by Yasmina Reza
Produced at The Public Theatre
A STUDY GUIDE
BY MARTIN ANDRUCKI
CHARLES A. DANA PROFESSOR OF THEATER
Yasmina Reza was born in 1959.а After studying at Paris X University and at
Her next play, Winter
Crossing, was similarly successful, garnering a Moliere
Award in 1990 for the best "fringe" show of that year.а (A "fringe production" is, like an
Off-Off-Broadway show in
Her best-known work, Art, opened in
Reza has also written for the movies, with two of her
films, See You Tomorrow and Lulu Kreutz's
Picnic, having been seen in
Art concerns a man who spends a fortune on an all-white painting, thus provoking a quarrel with his best friend who is outraged by this act of extravagance.а This drama about a cultural quarrel involving three affluent, educated, and urbane Parisians reflects Reza's own cosmopolitan social background.а She is the daughter of a Hungarian mother and a Persian father of Jewish ancestry.а Both her parents are musical, her mother having achieved professional stature as a violinist.а Thus, when she writes about "art" she does so as the child of artists, and as a practitioner of art, someone whose entire life has been shaped by artistic awareness.
Serious as the subject of "art" might seem, the play's reputation as an uproariously funny comedy has been something of a surprise for its author.а She has lamented the fact that "people laugh so much they miss some of the lines."а In fact, she says, she was convinced the play was failing dismally during its opening night.а While pacing backstage, she told an interviewer,а "I was completely depressed. I heard the audience laughing, laughing, almost from the first. I thought 'it's a catastrophe, the play is becoming stupid entertainment'. I said if they laughed at a certain point later on, I'd jump out the window. Fortunately, they didn't."аа Reza did not reveal what point in the script that was
Following Art's phenomenal success in France, film director Claude Berri, a friend of Reza's, invited her to view his personal gallery of all-white paintings by Robert Ryman, an American artist.а Says Reza of the work, "It's great decoration, very cool, but I absolutely don't understand how it can cost so much money."а As in the play, the arguments about the meaning and value of art seem to remain unresolved in the author's own mind.
Art takes place in
What is important about the set, in other words, is its function as an empty page on which the characters inscribe their identities.а This "stripped-down" and "neutral" environment is, in fact, much like the white-on-white painting that provokes the crisis among this trio of Parisian sophisticates: it is a void which they fill with their personalities
Although the scenery itself is abstract, the social milieu in which the action takes place is clear and tangible.а Serge is a dermatologist, Marc an aeronautical engineer, and Yvan a businessman.а These men are Parisian urbanites, rich enough to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the world.а They dress well, eat in fashionable restaurants, attend "serious" films, and pay active attention to the world ofа "culture."а None of them is a professional intellectual--a writer or an academic--but each actively follows current fashions in art and ideas.а This social dimension is important, because only among men of such interests could we imagine a serious falling-out over the purchase of an expensive abstract painting.
Serge has just paid two hundred thousand francs (about $35 thousand) for an all-white painting by a fashionable contemporary artist named Antrois.а Eager to show off his new possession, he invites Marc to his flat for a viewing.а As the curtain rises,а the two are looking at the work, Serge with pride, Marc in disbelief that his friend could have spent so much money on what to him is no more than a blank canvas.а Says Serge to Marc, "I might have known you'd miss the point."а Says Marc to Serge, "You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?"
In this exchange, we see the gist of the action: Serge defends his purchase; Marc attacks it.а Serge claims a superior sensitivity to modern art; Marc derides this attitude as idiot snobbery.а The play also provides a third voice: that of the man in the middle.а This turns out to be Yvan, friend to both Serge and Marc, who, when he sees the painting, understands at once Serge's love and Marc's hatred for this ghostly white object.
As the play goes on, and the tensions among the three friends mount, it becomes clear that the controversial picture is merely an excuse for their rancor, a goad that pushes old acquaintances to recognize the new gaps that have opened up between them.а At a crucial moment, Serge asks, "Are you saying I replaced you with the Antrios?"а And Marc responds, "Yes.а With the Antrios . . . and all it implies."а And what it implies is that Serge has changed, that he's no longer the same person with whom Marc first became friends, and that this alteration threatens the continued validity of their relationship.а And Yvan, the third member of the group, exacerbates the situation by his infuriating failure to take sides.а His studied neutrality causes both Serge and Marc to bid ever more fiercely for his support, thus boosting the voltage of a conflict that finally breaks out into physical violence, with well-dressed, middle-aged men scuffling grotesquely in a brawl that settles nothing.
