Elia Kazan On The Higher Calling

Elia Kazan
Interview Conducted 1993
New York City

I have been giving a lot of thought to the questions you are asking--and also to the questions you've carried with you from Tennessee, and I want to be clear that there is a development that occurs in the older person: We become victims--sclerotic victims--of nostalgia, a disease as pernicious as dementia or cancer, in my opinion. However, as often as I look fondly back at my youth--as all people do--I can still see some negative changes that have occurred in the world, and these changes have seeped deeply and terminally into our arts.

I can tell you that it was not merely youth that allowed me to be grateful that I worked in the American theatre when I did and how I did. I was present for the most creative and passionate and happily servile group of people of the past century. I believe this. I will defend this. 

You might be too young to remember this, but there was a time when people dressed in their best clothing to receive the sacraments each week in their churches and temples. No matter how poor they were, they pressed and prepared the best clothing they had and bore witness to their God, their Christ, their social standing, their open confession of faith each and every week. They made a statement both with their attendance and with the manner and style they presented when appearing. This was true as well for the theatre and the opera. To attend the theatre or any artistic performance was not just an outing--it was a civic and, I think,  moral act. You went to be entertained, yes, but to also be enlightened. This seriousness of purpose was on both sides of the curtain: The actors also realized that they were in service to something ancient and heroic and bold and noble, and they crafted their lives accordingly. Yes, there were egos and they were encased within some sacred monsters, but the ego was used to propel a talent--all of the talents--toward the production, the manifestation of an ideal play, a perfect evening for the audience and for one's peers working with you. I can only compare what we did to what religious orders did, and I don't think our egos or our expectations were any more or less aberrant than theirs.

We were engaged in a higher calling.

That is gone.

I feel now that the work being done is entirely in the service of and toward the comfort and fulfillment of the people working in the theatre. Actors work in the theatre now, it seems, primarily to make it to pilot season or a big break, or we are left with the detritus that is not wanted in a larger purview. The theatre is now very small; there is nothing bold about it. It is all very safe, and the ambitions, the goals, and the talents have been forced to shrink. I look back in books of the theatre and I see plays that closed in a week or two, plays that were not well-reviewed, but I look at the names of those involved and I am flabbergasted. I remember how good they were in these flawed plays that very often tried to be something of importance. I no longer see that: The talents are as puny as the plays that encase them.

We have a short-term theatre. We have a short-term culture in general. Win this award; win this election. Garner some attention, even if you don't deserve it. There is so much management now of the careers of actors and hardly any husbanding or caring for the talent.

Fill your life; fill your mind; fill your soul. This makes big people and big artists. When you bring these people together in a venue, remarkable things happen.

We're too small, and it's all going to blow away very soon.

©2013 James Grissom
From Artistic Suicide


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