The Public Theater’s well-reviewed revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1984 AIDS play, closed abruptly last week after just sixty-three performances, none of which sold out. “I’ll tell you one thing: I will never write another play again,” Kramer told the New York Times. “I mean, when are we all going to realize that people don’t want to go to the theater anymore?” That is, you might say, a trifle solipsistic. I remember the original production of The Normal Heart vividly, and also unfavorably, it having been little more than a noisy piece of sermonizing. Hence I didn’t bother attending, much less reviewing, the revival. Once was enough.
Conversely, I didn’t catch the original run of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins a decade and a half ago, which was why I went out of my way to see and write about the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival at Studio 54. While I thought the show itself had major problems, I was as impressed by the production as were my fellow critics. But ordinary theatergoers begged to differ, and so Assassins will close, barring a miracle, on July 18.
To date, Sondheim has made no whiny public statements about the failure of Assassins to find an audience, that not being his style. He did, however, express concern prior to opening night that the show might give offense to those whom he considers politically benighted. “I live in a liberal community, which is happy to bring into question things about this country,” he told a reporter for Time, a statement I found–well, smug. I called him on it when I reviewed the show for The Wall Street Journal:
Whenever Mr. Sondheim and John Weidman, his librettist, attend to the twisted souls of John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris), Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris), and their partners in ignominy, “Assassins” holds you in its grip like a demented strangler–but no sooner do they seek to use these sad creatures to score debating points than it turns as jejune as a college revue.
If you think I’m being harsh, you haven’t seen “Assassins,” which takes the form of a carnival sideshow whose brass-voiced barker (Marc Kudisch) invites unhappy passers-by to forget their troubles by stepping right up and taking a potshot at the man in the Oval Office: “No job? Cupboard bare?/One room, no one there?/Hey, pal, don’t despair–/You wanna shoot a president?” That’s the message of “Assassins,” such as it is: if only there were ice cream for everyone, Camelot would still be with us! Instead, we preach the American dream, and some of those born losers who find it hollow seek to even the score with a gun: “And all you have to do/Is/Squeeze your little finger./Ease your little finger back–/You can change the world.”
Aside from being sophomoric, this rigidly reductive thesis clashes with the core of “Assassins,” a series of nine sharply drawn sketches of successful and would-be presidential assassins. Not surprisingly, this is the part of the show where Mr. Sondheim finds his footing, since his other musicals are exclusively concerned not with ideas but feelings (or the inability to feel). Not even in “Sweeney Todd,” which purports to locate its antihero’s murderous rage in the dehumanizing context of 19th-century British industrialism, does he betray any real interest in or understanding of politics. For Mr. Sondheim, the political is personal, and no matter how hard he and Mr. Weidman try to persuade us that their desperate characters are meaningful symbols of mass alienation, we persist in seeing them as individual objects of pity united only in their varied forms of despair: “There’s another national anthem, folks,/For those who never win,/For the suckers,/For the pikers,/For the ones who might have been.”
Do the lives of these misfits have any larger meaning? Perhaps, but you can’t prove it by “Assassins,” which merely asserts their significance rather than demonstrating it–and that’s where the show runs off the road. To be effective, political theater must deal in fact, not fancy, and most of America’s presidential assassins were in fact driven not by ideology but madness. “Assassins” leaves no doubt of that, especially in “The Ballad of Guiteau,” in which Charles Guiteau (Denis O’Hare), who shot and killed James Garfield, displays his megalomania to spectacular effect. And what do such delusions tell us about the validity of the American dream? Nothing, which is why “Assassins” makes no sense.
I doubt it’s altogether coincidental that the authors of Assassins and The Normal Heart presupposed the prior agreement of their audiences with the shows’ underlying political premises. Tim Robbins’ Embedded was like that, too, as are (surprise) the plays of Tony Kushner. The trouble with this kind of playwriting, as with any other kind of highly politicized art, is that it’s lazy. You might even go so far as to say that it arises from an entitlement mentality–the assumption that so long as you think all the right things, you need not make the extra effort to transform your ideas into a fully realized work of art.
Two paragraphs buried deep in the Times story about The Normal Heart gave that game away with embarrassing clarity:
Still, producers thought that its political subject and gay heroes might attract audiences, especially on a Gay Pride weekend in an election year.
But sales for last weekend–gay pride–were awful, Mr. Kramer said. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “If your own people aren’t going to support you, that really hurts someone like me.”
Note the planted axiom: gay people should have supported The Normal Heart. Why? Because they’re gay, that’s why. But they didn’t, just as Sondheim’s “liberal community” has declined to turn out in sufficient numbers to keep Assassins open. Now, no demographic group in America is as reliably liberal–or contains, I suspect, as many gays–as the regular theatergoers of Manhattan and its environs. Does that make all those inconsiderate stay-at-homes insufficiently liberal? Or insufficiently gay? Somehow I doubt it.
Larry Kramer did, however, say something sensible about the revival of The Normal Heart, though it may have been unintentional: “It speaks very ill of us, meaning all the people today involved in culture and entertainment, that we can produce this stuff and in no way market it to the world.” I’m not suggesting that the failure of his play was a failure of marketing, though. Rather, I have in mind the characteristic failing of political art, which is that its makers fail to understand the need to effectively “market” their ideas by embodying them in works of art capable of commanding the attention of an audience consisting in part–perhaps even in large part–of people who don’t already believe in them.
I quoted David Denby’s review of Fahrenheit 9/11 the other day, but what he said is worth repeating:
Michael Moore has become a sensational entertainer of the already converted, but his enduring problem as a political artist is that he has never known how to change anyone’s politics.
Which begs a more difficult question: can art change anyone’s politics? I don’t mean in the sense of persuading ninnies that the CIA killed John Kennedy, but in the deeper and more thoroughgoing sense of effecting a genuine transformation in one’s view of the world.
W.H. Auden thought not:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Clement Greenberg said much the same thing, less poetically but more transparently: “Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.” I incline that way as well, but my own view is more nuanced. The insurmountable problem of explicitly political art, it seems to me, is that it is, literally, exclusive. As a result, it fails in what I take to be one of the defining responsibilities of aesthetically serious art, which is to aspire to universality, speaking (at least potentially) to all men in all conditions.
The only way art can do this is by reposing, in Dr. Johnson’s immortal words, on the stability of truth. By embodying and dramatizing truth, it brings us closer to understanding the nature of the human condition. And might such an enterprise be political? In a way, I suppose, though one must never forget that political opinions are epiphenomenal: they arise from experience rather than preceding it. (If they don’t, those who hold them are by definition out of touch with reality.) As for me, I know that my experience of great art has shaped my philosophy of life, which in turn informs my political views. But has great art ever had a direct effect on those views? Not in my experience. Nor can I think offhand of even one truly great work of art that was created with the specific intention of changing anyone’s political views. If you want to do that with your art, you must accept going in that the results will be less than great–and if that doesn’t bother you, fine. Greenberg got that right, too: “There are, of course, more important things than art: life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I’ve heard art-silly people say all my life: I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness.” This may mean choosing politics over art, especially if you’re not a good artist to begin with.
Which brings us back to The Normal Heart and Assassins. Larry Kramer, alas, isn’t a good artist. Stephen Sondheim is a very good artist, but one who in this case allowed his aesthetic priorities to be skewed by his political passions. And you know what? The results of both men’s best efforts went belly-up at the box office. Maybe that means ordinary playgoers are simply too stupid, or craven, to know a good thing when they see one. Or maybe it means they’re too smart to fall for bad art, even when they happen to agree with its political premises.