Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, which became all but moribund in the Nineties, is now showing fresh signs of life. One is the upcoming production of Mozart’s Il re pastore (it’ll be seen next Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) directed by Mark Lamos, in whose work I take wild delight (he’s the guy who directed the Met’s Wozzeck and New York City Opera’s Turn of the Screw). Another is the presence of the Mark Morris Dance Group, which has been performing Gloria and V, two of Morris’ most important dances, at the New York State Theater (the last show is tonight at eight).
I went on Wednesday, mainly to see V, Morris’ staging of the Schumann Piano Quintet. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to catch the premieres of a half-dozen or so works of art that I immediately recognized as great. That’s how I felt about V when I saw its New York premiere two years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’ve seen it four more times since then, and I haven’t changed my mind. By now, I know V well enough to be able to talk in a fairly specific way about what makes it so good. But how did I know how good it was the first time I saw it? What made me so sure it was a masterpiece?
These questions aren’t as simple as they sound. I mean, it’s not as if I’d been sitting in my aisle seat that night, ticking off boxes on the Masterpiece Checklist. (The 18th-century neoclassicists tried to draw up just such a checklist, which is one reason why their art is so dull.) In fact, I tend not to do much thinking about a great work of art when I’m experiencing it for the first time. Instead, I become swept up in what Robert Warshow called the immediate experience. In the face of mastery, analysis is impossible–it’s something you do after the fact.
C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful little book called An Experiment in Criticism in which he suggested that in order to understand the nature of greatness in literature, we might try approaching it in reverse:
Literary criticism is traditionally employed in judging books. Any judgement it implies about men’s reading of books is a corollary from its judgement on the books themselves. Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books. I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.
With that in mind, I asked myself these questions on Wednesday: How did I feel as I watched V for the first time? Did I feel the same way as I watched it for the fifth time? And might those feelings tell me something about the nature of a masterpiece?
I was a bit surprised (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) to discover that I still had fairly easy access to the sensations I experienced at the New York premiere of V. What’s more, I remembered having had similar sensations on such other occasions as the New York premiere of Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera and my first viewing of Kenneth Lonergan’s film You Can Count on Me, both of which I also recognized as masterpieces at first sight.
Here’s what I felt:
Immediate involvement. More often than not, it takes a few minutes to become fully engaged by a work of art. You have to shut out the rest of the world, and that isn’t always easy, especially in a noisy place like New York. With V, on the other hand, I felt as though the dancers had reached out from the stage and grabbed me as soon as the curtain went up.
The perception of competence. Early on in a masterpiece–often very early indeed–something unexpected happens that makes me shake my head with pleasure and surprise. I realize that the person who made it knew exactly what he was doing, and I say to myself, I’m in good hands.
The opposite of boredom. Harry Cohn, the boor who ran Columbia Pictures in the Forties and Fifties, is supposed to have said that whenever he caught himself squirming in his seat as he watched the rushes of a movie, he knew there was something wrong with it. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the drunken sage of Hollywood (and the author of the screenplay for Citizen Kane), is supposed to have replied, “Imagine–the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!” I don’t know anything about Harry Cohn’s ass, but a quarter-century on the aisle has taught me that whenever my attention flags midway through a new work, the chances are good that there’s something wrong with it. That never happened with V. I was completely involved–“present,” as actors say–from start to finish. I didn’t squirm once.
Performance anxiety. Roughly halfway into V, I realized that I was nervous. It took a little longer before I realized why: what I was seeing on stage was so beautiful that I was afraid something would go wrong, that Morris would fumble the ball. When I say “afraid,” I really mean it. I felt extreme anxiety, not for Morris or me, but for the dance itself, as if it were a living thing for whose health I feared.
Consummation. That anxiety disappeared toward the end of the last movement, at the exact moment when Schumann launches a fugue-like musical episode and the dancers run out from the wings and start to embrace one another. Right then, I knew Morris had “solved” the dance–that he had successfully worked out its internal logic and was demonstrating the solution on stage–and my eyes immediately filled with tears.
All these sensations came back to me as I watched V on Wednesday night. This time around, of course, they were accompanied by a clearer intellectual understanding of the way the dance works, how it grows out of Schumann’s music and creates a visual counterpart to the tonal architecture. But I didn’t need to understand any of these things to know that V was a masterpiece the first time I saw it. I just knew.
As A.E. Housman famously said, “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” I know what he meant. Instead of analyzing V, I read its quality off myself, the same way you can read the seismographic chart of an earthquake and know how strong it was. Or–to put it more simply–I knew how good V was because of the way it made me feel.