With their friendship about to implode, Serge suddenly makes what looks like a grand gesture of concession to Marc: he hands him a felt-tip pen, silently inviting him to deface the purity of his all-white trophy by sketching a human figure on its surface.а Which Marc does, drawing on one of the painting's faint diagonal white lines "a little skier with a woolly hat."аа As Yvan sees it, Serge thus, "demonstrated to Marc that he cared more about him than he did about his painting."
Or so it seems.а In fact, Serge gave Marc the felt-tip marker knowing its ink was easily removable.а And in short order, Marc and Serge wash the figure off the painting.а Thus, the gesture was tinged by dissimulation on Serge's part: he was never really risking the unsullied whiteness that enraged Marc.а And Marc, though he helps his friend to wash away the little skier, ends the play declaring that the painting "represents a man who moves across a space, and disappears."а He has transformed the white abstraction into a figural narrative,а thus remaining steadfast in his view of art as representation that started his quarrel with Serge in the first place.а Each seems to concede to the other, but each holds unyieldingly to his own obsessions.
Dramatic characters--like characters in life--define themselves by what they do, which of course includes the words they speak.а What one character says about another is especially instructive, not only for what it tells us about the person spoken about, but also because of what it reveals about the speaker.
Art is especially rich in moments where one character defines himself in the act of defining another.а For example, because Marc hates the white painting, Serge accuses him of "atrophying" and ofа "not being a man of [his] time."а Which of course exposes Serge as something of a pompous fool who believes that buying a fashionable object makes him a vital figure in the vanguard of history.а
Each of the characters is thus a kind of double being: the man as seen by himself,а and the very different creature perceived by his friends.
Marc imagines himself as a defender of classical values and common sense against the facile enthusiasms of the moment.а Thus, his disgust at the way Serge speaks the word "artist" as if it named "some unattainable being.а The artist . . . some sort of god . . .."а He also scorns Serge's pseudo-connoisseurship, his conspicuous use of words like "deconstruction," his newfound intimacy with "the great and the good," and his recently-acquired habit of dining with the likes of "the Desprez-Couderts" and other trendy types--all merely to "confirm his new status."а Serge is succumbing to contemporary cultural jargon, and to the social and moral superficiality that goes with being merely "au courant."
In the face of these derelictions, Marc feels he must reassert his authority as teacher and cultural mentor, as the bulwark of classical thought and feeling: "I don't believe in the values which dominate contemporary Art," he declares.а "The rule of novelty.а The rule of surprise.а Surprise is dead meat, Serge.а No sooner conceived than dead."а With this in mind, Marc must always keep before Serge's eyes the fact that the expensive painting, whose creator has been canonized by inclusion in the Pompidou Museum, is nothing but a fraud, a piece of excrement, a whited sepulchre.
But Marc's censoriousness, as we have seen above, will represent something quite different for Serge.а What the latter hears is merely the ranting of an atrophied man, someone who has stopped living, who has, moreover, lost his sense of humor and turned into a sour "know-all." This bitterness tells Serge that Marc is jealous of his old friend,а that he sees new rivals everywhere, especially in the godlike figure of the "artist" who now compels Serge's unqualified admiration.а Having been accustomed to playing sage and mentor to his friend, Marc now cannot tolerate being cast aside while others step into his shoes.
Serge sees himself as emphatically "a man of the times," a "modern" spirit in touch with the vital currents of contemporary life.а At one revealing moment, he tells Marc that he has been reading Seneca and has plucked from this ancient Roman what he takes to be his essential feature: "Read it," he urges Marc, "it's a masterpiece. . . .а Incredibly modern."а Later on, Marc remembers this description, and belabors Serge with it: "You said 'incredibly modern', as if modern was the highest compliment you could give.а As if, when describing something, you couldn't think of anything more admirable, more profoundly admirable, than modern."а For Marc, this is shallow praise, yet another demonstration of Serge's new obsession with the up-to-the-minute, the fashionable, the transiently chic.а
And Serge's self defense in this matter is equally telling: "You don't think it's extraordinary that a man who wrote nearly two thousand years ago should still be bang up to date?"а In that last phrase we hear what Marc finds so irritating about the new Serge: bang up-to-dateness has become his only benchmark for art and ideas.а Which means, of course, that anything behind the times--like Marc himself--is to be discarded.
