stanislavsky and announces to Lee Strasberg he has gotten it all wrong.
What strikes me most about reading The Fervent Years right now, however, is the youth of the initial members. For theatre artists today, Strasberg, Adler, Clurman, and Meisner are by now old sages, but Clurman reveals that the median age four company members that first convened in Brookfield Center, Connecticut in the summer of 1931 was twenty-seven. The youth of these players did not go unmarked. Clurman notes how "Stella Adler looked out from her window somewhat sadly, almost frightened: these people did not behave like actors. To her, the place was like a camp for overgrown high-school kids."
Why did this passage make such an impression on me? Well, I am twenty-seven (for the next five days anyway). There something reassuring to read about future legends going through periods of division, poverty, doubt, and sheer stupidity. It's easy to look back on history and appreciate the virtue of creative and financial risk, but it's important to remember that while you're in the thick of it it's impossible to know what side of the success or failure coin you will land on. I guess from both The Fervent Years and Sunday in the Park With George, I am learning that in a world where the payoffs of our labor can be uncertain, in order to survive as an artist one must seek out the people, places, and things that feed our muse and give us reasons to keep going.
"Just keep moving on."