Quote: Legends are lessons. They ring with truths. I suppose that it’s the fact that I have always valued history a good deal that makes me value this quote from Queen Elinor in Disney’s Brave so much, but I hope that I am not unique in finding value from the study of our past. Yes, I am aware that the study of the history of Western Civilization has, largely, been a study of the ideas and influences of “old, white guys,” which has all too often ignored the contributions of women, non-whites, the young, etc. That’s probably not a good thing.
On the other hand, for good or ill, the dominant influences on civilization, at least in the West, was the people whom some now seem to think should be deemphasized because they weren’t “inclusive” enough. I don’t say this to suggest that the rather limited pool of influences was a “good” thing, whatever “good” means in this context, just that it is the reality of how Western Civilization developed. To ignore that fact, would be like ignoring the fact of the influence of the Christian religion on the same development. Now I’m not at all sure that the West couldn’t have profited from a greater understanding of other cultures, religions, etc., but the fact is that some form of Christianity was a major influence on Western Civilization. One can argue quite successfully, I think, that not all of that influence was necessarily good. The Inquisition; witch trials, burnings, hangings, etc.; attempts to abolish native religions because they were “incorrect;” wars over which brand of Christianity was the “right” one; anti-Semitism; and various other behaviors, would not appear to be what all would think of as terrifically positive influences, but I don’t want to get bogged down on that topic today.
As Queen Elinor says, our legends (a common method of transmitting history, even if not always factual) can teach us things. These legends ring with the truths (both good and bad) of our existence. They do much to tell us who we are, why we are here, how we got here, and how we are expected to behave. I think that we ignore that fact at our considerable peril because it amounts to ignoring social, if not always factual, reality. That’s a dangerous place to find ourselves. I will readily acknowledge that not everything about our past has been what I would call “good,” but it’s worth remembering that it hasn’t all been “bad,” either. It would seem to me that rational people would accept that and try to make our future better than our past has sometimes been.
I frequently think back to my teaching days, at times wondering about whether, or not, my students really understood what I was trying to communicate about the importance of theatre history and literature. I remember that I started the discussion of every play in my Dramatic Lit. classes with this question: “What is this play about?” I knew that it was THE important question to ask because I knew it could simulate a greater understanding of the forces which created a play and, therefore, help us to better understand how to communicate the play to an audience. But, this quote from Arthur Laurents from a Dramatists Guild Landmark Symposium may explain what I was driving at better than any explanation I ever came up with in class.
Quote: I remember Jerry (Jerome Robbins) asking the most important question asked any time about anything in the theater: “What is it about?” One of the reasons why he is the most brilliant of all choreographers is that he knows a dance has to be about something, not just an abstract dance. When it’s about something, no one knows better how to make it a dance and move the story.
I suppose that the basic idea is similar to my favorite quote from M*A*S*H, the one about playing the notes, but not playing the music (see post #128), but this may say it better and require less explanation. Laurence Olivier, I think, meant much the same sort of thing when he said, “Have a very good reason for everything you do.” I don’t think either Robbins or Olivier were trying to imply that there was only one possible interpretation of a piece, but that it’s difficult (perhaps impossible) to create really good work without trying to communicate something with it.
I think (I’m not sure that it was ever fully developed as a definite plan) that was why, towards the end of my teaching career, when I was assigned to teach the first course for majors, called “Introduction to the Professions,” I assigned my students to watch the first episode of the TV show “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” and hoped that they would watch the complete series. You see, having been raised, theatrically, by neo-Aristotelians at Indiana University, I believe that the theatre developed out of ritual and myth. Now, Joseph Campbell has said that “A ritual can be defined as an enactment of a myth.” I believe that what he meant was that the performance of certain behaviors (dancing certain dances, repeating certain stories, singing certain songs, etc.) by the members of a culture at some point came to be seen as a way of furthering the understanding of the myths, beliefs, legends, etc., which are central to that culture.
That means, I think, as we used to say in Stage and Screen, that “We are storytellers.” After all, myths are stories, so rituals are the enactment of those stories and theatre is simply a variant form of ritual. It seems to mean that theatre is always “about” something, which gets us back to Jerome Robbins’ question. That’s probably confusing, but I think it does make sense if you look at it carefully.
Quote: “It is false and a shame for you to mind what these say, that are out of their wits!” This is the most famous quote attributed to my ancestor, Martha Carrier, during her trial for witchcraft on August 2, 1692. I suppose I am breaking my “rule” about not getting into political questions in this blog, by bringing this up, but I find it quite disturbing when some of our “leaders” seem to have difficulty accepting the idea that their opinions are not automatically accepted as truth. I like Sherlock Holmes’ comment that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”(emphasis added, RSB) Of course, that means accepting that there are such things as facts, or at least verifiable assertions, which establish the nature of reality (the possible) so that it is possible to “eliminate the impossible.”
The problem comes, I suppose, when the parties involved cannot agree on a standard for reality. That can, and does seem to happen, although I find it extremely sad when it does. I agree with Stephen Hawking when he said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” I’m not sure that Darwin would have agreed completely with Hawking, but adapting to change was something which he apparently believed was important when he said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
I think that it’s probably going to prove impossible to survive for long denying such things as, say, global warming and environmental pollution. I don’t know that I think that it’s worth the time and energy to argue about the causes, but the effects in terms of climate change, sea level rise and the like seem to be getting measurably worse and, it would appear that we have limited alternatives.
I think it's likely that we can: 1.) do the best we can to understand if we (the human race) are having an impact on creating this situation (which appears highly probable) and try to reduce/mitigate/eliminate that impact; 2.) assume that whatever happens is the will of some Deity and that we are not to blame (except [possibly] for not praying to the correct one) and just accept the we are have no ability to influence our destiny, so we can (should) do nothing; or, 3.) we can deny the data of our own eyes, ears, etc., and pretend that these things really aren’t happening because we don’t have simple solutions which can be guaranteed to solve all of our problems.
Personally, I like #1 of the group above. That may be because I have spent my life working with the “truths” of legend and story, so I’d like to believe that J. R. R. Tolkien was correct when he said “…I believe that legends and myths are largely made of 'truth', and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago, certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.” I think those truths formed the basis of the religious and spiritual belief systems which appear in most (all?) human cultures.
I’m also rather fond of this quote from J. K. Rowling: “Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”
This is probably somewhat less coherent than what I usually write, but I think (hope) that it will provide some food for thought. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with something else. Hopefully, it will be more coherent, and, perhaps, even amusing.