Caught between this Scylla and Charibdis of contemporary friendship is Yvan.а Unlike Odysseus, however, Yvan fails to navigate the tricky passages of life.а Indeed, he gushes onstage for his second entrance propelled by a torrent of complaint about how he is torn between hostile relatives whose warring demands threaten to shipwreck his wedding plans.а And there he stays: torn and helpless.а And in this neither/nor posture, he has become isolated and miserable:
I pissed around for forty years, I made you laugh . . .а playing the fool, but come the evening, who was left solitary as a rat?а Who crawled back into his hole every evening all on his own?а This buffoon, dying of loneliness. . . .
Eager to please both Serge and Marc, he ends up enraging both.а Marc is outraged by Yvan's desire "to put Serge and me on the same level.а You would like us to be equal.а To indulge your cowardice. . . . But we were never equal, Yvan.а You have to choose."а Serge, on the other hand, berates him for his "inertia," his, "sheer neutral spectator's inertia [which] has lured Marc and me into the worst excesses."
But all Yvan wants is "to be your friend.а Yvan the joker!а Yvan the joker."а Which is to say, someone who is accepted because his words are not taken seriously.а Thus when, a moment later, he is "seized by uncontrollable laughter" and declares that the painting is "a piece of white shit," and that Serge's purchase is "insane," we cannot take his declarations at face value.аа If he is the joker, then he is saying what Marc wants to hear, but with a laugh that signals to Serge that he doesn't really mean it.а That he's just kidding. The man in the middle manages to have it both ways, and when, later in the evening, Serge and Marc declare they will resume their friendship for a "trial period," he bursts into tears, seized by "an uncontrollable and ridiculous convulsion."а These, one assumes, are tears of happiness because the undecided man is no longer required to choose.
We use the word "art" in two related but quite different senses.а One sense is evident in a book title like Mastering the Art of French Cooking.а There the word "art" seems to refer to a body of knowledge and technique that can be learned from a text and executed by following a recipe.а We also have terms such as "the liberal arts," which we learn at school, or "the art of conversation," which we master through experience.аа Used in this way, the term "art" seems to mean an ability that anyone of reasonable intelligence or aptitude might master, to denote nothing more than a range of skills that is both practical and accessible.а This is the older of the two senses of the term.
The newer meaning of "art," dating back only
to the late eighteenth century, is suggested by phrases like "creative
arts," or "the fine arts."а
To be "creative", as we all know, is to produces works of a
kind never before encountered or imagined, things mysteriously conjured into
being by the "artist," who is a combination of sage and seer.аа Similarly, a "fine" art is one
which rises above the mundane uses of the kitchen or the parlor to be admired
rather than handled and used.а We also
speak of "the arts," by which we mean a body of works that areа beautiful and
revelatory,а delighting both the senses
and the soul.а These works include literature
and music, theater and dance, painting and sculpture, and they have in the last
two centuries come to constitute a world of spiritual meaning and experience of
the kind formerly associated only with religion.а Indeed, "art" in this second sense
has become our secular religion. Rather than attending churches or synagogues
on the weekends, many of us go to the museum, the theater, or the symphony
instead.а And one's taste in
"art" is in many ways now as important as one's religious affiliation
was during the Reformation. Then the question was: can Catholics and
Protestants ever be friends?а Now we
wonder: can an admirer of Cezanne ever break bread with a fan of
It is with this second idea of art that Art concerns itself.а The falling out between Serge and Marc over the all-white painting partakes of some of the urgency that once would have surrounded a friend's conversion to an alien faith.а As they regard each other across this contemporary confessional divide--where abstraction confronts the figural, postmodernism faces the classic, and deconstruction squares off against common sense--the two come to seem ever less human to one another.а Each seems to the other humorless, grotesque, incomprehensible.а And each, at the moment of crisis, is willing to attack the other with blows and not merely words.
