About Me

My photo
Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Albee and Objectivity

In the recent New York Times piece about Edward Albee, there is a quote that struck me as particularly challenging:


We expect artists, at least in extremis, to admit if not wallow in their humanity. But Mr. Albee stands aloof from all that. He is amazed that people are more interested in Beethoven’s deafness than in Beethoven’s music, and troubled by the pervasive idea that one explains the other. Which is not to say his writing is unaffected by his emotions. It’s just that there’s a kind of air-lock system keeping the worlds separate. Even loss must stand in a queue.

“Wait until the next play,” Mr. Albee said. “I know it’s going to cover a great deal of what we’ve been talking about. It’s not a delayed reaction. It’s a reaction that’s coming at the proper time, when I can handle it with better equanimity. I keep saying that people should be objective enough to write a play in praise of Hitler. Yes, I bet I would be able to do that.”


That's a heavy measure of objectivity. In fact, it runs in direct counter to the very idea of political theater by some definitions. (Certainly, one wouldn't accuse The Crucible or An Enemy of the People of objectivity. Or at least, I wouldn't.) The idea that one might write a play in this way, simply to force the audience to re-examine their own principles, is certainly more than defensible.

What I question is the value or even existence of such pure objectivity. Should a writer, or could a writer, divorce his or her own values or perspectives from his or her play? Is the choice of topic, even, a measure of subjectivity? By deciding, for example, to write about the Bush Administration, is a writer not making a subjective choice about what is important to expose or explore?

Removing the question of choice of topic, though, one might ask if objectivity is even the paramount virtue in a day and age when a false sense of balance seems to pervade all other forms of expression. Watching CNN will leave anyone with the impression that Global Warming is debatable; the result of a focus on balance as opposed to fact. Perhaps when all areas seem gray, it's important for artists to have a specific perspective from which to speak. Or perhaps balance and objectivity are entirely different animals.

The flip-side is, of course, that by remaining objective, more perspectives are able to be presented in any given text. Shakespeare, for example, doesn't seem particularly in love with Hamlet... he simply presents a rich patchwork of characters centered around him, and allows us to watch the story unfold without a value placed from the writer on the proceedings. That has lent gravity and depth to myriad interpretations, and given the play itself a life that it never could have achieved if it had presented, by its end, a sort of lesson.

Perhaps the question here is one of fact. Facts do exist (despite all evidence to the contrary) and there is a reason that they seem so resisted by political forces. Facts create both objectivity and perspective. The fact of climate change, for example, can only be seen with objectivity. That objectivity leads, inevitably, to a conclusion. Maybe our addiction to subjectivity, opinion, is a weakness of discourse.

Human nature, though, isn't something that easily lends itself to fact. Or mathematics. Or much objectivity. Perhaps the hardest part of playwrighting is wrestling with that particular Angel... how hard it is to resist loving or hating or siding with or siding against our characters. How hard it is to remain objective in so emotional a landscape.

1 comment:

parabasis said...

I think Albee is strawmanning here. The idea that art is subjectively created and experienced has little to do with the purely facile notion that someone being deaf "explains" the music they compose. An insistence on the idea of subjectivity-- that artists create from a particular viewpoint-- is not the same as saying that art is explainable by biography.

Biography can help enhance the understanding of how particular works of art come to be, but it's still just a small piece of a puzzle. Knowing that Oscar Wilde was hiding his homosexuality at a time that homosexuality was a crime certainly makes reading The Decay of Lying-- in which he praises surface deception as the real truth-- more complicated, but it doesn't explain it.

I understand where Albee's coming from in this. If you're interested in writing human characters, you have to be able to write peopel you don't agree with or like in a human way. But you're still a subjective being in a world where objectivity is rare. If it exists at all.