Sunday, 23 February 2014

In praise of bad art (and bad saints)

Tonight I went to see a bad play. It was Shakespeare, one of the greatest plays ever written, and it was terrible. The actors affected accents. Their costumes hung on them like scarecrows' clothes. They misunderstood their lines, and misremembered them. They shouted when they should have whispered and whispered when they should have shouted. They made us laugh when the business was solemn and made us miserable when we should have been laughing. They stood in a straight line reciting speeches one by one, each remaining stock still while all the others took turns declaiming. It was as if the director had adopted the worst techniques of ancient Greek theatre, adorning a stage with speaking statues.

I twisted in my seat. I wrung my hands. I felt the roots of my hair turning slowly grey inside my head. Profound and grave was my unhappiness. When they mispronounced the words I grimaced. When they got the lines wrong I scowled. I drank too much wine, and it was not because of joy.

At last, to my immense relief, it was all over. I gave them a mighty applause and blessed them for their efforts and went home feeling thoroughly optimistic about the future of theatre in this country.

I am, you see, a great believer in bad art. In every arena of human creativity, one needs a multitude of failures and mediocrities. They are the condition for the emergence of that rare thing, the artistic genius. Without all the dull painters and all the mediocre art schools, there could have been no Chagall and no Picasso. Without all the appalling nine-year-old violinists screeching on their instruments at the Wednesday night school concert, there could be no Jascha Heifetz and no Vivaldi. Without a million dull English children studying their dull books, there could never have been a Virginia Woolf and a Dr Johnson.

In the same way, we need many actors like the ones I saw tonight so that we can have a few like Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen.

There is no point resenting mediocrity. Every living tradition consists mostly of mediocrity. If you're going to resent mediocrity in art, just make sure you also remember to resent schools, education, childhood. The purist is a person without understanding. He hates the seedbed from which the things he loves will grow.

It is this same lack of understanding, I believe, that generates so much resentment for the mediocrity – it is usually called "hypocrisy" – of the average churchgoing Christian. We religious believers are, as a rule, pretty unexceptional. Only with the greatest difficulty and inconsistency do we ever manage to align some bits of our lives with what we profess to believe. What can we say? We are sorry! We have been to all the rehearsals! We wish we could do it better! But the great mass of unexceptional believers should be judged ultimately not by its weakest cases but by its strongest: St Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa.

Tonight I watched those poor actors with their garbled speeches and their stiffly moving limbs, and I thought to myself: great heavens, they might have gone to the same acting school as Geoffrey Rush! They would have learned all the same techniques! They would have memorised all the same speeches! Everything the untalented actor aspires to do, Geoffrey Rush does in spirit and in truth. His one great performance is the justification of a thousand mediocrities.

St Francis is baptised with the same baptism as every other believer. He attends the same communion service and repeats the same words. He reads the same scriptures. He performs with perfection the same role that the rest of us perform so woodenly. His saintliness does not set him above common believers, but among them because he is from them. The rest of us will try (and fail) all our lives to do by letter what he accomplishes in spirit.

As bad theatre exists for the sake of great theatre, perhaps all of us – poor specimens of humanity that we are – exist for the saints. For all I know, I might be living my whole life just so that one day, a thousand years from now, a saint will come into the world, borne along by the current of a living tradition that consists of the ordinary untalented holiness of a great multitude that cannot be numbered.

When the theatrical atrocity ended tonight, I applauded not just for the actors onstage but for what they represent and what they make possible. I hope our lives will end the same way. Yes, we bungle our roles. Yes, the playwright would be ashamed to see it. Yes, we produce little more than actorly affectations of humanity. Yet God and all the holy angels shower us with applause – not because of ourselves, but because of what we represent and what we help to make possible. We do it poorly so that somewhere, some day, some virtuoso will step on to the stage and do it well. In the saint's great performance of a human life, all of us come to recognise what we had aimed at all along. As we admire the holy genius of the saint, for one cleansing unselfconscious moment we might even dare to admire our own amateurish efforts.

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