And all for "art."а We are accustomed to hearing religion criticized for provoking conflict between people, but this play seems to suggest that the problem of violence lies not with outside causes, but with human nature itself, which, as Hamlet says, will "find quarrel in a straw"--or at least in an all-white painting.а
A related theme is the vulnerability of friendship, particularly friendships that have lasted a long time.а Who hasn't had the experience of one day looking at an old friend and asking himself: what in heaven's name do we have in common any more?аа We discover that we have parted ways on politics, or social values, or religious belief.а And we acknowledge sadly that were we to meet now for the first time, we'd probably back away from each other in distaste.а But still we hang on.а We remain friends, most likely because no crisis ever arises that forces us to face up to our differences with these familiar strangers.
But that is precisely what happens in Art. аSerge and Marc confront a crisis of divergent belief and wrestle with the consequences.а The fact that their friendship comes out the other side still intact is reassuring--until we remember that their reconciliation is based on artful--and mutual--deception.
Yasmina Reza: In search of the absolute
("Arts&ShowBIZ", #43, 04/2001)
The woman whom the international
stage has showered with tributes since Art (the play that won the
prestigious Tony Award, in New York, in 1998, and has now been translated into
35 languages!); the woman whose hits are fought over by theatres the world
over, from Berlin to London through Tokyo, Bombay, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires
and Bratislava, was on the Paris stage, at the beginning of
Who could have imagined that the
alcoholic and blundering, comical and hysterical wife of Trois
versions de la vie would be played with extravagant fantasy by the
playwright herself? Her latest and fifth comedy, an acerbic variation on our
powerlessness and our daily pettiness, was simultaneously premiered in Autumn
Yet such recognition does not prevent this start of the millennium champion writer of theatrical hits from excelling on stage in impersonating miserable flops. The actress and playwright is not fazed by her success, she never poses -she knows too well how precarious things are, is too familiar with the fragility and solitude of people not to retain an ironic detachment and an easy elegance; like the characters in her plays, her novel and film, all wrecked, tormented melancholics, at odds with a world they no longer understand, a world too brutal, too modern for them.
From Conversations après
un enterrement (1987) to Art (1994), from
The fragility and solitude of man
Transients who know they are transients, with a certain panache. Like the relations of the author, daughter of a Hungarian violinist, who decided to settle in Paris when the Iron Curtain fell, and a businessman father, brilliant black sheep of a Russian Jewish family that fled Bolshevism, Yasmina still fondly recalls her cosmopolitan childhood in a comfortably off, artistic, music-loving family, open-minded about the world; her admiration for her father, especially, a pianist in his time who, late in life, took a deep interest in the mysteries of the Jewish religion, whose secret fascination he bequeathed to her.
A masculine image haunts the plays of the woman who knows so well how to talk about men, for the most famous actors, from Sean Connery to Al Pacino through Robert de Niro, dream of a part in her plays. What they like so much is that our clever designer has a wonderful way with ellipsis, those rejoinders embroidered on the thread of the essential, apparently simplistic, but in which any great actor can hint at great depths through perfectly timed, almost musical silences.
Yasmina Reza's theatre is a theatre of virtuosos; only they can portray the madman through a slightly woolly confusion, show the substance between the voids; only they can take pleasure in dreaming about those fierce, yet anodyne, words pure and hard as crystal.
Fed by the plays of Nathalie Sarraute, she too is a great embroiderer of the unsaid, the unspoken and other mute frustrations, Yasmina Reza sets out to say all through the trivial, the tragic through the comic, the serious through levity -a kind of search for the absolute. What if the hysterical and comical actress, the stuff of magnificent drama, were, in her way, a great mystic?
Journalist with the weekly arts magazine Télérama
Broadway Review: `Art'
(U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 8, 1998)
The over-praised (or is it over-appraised?) British import "Art," by Yasmina Reza, will undoubtedly find a Broadway audience eager to cheer the middle-aged, middle-class contenders in this 90-minute round of intellectual fisticuffs. The manly art of the bitchy put down achieves world-class status in this clever little conceit of a play in which three word-sparring middle-class men take sides and draw the lines between the value of abstract and figurative art.
