A culture without dreams is finished. It has nothing to motivate it.
The scene was an unlikely one. Here was George Lucas, boy wonder of the movie industry, lovingly introducing Joseph Campbell, the eminent author and scholar of mythology, some 40 years his senior, in a private screening room.
“I hadn’t seen a movie for God knows how long, something like 20, 30 years,” pronounces Campbell, with a Shakespearean wag of the head. “Then George Lucas called to tell me that his Star Wars films are based on my work. He invited my wife Jean and me out to California to see his things—Star Wars in the morning, The Empire Strikes Back in the afternoon and The Return of the Jedi in the evening. I was thrilled. He has found a mythological model out in space—it’s an open field. It seemed to me to be the counterpart of the Greek Argonauts. It released the imagination.”
Myths. Joseph Campbell, now 80 years old, has spent a lifetime exploring them, explicating them, reinterpreting them, lecturing and writing on them. In the ’60s, his best-known work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, became the guidebook for L.S.D. trippers on their psychic spelunking, and sales soared to such an extent that Campbell’s befuddled agent, on receiving a princely royalty check one day, searched high and low for the file on the popular novelist to whom he was convinced it must belong. Hero still enjoys a wide audience. Last year it sold over 10,000 copies, and was the subject of a theatrical adaptation at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. In the ’80s, it still has power to seed the imagination.
“Lucas had a theme, which is a crucial one today and which can be handled in a mythologized mode—that of man and the machine,” Campbell goes on. “Is the machine going to control man? Here the machine means the monolithic state. Or is man going to maintain human values, so that the machine becomes the agent of his intentions, rather than the master? That’s Goethe’s theme in Faust.
“There is a marvelous moment near the end of Jedi when Luke Skywalker takes the mask off Darth Vader, the mechanized man who turns out to be his father—and here’s this undeveloped slug of a man. I thought, this filmmaker really knows what he’s doing—that’s a creative use of mythological imagery, the son rescuing the father, the drowned man in the sea. Lucas perceived the essential spiritual problem of today, not only with respect to machines, but with respect to the state.”
“Where, today, is a work that reaches for the truly mythic dimension? Not in most of American theatre.”
Campbell describes himself as “a maverick enthusiast.” Of late, he has been deeply involved in writing and compiling a massive Historical Atlas of World Mythology, the first volume of which was published last fall by Alfred van der Marck, a work that will no doubt be seen as the culmination of his long career. With his wife Jean Erdman, a dancer and artistic director of New York’s Theater of the Open Eye, he spends half the year in Honolulu and the other half in the Manhattan apartment near Washington Square in which he has lived and worked for more than 40 years. Perching sideways on his chair on a December afternoon, he seemed ready to spring to the podium or into the seminar room.
It was enthusiasm that brought him to the study of myth in the first place, almost by accident, as if he was guided by the same mysterious force of destiny that his polymorphous Hero had to contend with. Campbell was a graduate student (and a championship runner) at Columbia University in the ’20s, writing his thesis on medieval romances, when he went to Paris to continue his studies.
“Poking around in the bookshops I pulled out—Jung! I’d never heard of him. And here was his Transformation of Symbols of the Libido, which just told me everything. Another breakthrough was Spengler’s Decline of the West. I found that both Spengler and Jung were out of the same box, one dealing with world history, the other with psychology.”
Back in America, his head full of the ideas of his new-found spiritual mentors, soaked in the literature of the ’20s, especially Joyce and Yeats, Campbell also discovered the Depression. There were no jobs for young graduates of medieval literature and paleontology. He went to live in Woodstock, traveled the country, wrote short stories, spent two months broke in California with John Steinbeck. Eventually he found a home at the newly founded liberal arts college for women, Sarah Lawrence, dedicated to an understanding of the arts through their practice and performance. Campbell credits his students with finally putting him on the path that led to Star Wars.
“The girls wanted academic stuff and they wanted it in terms of its relationship to life, and to their lives in particular. It was that focusing of this mass of material on personal crises, personal harmonization, that really gave me the pitch that has made my work the popular work that it is. I’m writing for my kids.”
The word “myth” has become debased. To many it connotes what is lying, false, empty of substance. To many it connotes what is lying, false, empty of substance. Scholars have argued endlessly over the distinctions between myths, folk tales, fairy tales, legends, märchen. For Campbell, a myth is “a chart of possible intuition,” “a public dream,” “the fundamental instruction in realizing the possibility of your own perfection.” To live without myth is to be spiritually starved. Myths are the expression of human wonderment at the mystery of the universe, as well as an attempt to grasp it and give it shape. They embody, in forms that strike deep and live long, the norms by which a society manifests itself and retains its individuality. And, in Campbell’s words, “they guide the individual through the crises of life decently and harmoniously.”
For someone who works in the theatre, listening to Campbell can be a disturbing reminder of tasks begun but not completed, challenges not sought out, mountains never climbed, dragons allowed to live. Bluntly, Campbell states that he finds most of contemporary theatre passé.
“The theatre has become stuck in naturalism. It swallows social problems. It deals with issues that were really solved around 1890. To deal with mythological materials, you have to get into a fantasy realm, where what appears is not a fact but the archetype of which the fact is but a local manifestation. In acting, too, there’s so much accent on Stanislavskian Method—performers don’t know how to break with that, how to get into a rhetorical instead of a naturalistic posture.”
Yet it was because of the theatre—and James Joyce—that Campbell’s publishing career received its first boost. He tells the story with some glee.
