Tuesday, November 21, 2017

From a Commonplace Book

Since I started doing interviews, I’ve answered the "preaching to the converted" question more than any other. It seems to me predicated on an unthinking use of the terms "preaching" and "converted." It’s not as if all preachers, including for instance John Donne, were merely dispensers of predigested, soundbite rhetoric and cliché; good preachers are gifted articulators of the thorniest, juiciest, most dangerous, most contradictory problems, dilemmas, controversies. It’s not as if the "converted" are always only Moonies lacking any sort of spiritual liveliness or freedom of thought. Quite the contrary. The converted, the congregation, united by certain beliefs, share amongst themselves bewilderment, despair, hope needing amplification, confusion needing examination and elucidation, and avenues of interesting and productive inquiry. Lockstep congregations are a sure sign of a moribund faith, of the absence of anything Divine. A good preacher rattles her congregants’ smugness and complacency, and congregants to do the same for the preacher. Good preachers are exhilarating to listen to, and the converted have a lot to think about. So this "preaching to the converted" question doesn’t address all religious practice, or all theater — just crummy religion and inept theater.

If one’s intended audience is "the unconverted," one is an evangelist. The evangelizing playwright usually makes dreary plays, cautious plays which try to woo and seduce hostile, recalcitrant people, people less enlightened than the playwright — plays of condescension, in other words, plays which arrange their glib, necessarily simplified certainties in neat rows and send them forth, marching into battle. Ugh. That’s a degradation of the power of theater, of the purpose and power of art. As I said, art suggests, describes, explores, tests ideas; art doesn’t issue marching orders. There are far better, more effective ways of organizing people than playwriting. And while art educates, it’s never sufficient as a means of instruction; at some point a more reliable narrative must be sought. Art should strive for a level of complexity and depth that mirrors the complexity and depth of life, and for that matter that mirrors the complexity and depth of politics.

Although there are times when a good, nasty skit is called for.

-- Tony Kushner (NY Times, June 4, 2004, "10 Questions for... Tony Kushner")

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