However, it's hard for me to be more than mildly impressed with the play's basic premise: that a 15-year friendship between three oddly bonded heterosexuals would come to an abrupt end just because one has purchased a painting for 200,000 francs. Yet there is no denying that the ability of a five-by-four, white-on-white painting by a modernist artist to incite a cataclysmic war of words among men has the making of a very funny picture. Okay, I laughed a little. But this kind of story was funnier in an old one-act play called, "If Men Played Cards as Women do."
It is difficult to embrace a play devoted to little more than polarizing high fallutin' opinions, even when those opinions are so glibly and ingenuously expressed by the three excellent actors Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina. This trio has a ball with their outrageously insignificant, esthetically indefensible characters. And director Matthew Warchus orchestrates the ceaseless babble and reckless brouhaha with a curator's meticulous sense of control. There are those who will undoubtedly be kept amused by how the painting that Marc (Alan Alda), an aeronautical engineer, has smugly and snottily denounced to its purchaser Serge (Garber), a successful dermatologist, as a "piece of shit," would warrant such an outpouring of portentously expressed hostility.
Marc's insensitive assault on his friend's values, first based on the cost of the painting, and then on its arguable worth, sets the play's testy tone. But it is the secondary attacks and counter-attacks, when Serge's personal taste and inferred disloyalty to the condescending and intolerably opinionated Marc is put to the test, that the play begins to percolate. There are moments when the characters are allowed to appear as compassionate, sensitive people, able to feel and be hurt. That is when they are not engaged in making a spectacle of their self-deprecating, self-defeating bitterness.
At first, Marc's ostensibly artistic judgment appears as qualitatively enlightened as it is tiresomely articulated. It is to our great relief that Marc is ultimately challenged, not by the equally pretentious defensive rhetoric from Serge, but by Yvan (Molina), the unwitting, self-absorbed but more neutral arbitrator. As such, he becomes prey to his buddies' ravenous appetite for an unsuspecting scapegoat. The play peaks when Yvan takes a hilariously digressive path from the rage and fury about art that is tearing their friendship apart to tear into a protracted, angst-driven monologue about how his wedding plans have gone haywire.
One can assume that Christopher Hampton's translation loses little of the brittle and acerbic resonance of Reza's text. Alda is scarily convincing as the trio's unofficially ordained mentor. Garber almost steams up the apartment with his dangerously compressed air of independence. And we can all breathe easier when the wonderfully funny Molina smartly assumes the most naive and most direct path to artistic integrity, and by doing so inadvertently creates a possible end to the hostilities.
Designer Mark Thompson's three white-on-white
About Art: to Yasmina Reza, playwright
I saw Yasmina Reza's play
Art, translated by Christopher Hampton, performed brilliantly at the Court
The more I think about Art, Yasmina, the more ambivalent I become about it. Not that I doubt its brilliance for one second, it's just my own thoughts about it that I doubt. Am I more like Serge, the fervent convert to modern art, or Marc, the critical cynical rationalist? Or do I stand revealed as an Yvan-type in my spineless equivocation? Could it be that I, like you, am a composite of all three characters?
In Freudian terms, Yvan must equate to the id, the primitive instincts and energies. He's the one who is passively moulded by circumstances but whose emotions occasionally erupt when pushed too far. Serge is the ego, the conscious subject, the self-defining individual intent on fulfilling his desires and mastering his destiny, whatever the cost. Marc is the superego, the conscience and critic, attempting to exert parental control over the ego's wayward excesses.
The plot, essentially, is composed of variations on "two's company, three's a crowd." Serge wants to feel good about his extravagant purchase of a minimalist white painting for 200,000 francs, so he needs the validation of his friends. Yvan, as befits the id, is happy to acquiesce. But Marc, as conscience, is impelled to cut Serge down to size, and he too can only achieve this with Yvan's backup. So Yvan is pulled in both directions simultaneously, a lose-lose situation which blows up in his face when Serge and Marc catch on and gang up on him instead.
