Arthur Penn: On Artistic Suicide

New York

I'm morbidly fascinated by this discussion of artistic suicide, which means that I understand and agree with what others are telling you, even as I am saddened by this realization. I want to alter the reality of what I see happening to the theatre--to all culture, really--but I haven't the vaguest idea how to go about it: Not only because I'm old and no longer salable, but because I don't think there is really a terribly strong desire to alter the direction in which our arts are going. I really don't.

So, in answer to your questions as to what begins the sad state of artistic suicide: It begins with a deterioration of--a total misunderstanding of--the definition of theatre. We're talking about theatre right now, right? Okay, well fucking define theatre. We can happily spend days at this table talking about what theatre is, but let's begin by discussing what theatre is not.

Theatre is not:

People standing at music stands reading excerpts of someone who bothered to create theatre, all under the guise of caring for or curating or conserving the theatre. Where I come from we call this sneaking and swerving to get a perch where you haven't earned one. We also call it bullshit.

I will submit that there have been exciting evenings of theatre where good actors read material: Shaw comes to mind, but the recent evenings to which I have submitted myself did not have Charles Laughton or Charles Boyer. Trust me.

Theatre is not:

Good intentions. I admire you for reading to the blind or going into at-risk schools, but your plays still stink and your actors cannot act. You are not a theatre: You are a sinecure. I am proud of the fact that I fought for, contributed to, and greatly enjoyed the work of a number of theatres and artists who received a bounty of government money to produce and survive, but something went terribly wrong. Suddenly, there was a grant for every dream, every desire, every thwarted artist who couldn't get a job, so he created a theatre. There must be a gimmick attached to these theatres, because there is no quality to warrant its survival, so they devote themselves to a particular genre of theatre or nationality or a particular playwright. They are doing 'good works,' committing 'kind acts,' so it would be cruel to judge them by the true standards of art. So if they stink, we have to hold our noses and applaud their efforts and ask ourselves to shrink our standards and enlarge our hearts.

Write plays. Act and direct them well. Inspire people to show up and see them because they mean something and alter their lives. Create audiences, not crusader rabbits who are writing checks to aid artistic gimps.

This is where I think artistic suicide begins.

Ask around and see what others say. I would find it interesting. I would also hope that they care enough to do something about it. I would hope that they are younger and can actually do something.

The world, meanwhile, does not possess enough music stands for what is coming.

©2013 by James Grissom
From Artistic Suicide


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