Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Rothko play ii: not quite a father

No one who reads this page will attend a performance of Red - the Tony-awarded play on a fictionalised but notoriously public moment in the career of a character modeled on Mark Rothko - without asking himself, what will a relationship with this tempestuous figure be like? Will this be another Peter Grimes, although the youth might be able to fend for himself; will this be another Billy Budd, an insidious emotional torment under a predatory authority? Will this be a Death in Venice, a youth seen but not heard, defining the protagonist's narrative by extraction? It's a play from England, and nobody there can forget the 3 greatest operas of Benjamin Britten. As models, for a drama cast like this, even today, they are compelling in their enticements.

John Logan conceived a play cast for 2 males (and the off-stage ear of a third, Philip Johnson), inventing a 20-something studio assistant who is a painter, himself, who signs on for the grunt work of helping to produce the master's oversize mural canvases for the Seagram Building - in a span the play depicts as two years. Most critics - Brantley at The New York Times aside - describe this rôle as strictly limited, in the mode of an enabler and sounding board for the protagonist's baying outbursts at the great bear and pleiades of his conflicts and his grudges, not always too petty to be compared to Ahab's.

This is a wet play, a play of flux, itself, ostensibly contending in a dialectic of red and black; and tidal comparisons are apposite to its projection on the stage. It's materially impossible for a cipher to carry the 2nd part; there can't be a dramatic criticism worth its salt, that doesn't discern its code.

Red is quite close to being a Death in Venice in Expressionist translation, in which the internal warfare of the elder lashes out at the younger to fashion a whole character, and more to Thomas Mann's point, a resolved artist, and to cut him loose. It is a pity, only to see and hear this florid, noisy play; to read it, will not leave one with anything less than this cognition. The impression left by most critics (particularly at The New Yorker and The Village Voice, bastions high and low of Rothko's home turf) is that the script is vacuous, and is given life only by brilliant stagecraft and the power of Alfred Molina's Rothko. It would help them to read Ms Woolf. 

Will the plain vitality of the script be lost when, as is certain to take place, the play is adapted to the screen? One can't help but think, it will be revealed. A debate on sexuality took place between the playwright, who thought he should not, and the director, who thought should, which was settled by the performance of the actor, who performed the part of Ken without projecting a gay male consciousness. Although it would make a difference for the audience in processing the information of the script, that underlying information is on the subject of whether one is strong enough to be a painter. This is, of course, the calling of the play. But in the volatility of the text, the question lives on relentlessly: Do you love them? 

Like Mann, Mr Logan gives the only sensible answer. The consummation he arranges is rather breathtaking, if simple: he portrays their inevitable quarrel as less the sometimes bitter debate on abstractions that it seems to be, than an exchange and dissolution of their private fears. It is a play that can claim to come from life.

Logan obviously is relying on staging for the trauma of a spare text to be reinforced by enigma in the canvases. His enthusiastic critics are right to regard the play as rather diaphanous in that sense, a screen on which to mount billboards of angst in outbursts out of scale for the page, but handsomely tuned to the technologies of modern production. As a reading of the play this simply does not go far enough; it is to confuse literature with what you can do by sleight of hand. This is its strategem, not its effect.

It remains only to accept that the Platonic climax in the play's defining transaction has been repeatedly prefigured in the paintings' own transit. While there is Tadziu's meekness in the understudy's departure from the shore, he has gathered an image of his artistic self, and the monomaniacal elder has restored himself by a generous act. The timing is impeccable, and not to see the soul of Thomas Mann smiling at this, is to pretend not merely that the artist is less portable than his medium, but that he will not be beckoned into Mann's promising immensity of it all. John Logan has just refuted that, again. We are looking at two men, parting, ready to paint.

John Logan
op. cit.

Alfred Molina, Rothko
Eddie Redmayne, Ken

Stage photography 
  The New York Times©


  1. to fall in love with a painter is always exciting and devastating.

  2. I can only hope this advice draws from generous experience. On devastation, you probably know you bring to mind Cocteau's answer to Ned Rorem (I think it was) when asked what he would salvage from an apartment festooned with masterpieces, in the event of a fire -- "I'd take the fire." I hope you saved the paint. :)