The standard critical line about Art is that it's really about friendship, the art bit being little more than a pretext. I suspect, Yasmina, that friendship may be a pretext too, because--let's face it--those characters are rather predictable, more than a little one-dimensional. What it's most deeply about is the psyche itself, particularly the battles that can rage within sensitive artistic souls like yourself. To put it another way, there are several levels of meaning in Art: on one level, art; on another, friendship; on another, the psyche.
On yet another level it's about the creative process, where the act of creation or bringing forth is accompanied by the ever-present voice of the self-critic, editor and censor: the urge to reveal is reigned in by the need to conceal, the desire to be free balanced by caution and restraint.
For me, the most telling line of the entire play is uttered by Yvan at the end: "Nothing beautiful was ever created through rational argument." I can hear your voice particularly in that, Yasmina. I agree that rationality can only take you so far, at least if art is what you have in mind. Beyond that, it's necessary to jump into the deep waters of the irrational and follow your intuition.
Of course you know this already: you write, you've said, "from my intuition, my sense of freedom, my feeling of words and rhythm." What you write mirrors your nature; your plays are essentially autobiographical. As one self-perceived outsider to another, I can relate to that. Such is my conceit that I feel I know you, a kindred spirit, very well.
I have a friend who argues with me relentlessly about the meanings of art. She is well-armed and defended with many in-the-air theories, inculcated at art school. If I try telling her that I create intuitively, from my sense of freedom, she dismisses that as merely subjectivist. She has learned from bitter experience, from weekly crit-sessions with her tutors, that no position is entirely defensible: it's best to remain chameleon-like, never allowing oneself to be pinned down, never staking one's flag on clearly identifiable turf. Our diametrically opposed situations generate passionate debate, the same sort with which Art is imbued, only without the rancour.
Perhaps this sort of friendship, the sort between Serge and Marc, or between you and the real Serge you based the character on, thrives on one-upmanship. Examples generate counter-examples, and more counter-examples in turn, in the vain hope that one's own insight will prevail. But it never does: You can only hope to clarify your own thinking in the process of trying to clarify your friend's. It can be a rewarding form of social interaction, using continual disagreement to stimulate and refine your own thought processes.
Creative energy is what all this disagreement is reduced to. It has to go somewhere, so one points it in this direction rather than that. Sometimes what results is art, such as the play you so aptly titled Art. The audience stands in relation to the play as the characters stand in relation to the white painting. Each of these art objects is a kind of tabula rasa, a clean slate or empty construct over which people do battle to ascribe their own interpretations. You've set us up to argue over whether the play is about art or friendship, Yasmina, just as the characters argue over the painting's value or lack of it. There is never any final answer to these questions, or to the internal ones which characterise the id, ego, and superego. If any position carries the day, it is Yvan's ambivalence: and that only seems to defer eventual compliance with either Serge's or Marc's position.
At the play's end, however, there is a resolution of sorts. Marc accepts Serge's invitation to draw on the painting, albeit with an erasable marker-pen, and depicts a man skiing downhill which is later rubbed out. Marc is thus able to ascribe a meaning of his own: that of a man moving across a space then disappearing. This illustrates how, for Marc, a meaningless and valueless art object is transformed into one which has both meaning and value. He has, ostensibly, made the work his own through creatively engaging with it--though personally I find that scenario less than convincing.
In reality the "double answer," the quandary, remains, because that is the way the world--and the creative psyche--work. The art-lover or artist (Serge) vies with the critic (Marc) for the support of the public (Yvan), and it is a rare situation when all three are in complete accord. And while it bothers you, Yasmina, that you are probably not seen through your plays as "the summit of intelligence and intellectuality . . . on the other hand, deep down you don't give a damn. You know what you do, you know what you want, you know what you want to say."
I concur with that wholeheartedly. So do Serge, Marc, and Yvan, collectively speaking.
by Max Podstolski
'Art' offers more laughs than true art
By David Brooks Andrews,
What could be more representative of western society today than a play in which three professional men argue heatedly over a white- on-white painting, for which one of them paid 200,000 francs, or approximately $40,000?
You've got three suits. Depending on your perspective, you may have a highly inflated price for a dubious product. And you've got verbal fireworks exploding continually. Isn't this the very stuff that has been fueling our red-hot economy?
