I felt very strange coming into this space. It’s the last place you’d expect to find a central European Jew standing in front of you talking. But feeling an outsider, “the other,” is something I have been used to all my life—after nearly 50 years of rehearsal, I’m beginning to play the part quite comfortably.
This chapel gave me a rather shivery feeling of deja vu: In terms of its proportions, it is almost exactly like the synagogue in the town where I was born. It made me remember once again—feeling in a rush my very “otherness”—how when I was 12 years old, the Nazis came in, gathered all the men in our town and brought them into the synagogue, where we had to whitewash the interior. I remember they put planks across the space from balcony to balcony and we used long brooms with brushes at the end to paint out, with whitewash, all the gold stars on the blue ground which covered the ceiling. And that is where the light of the community died, as their bodies died afterward.
People say nowadays that my work is becoming very serious, and they resent it. “Why do you do comedies that are always so sad?” they ask. “But what about the comedic attitude?” the actors wonder. And I say to them, “All I can do is read the play and tell you how I see it.” We interpret according to our visions, and these visions are very, very important. We give in, over and over again, through fatigue or pressures from very stupid critics who are abroad in the land in tremendous multitudes—and we forfeit the personal vision, the collective vision, the vision important to the society in which it is presented.
I’m doing Tartuffe, and I’ve been accused of taking the play too seriouslv. But in an age of television evangelists, people hawking nirvana on every street corner, the tragedy of Jonestown, I cannot but take the play seriously. It is still very funny. But it is also an important, dynamic exploration, an exposé of a certain kind of society. The point is that the director is an interpreter—and how do we become serious about the work we do, and resist its ongoing trivialization? How do we nourish ourselves? How do we keep in shape artistically and spiritually? I believe you cannot work fully unless your antennae are forever out, and unless you take care that those antennae are extraordinarily sensitive to what’s going on around you. How does one manage that?
I don’t think you can spend a lifetime in the theatre and maintain a first-rate mind unless you pay serious attention to the work. It seems to me that it is in our vital interests to renew the whole idea of companies in this country. It is impossible to have artists who grow over a period of time, who can mature, who can deepen their talents, without continuity, and this starting forever again, every four months, is not conducive to the development of theatrical art. It is not conducive to the development of directors and it’s not conducive to the development of serious writers.
I think it is scandalous that actors on the whole earn less than stenographers or stagehands. Surely somewhere along the line we must make it possible for a serious actor to spend a lifetime, if he so wishes, in a company. The gross ongoing wastage of talent on this continent finally robs the potential of this society, this culture, this civilization. And if we are to lead, as I believe we must, we must now begin to see to it that there are enough companies in this country who can really create serious theatre on a high level of excellence.
We learn from this thing called art, which forever has been a mirror for man and society. But it is not good enough nowadays to simply learn about ourselves—it has become an urgent necessity to begin to learn about “the other”: other cultures, other peoples, whether the “other” is the artist, the outsider, the Jew, the Pole in a Western world—or the Pole in his own world where he is an outsider. The global village is forever shrinking, and the tremendous danger of this global village disappearing is forever increasing. We have to learn not only to tolerate other people and other cultures; we have to learn to understand them in a good old liberal kind of way: we have to accept their otherness, which perhaps totally contradicts our values and ways of behavior. If we consistently posit the “evil empire” somewhere else, if we refuse to come to terms with basic and sometimes terrible differences, we will not survive.
In the country where I was born, you weren’t really a respectable artist unless you had spent time in jail. This really had nothing to do with a romantic 1960s kind of attitude of disobedience—it only meant that serious artists involved in the exploration and exposition of a particular reality were not allowed to make their mark on the official map. For simply presenting their perceptions of reality they were jailed, tortured or killed. Being an artist there was a serious business. It still is. The concomitant to that is that the society expects this kind of commitment and courage on the part of its artists. The result is an incredible dynamic between the creator and the audience, an absolutely essential social connection which makes the artist a central creature in the life of that society. Here, most of the time, artists are peripheral. We are not at the cutting edge. We are not around when serious matters are really dealt with.
Norman O. Brown, writing about a report that advocated the teaching of foreign languages in schools in America, said this: “Civilization, civic consciousness, loses its bearings if it loses the cosmopolitan commitment at the heart of both our Hellenic and our Hebraic heritage. Patriotism, without this commitment, becomes Provincialism. Our nation, like every other empirical power in history, is endangered not only by foreign competition but also by blind infatuation with its own language and way of life. The discipline of cultural humility and respect for the strangeness of the other, the grammar of international understanding, take the curricular form of a foreign language…”
Humility and strangeness in front of the other.
There are now theatres all across our country. And we have to ask ourselves what we are going to do with these theatres. What kind of art? What kind of commitment? What kind of thoughts, ideas? The fundraising is in order, the subscription systems are working, the buildings have been built: now what? As Beckett wondered in Waiting for Godot, “Once we are happy, what then?”
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