“Nobody wanted to publish A Skeleton Key to ‘Finnegans Wake’ (Campbell’s first scholarly work, written with Morton Robinson). Then Thornton Wilder brings this play to Broadway, The Skin of Our Teeth. I went with my head full of Finnegan’s Wake. And here came one quote after another from the book! I started copying them down on the program—I knew Finnegan’s Wake by heart, and he was quoting it right and left. In the morning I phoned Robinson in Woodstock and told him, The Skin of Our Teen is Finnegan’s Wake, and we should write a letter to The New York Times about it, because Joyce’s family is destitute and Wilder is pulling in tons of dough. So he phones Norman Cousins at Saturday Review and says, ‘The Skin of Our Teeth is Finnegan’s Wake, are you interested?’ Cousins says, ‘Bring it down this afternoon.’ The article made headlines all over the United States. Then Cousins says, ‘Do you two guys have anything else?’ We looked at each other and said, ‘Yes!’ We gave him the first chapter of Skeleton Key and he published it. That was my first connection to the theatre.”
Wilder, at least (according to Campbell), was attempting to work in a mythic dimension.
HERE & NOW
Creative mythology, in Shakespeare’s sense, of the mirror “to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” springs not, like theology, from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, thought and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience of value. Thus it corrects the authority holding to the shells of forms produced and left behind by lives once lived. Renewing the act of experience itself, it restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is no thing at all but life, not as it will be or as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out.
—Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Viking Press, 1968
Where, today, is a work that reaches for that mythic dimension to be found? Not in most of American theatre, Campbell believes—perhaps in Kabuki, which he admires enormously. And outside the theatre, in other forms, the archetypes flourish. A recent New York Times article about the soaring popularity of Michael Jackson reports that, in the view of eminent Jungian analyst James Hill man, the pop singer’s appeal is “in large part as someone who represents the ‘Puer,’ a psychological archetype representing an ageless innocence and probably best known in our culture in the form of Peter Pan.” The Puer is “inspired, effeminate, inventive, passive, fiery and capricious,” and has “an angelic hermaphroditic quality where masculine and feminine are joined.”
Campbell grins and agrees, and goes on to talk about rock performers in general. “They bring a kind of chthonic thing with them—the reactions of their audiences are almost pathological, people are not in control. Rock events are Dionysian certainly, there’s no doubt about that. But look at the outrageous masks these guys wear—they are the incarnation of mythological archetypes.”
Even comic books, Campbell believes, preserve traces of these outsized figures from our unconscious. Superman reincarnates Hercules (down to their dual parents, both heavenly and earthly, and their endless labors), and Campbell speaks kindly of Little Nemo, whose name (“Nobody”) puts one in mind of Odysseus in the Cyclops cave, saving his skin by pretending to be Outis, Nobody, Nemo.
Cheerfully, objectively and without dogma, Campbell is reminding us that people take their spiritual sustenance where they can get it. If not from religion, then from mass social or political movements; if not there, then from music, art or theatre—if theatre will provide it. In our time, Campbell believes, movies have done the job better. He cites film critic David Deny, writing in Atlantic Monthly Jan. ’85: Finding the theatre of representation (realism) embarrassing, and the theatre of non-representation either trivial or humorless, Denby says “a play may be something to admire, but a movie works its way into your dreams.” Exactly.
Taken in another sense, though, these strictures can be seen as a call to arms, an invitation to adventure, a seduction. Rather than taking offense at critiques of their art form from such “outsiders” as Denby, theatre professionals might well ask themselves what opportunities are presented by this moment in history.
“We’re between worlds, and the inherited mythologies are not competent to deal with where we are now,” Campbell believes. “Peoples and traditions that a hundred years ago knew nothing of each other are new together in the same business office or the same classroom. The old mythologies—even those that are thought of as world religions, like Christianity—now seem tribal, ethnic. What we’re waiting for is a recognition or resonance of humanity as a whole, and we don’t have it now.”
Is it still possible to create such resonance in the theatre? In times of crisis, Campbell is fond of noting, we create our own spontaneous theatre. Such an occasion (as Campbell recently told television interviewer Bill Moyers) was the funeral of President Kennedy.
“It was a ritualization of the greatest social necessity. The nation was somehow unstrung. The archetypal event of Kennedy’s funeral let us meditate on death and the mystery of death, as epitomized in the death of the highest presence in our national life. There were six horses, as I remember, and the seventh had its rider and stirrups reversed, a rite that goes back to the ancient Aryans. Out of it came a sense of resolution for the country.”
Campbell is clearly looking for a reunion of theatre with the religious impulse, interpreted in its most wide and generous sense, and embodied in a myth. And he is asking the artist to take a world view.
“Perhaps the artist is the best prototype of the modern hero,” he postulates. “Joyce or Thomas Mann, for instance, have created a new mythology. Jung also provides some notion of the stock characters that have played in the dreams and myths of all mankind. These archetypes still inform the unconscious and provide a standard repertoire of mythic fantasies.
“But each individual will experience the archetype in a unique manner—only the form of the archetype is set. The content is taken from individual experience. So the modern hero who must venture into the underworld of the unconscious has some maps to help him on the journey.”
That journey, whether it is into his own psychology or toward Lucas’ far-away galaxies, must take the hero “from the world of common-sense consciousness into a region of supernatural wonder. There he encounters fabulous forces—demons and angels, dragons and helping spirits. After a fierce battle he wins a decisive victory over the powers of darkness. Then he returns from his mysterious adventure with the gift of knowledge or fire which he bestows on his fellow man.”
Such a quest is a heroic challenge for the theatre.
Kenneth Cavander, the playwright and screenwriter, is currently working on a musical based on the life of Jelly Roll Morton.
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