It certainly is what drives Yasmina
Reza's "Art," which was translated from the original French by
Christopher Hampton, and is being performed by the show's national touring
By drawing on material that is such a mirror of our times and so easily recognizable, Ms. Reza has written a comedy that has proven to be extremely popular, winning a Tony and Drama Critics Cirde Award for Best Play in 1998 and receiving performances in more than 25 countries. Such awards may be as inflated as the price paid for the white-on-white canvas, but the play doesn't make for a dull evening, either.
From the very opening of "Art," Marc is extremely offended that his friend Serge has spent so much money on a painting that defies the basic principles of color and form and seems to offer so little to the viewer. He goes to their mutual friend, Yvan, seeking an ally, only to discover that Yvan prefers taking a neutral position, which ends up angering both Marc and Serge.
It's as if we're eavesdropping through an apartment wall on an extended argument. What makes the play so funny is to see the characters respond in unexpected ways in the midst of very heated moments. It may be Judd Hirsch as Marc spinning his entire body around to face the painting as if this might help to reveal its meaning. Or it may be Jack Willis as Yvan shifting from blubbering neutrality to critiquing the painting with his own clever variation on one of Marc's epithets. There are more subtle moments, too.
Judd Hirsch as Marc is extremely relaxed and natural on
the stage as he can't help saying exactly what he believes, often at a
machine-gun clip, boring into Serge. Those who attend to see the former star of
"Taxi" won't be disappointed.
Cotter Smith as Serge begins with something of an emotionless monotone, but he soon breaks out of it into a sharp focused defense of his artistic choice. Familiar to viewers from his year stint with the American Repertory Theatre, Mr. Willis as Yvan begins with his typical whiny voice and overextending of words. But ultimately he puts his vocal mannerisms to good use as he creates one of the more real and sympathetic characters of the trio.
It eventually becomes clear that this play isn't just about a painting; it's about friends' expectations of each other and their tendency, at times, to destroy each other. Why they actually remain friends through all this hostility is never quite made clear, and that is one of the weaknesses of the play.
The costumes play off the painting with their clever gray-on-black theme, as does the modern set with its white-on-white furniture, oversized ceiling moldings, and three very different paintings to indicate the characters' different apartments.
"Art" provides fodder for more laughter than you may have heard in the theater for a while, although it doesn't run deep or leave you with much more than a light, pleasurable buzz and a few interesting topics to launch your apres-theater dessert. (It runs an hour and a half without intermission, so there's plenty of time afterwards for dinner or dessert.)
Ultimately theater has considerably more to offer, but if a show like this draws people who aren't regular theatergoers, it may provide a real service, especially if it eventually leads people to more meaty and satisfying productions.
by Yasmina Reza
by Irondale Ensemble
Theater for the
News flash: Heiner Müller, famous appropriationist,
appropriates wrong guy! Several weeks ago, Heiner Müller--who, at his death in 1995, was widely recognized
as one of the most important playwrights of the century and Bertolt
Brecht's most inspired spiritual heir--was convicted
of plagiarism in a
One reason the East German Müller was never as well known in the United States as he was in most of the rest of the world was the nature of the challenge his work posed to received ideas of originality and intellectual property. Müller thought that the worship of originality played into the terrorism of fashion and the bourgeois cult of the absolutely new. Reinventing the world every day contributes to historical amnesia-an increasingly deadly malady in the info-age, he pointed out--and his response was to become the appropriationist par excellence of 20th-Century theater.
Almost all his works were conceived as vampiric "occupations" of other works (or parts of them)--his characteristic technique being the placement of quotations (attributed and not) in new contexts that reveal the troubling assumptions about history behind the original texts. Müller's model for this technique was, of course, Brecht, who practiced similar forms of "copying" his entire career--from the 1918 Baal, a reaction to Hanns Johsi, to the 1953 Turandot, a reaction to Gozzi and Schiller--and who also enjoyed scandalizing others with this treatment of past artworks as incitements to work rather than as private property.
