The late show
I haven't got appreciably wiser as I've aged - how about you? Wandering around Rothko: The Late Series at London's Tate Modern yesterday morning, I realised how tempting but misleading it is to view an artist's work as an index of their physical age - or to read it retrospectively, looking backwards from their deathday.
You might call this the Prospero Fallacy: the sense that a late work (in this case, The Tempest, Shakespeare's final sole-authored drama) also serves as the artist's concluding credo, a summation and farewell to his art. Similarly, Mark Rothko's crepuscular later canvases, typically displayed in a reverently dimmed light, can only seem more numinous when you know they culminate in his suicide (in 1970, aged 66). I realised I had fallen into this pattern when I caught myself shifting position in the gallery, trying to eliminate glare and keep the paintings in a cast of holy shadow. But the paintings come alive when light splashes them - it draws attention to contrast, to subtle layers of colour, to the human trace of smooth or dynamic brushstrokes. The show's curators fight against lazy awe: they insist on Rothko's technique, the build-up to the blur. Up until his death, he wasn't a sage, but just a working artist. What might this tell us about stage artists? Some thoughts after the click:
It's a truism that playwrights do their defining work when young - writers like John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) and Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking) made an immediate impact with their early dramas. Equally, writers' careers in late-middle-age and beyond may be considered an embarrassment: Osborne (again), Simon Gray and Peter Nichols all wrote old-age memoirs that received greater attention than their original plays.
An extreme example is Tennessee Williams, whose later plays were dismissed on first production and never joined the mainstream repertoire. The waspish critic John Simon went so far as to wish in 1978 that 'the kindest thing to assume is that Willaims died shortly after completing Sweet Bird of Youth , and that his subsequent, ever more dismal plays are the work of a lover of his who has learned to impersonate him perfectly in daily life, but only very crudely in playwriting.'
An enthralling revival of Small Craft Warnings (1972) at London's Arcola Theatre suggests that Simon had it wrong. Bill Bryden's ensemble cast not only provide sublime shades of drunk acting - squiffy, squally, maudlin and morose - but also uncover a beautiful play in which the writer finds new moves in his own internal battles. It's tempting to find a Williams self-portrait in Quentin the screenwriter: in thrall to rough trade, beyond disappointment, horribly beyond surprise. But surely he's also raucous Leona, an older woman who despite life's saggy disappointments retains some kind of optimism, or at least an inquisitive resilience, moving on in her trailer to the next possible thing. She may not be delusively tragic, like Blanche du Bois or Amanda Wingfield, but she is a new kind of Williams heroine, hardened but undefeated.
Back to The Tempest. British productions in recent years have found Prospero less a forgiving guru, more a brooder with a wand and a grudge. Patrick Stewart's recent Royal Shakespeare Company protagonist, for example, was crying out for anger-management. To see the play as a dramatic last will and testament is to miss its unresolved hurt and blood-boiling indignation.
Other artists just keep mutating as they age, invention undimmed. A collection of Caryl Churchill's recent plays, published to celebrate her 70th birthday, sets you scampering after her agile mind and brilliantly skewed imaginings (Far Away creates a giddy apocalyptic scenario in which nations and species join in fitful, mad alliances - 'the cats have come in on the side of the French'). And Merce Cunningham's Xover demonstrates that, at almost 90, he remains serenely ignorant that there are even rules to break. The older artist as working stiff may seem less heroic than the aged prophet - but there's heroism too in someone who keeps on keeping on.
Over to you: does an artist's work betray their age? Do the years bring grace, bitterness or... what? Let me know what you think.
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