The hypocritical lawsuit by the Brecht heirs which probably come as no surprise to those
who have followed the arbitrary and authoritarian manner in which they have
administered the 'master's' work over the years, but this Müller
case involves a special vindictiveness. The scene in Germania
The most interesting aspect of this whole sordid episode to me, however, is the speed with which the East German Brecht heirs seized on the advantages of a Western value system based on the primacy of property. As it turned out, the Munich judge who heard the case was no more interested in distinguishing between types or qualities of appropriation than the U.S. Supreme Court was in 1992 when it declined to review Art Rogers' copyright- infringement suit against Jeff Koons, forcing Koons to pay damages for duplicating in sculpture Rogers' now-famous photograph of a couple holding a litter of eight puppies.
Admittedly, it's hard to sympathize
with an artist as swaggeringly superficial and openly cynical as Koons, especialy when the object
of his filching isn't a classic (like Brecht,
Shakespeare or Picasso), but a living artist less prominent than himself.
Prosecution of appropriation grows troubling only when it involves penetrating
and subtle artists whose purpose is the critique of power---as with the Walt
Disney Co.'s legal hardball against Dennis Oppenheim
for using Mickey and Donald in a wonderfully wry, molecule-like public
Brecht once wrote a poem called "Prohibition of Theater Criticism" in which he equated those (like the Nazis) who aspire to autocratic power with performers who "need shielding from any breath of criticism ... in fact it must/Not even be said what the play is/Who is paying for the performance and/Who acts the chief part" And strangely enough, Yasmina Reza's embarrassingly thin play Art, for all its pandering to philistinism in the name of intellectual humor, set me thinking a great deal about the conditions that allow for this sort of "shielding from criticism" (without most of us being aware of it) in info-age democracies.
Art, as you've probably heard, takes place in Paris and deals with a breach among three male friends that occurs after one of them, Serge (Victor Garber), spends 200,000 francs (about $40,000) on an all-white painting. Much of the action is utterly implausible; no men I know would stick around for such a savage, personal argument--couples yes, women friends maybe, but never straight male buddies who look like the most they ever get it up to talk about is stock options and football scores. I found many passages disgusting, particularly while watching the Broadway audienceТs co-conspiratorial snickering (invited by Reza throughout and never challenged) at remarks like "this ridiculous painting" and "this shit" from Marc (Alan Alda), the snidely arrogant character upset by the purchase. And even the play's serious art commentary is generally sophomoric: "the end of a journey," "resonant," "I see other colors in it."
What allowed me to look past all this, though, was fascination with the character Marc's denial of what was really bothering him. Chatting with the third character, Yvan (Alfred Molina), Marc invents complicated, far-fetched explanations about Serge's loss of humor and separation from him as an art mentor, but in his heart the real violation clearly has to do with desecration of money. In buying the painting, Serge has violated some unspoken bond of boy-clubbiness between them, some inflexible power-brokering rule about how value must be conferred, and Reza fails so miserably at exploring this that the emotional stuntedness of the men (rather than appreciation of art) eventually becomes the play's main social paradigm. Which is no doubt one reason for its healthy run: such denial is appealing. It buoys our pride in our own supposedly higher values while lessening our guilt about not asking tougher questions about the power and money that control us.
Irondale Ensemble, by contrast, has
never shied away from these sorts of tough questions. On the other hand, it
seems to have a gift for asking them in ways no one can listen to. Admirable as
the group's Brechtian ambitions have been for 15
years, its current show, Degenerate Art, is typical of the way it has
undermined itself with antediluvian agitprop techniques so obvious, naive and
crushingly dull that they risk alienating the converted. How laudable to want
to document the Nazis' infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibit of
How inane, though, to try to historicize that material via inserted quotations from Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp and others criticizing public funding for art in the U.S.--as if the parallels with 1937 Germany were obvious. And how comically obtuse to try to satirize (and hence trivialize) genocidal Nazis and courageous expressionists together, perpetrators and victims, with the same broad, indiscriminate and ill-timed brush that Brecht used in Arturo Ui (1941).
Asked his opinion of this show, Heiner Müller would have sent the Irondale group straight back to the library to pore over more sources until it had either drawn satisfying connections between 1937 and the present day or decided to reconceive the whole piece. With luck, they might even have come upon a relevant Müller book there. And even appropriated it.
Then again, maybe not.
Clever 'Art' Tests Ties of Friendship
(FEATURES, ARTS & LEISURE, THEATER, from the March 20, 1998 edition)
Iris Fanger, Special to The Christian Science Monitor