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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.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Class and the Victim Mentality

Over on the ever active and engagaing Parabasis, Isaac has brought up, recently, both Class and (in several ... contexts) his dislike for the "victim mentality."

He doesn't connect these two issues, but something in me does.

A few rambling thoughts:

The issue of class, although I didn't post on it when it first came up in March, has been at the forefront of my own life and work for quite some time. Partially because, as I've gotten older and more self-aware, it's become clear to me that my most prominent prejudice is related specifically to class envy and class inequity.

Compared to some (or maybe that comparison is simply perceived by me) I have lack of a solid foundation in the liberal arts, and a catch-as-catch-can education. My schooling was in Acting, and my education was at a public high school with very little depth or challenge. Reading theory was always a matter of personal choice and curiousity, and it was never taught to me in a structured way. Because of this, I've often felt hostile to those that were given, perhaps, a better systemic education. I am, for the most part, a self-taught playwright and self-taught reader.

Because of this, I've often affected the tone of the populist, to counteract what I felt was a sort of class barrier. To protect myself, I'm sure, from charges of being undereducated.

I've often, also, felt hostile to those with money. Especially those in that 18-35 range, that have financial security through an accident of birth. I've been known to be dismissive of anyone with financial advantages, treating their successes as somehow false, calling their dedication into question.

I remember reading, for example, a profile of Arielle Tepper and being incensed. How many of us, with far more credentials and elbow grease, would kill to produce at her level? I thought, and said to others, that I found it revolting that someone who was simply wealthy could control that much of the New York stage, at her whim. Then again... who else could do it? And... are her choices bad? Does she make mistakes, or does she try to promote new work? My gut response was and is a sort of adolescent churlishness. The reality is that she could spend her money on anything, and she spends it on new playwrights and exciting theater. Is it fair that her tastes are reflected over those who might have sacrificed more? No. Is it fair to dismiss her own choices because she is able to make them? No.

Paul Auster is one of my favorite writers. A few years ago, though, I read Hand-To-Mouth, which is subtitled "A Chronicle of Early Failure." I found the work disingenous at best. His story was one of a child of privilege who chooses to struggle, and then tries to impress upon the reader that this struggle was, in a sense, real. The book stuck in my craw. Isn't it privilege itself to choose struggle? Isn't it, in a sense, hubris to imitate the troubles of those less fortunate?

Isaac used the term Upper Middle Class to describe himself in his original posting. That's a loaded term in and of itself. For example, when reading Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow, Trow assigns himself to the Upper Middle Class as well. He also notes a long and connected family history, and a private school, top-flight education. I thought to myself ... why does he insist on the word "Middle?" Is he not, in many ways, a representative of Upper Class? By way of his thinking, his dismissal and removal from the troubles of the broader culture, his breeding, his world-class education? Again, it's a comparative term. To whom are Trow and Auster comparing themselves?

I would venture to say a rather wealthy elite.

Growing up in Boyertown, PA, with a mother who taught at the public high school...no one could call us wealthy. Not by those standards. Then again, the teachers in our area were often considered overpaid, a wealthy citizenry who had summers off. This was by the "middle class" of our community, who worked in factories or ran small businessnes, and struggle to make ends meet and keep track of large families.

Then again, I wasn't from Boyertown. I went to elementary school in Maplewood, NJ, with is an affluent and multi-cultural community. There were times I was acutely aware that much of the racial prejudice in the community in Boyertown was simply the result of insulation that I had been privileged enough to avoid. So should I feel superior to these people for not being a racist? Or lucky? Or, in fact, is it a combination of a variety of factors, and not just "where you grew up and how much your parents made?"

My father, for example, may not be Bill Gates, but he isn't about to starve to death either. He's worked at the wealthiest and most iconic institutions in the Episcopal Church: Trinity Church on Wall Street and the Washington National Cathedral. As a rector, he's lived and worked in very wealthy communities, like Short Hills, NJ and now Orono, Minnesota, which is a sort of Short Hills of the Midwest. Suffice to say, even though he's been the minister to CEOs and Powerbrokers, he has had access to them and hasn't done badly because of it. (For the record, his background is decidedly less affluent, growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which was, briefly, the arson capital of the US.)

How does this connect to the "victim mentality?" Is it possible that it's easier to dismiss certain kinds of complaint as a "victim mentality" if you have an easier time participating in culture? It seems to be a mantra of those with a certain amount of privilege that those who engage in a certain amount of hand-wringing about systemic problems are simply crying victim.

But what does it mean to actually be a victim? Is it, in fact, finding yourself in circumstances that are antithetical to your own success, or that are actively harmful to you, through no fault of your own? Isn't it easier to avoid this attitude if you can, for example, spend your way out of those circumstances?

There are certainly people who can purchase a production at Theater Row, regardless of their background, resume, artistic credentials. There are many out there who could not to this, regardless of the same issues.

If what it takes to make it in the world of art in the US is free time to do ones work, the ability to pay (at times) for one's own way, and access to excellent education and information... then those with financial advantages simply have easier access into the Arts and an easier time developing their work. That isn't to say the results won't be the same in the end. It means that time, for example, that a few can spend reading over the great books and rehearsing and doing script analysis is time that many are doing overnight or giving up sleep for. To believe that having financial security doesn't affect the longevity and effectiveness of many young artists in the US would be folly.

This isn't to devalue Isaac's opinion at all. He's brave to bring up his own class issues, because having privilege can be just as difficult a position as not having it, when trying to feel a member of a peer group. I also applaud his honesty and his absolute dedication to the art that I'm dedicated to. We share that value, whether or not he has to temp occasionally or if he had to work the night shift. All of us in theatre have the same basic goals, which is to be successful and to be heard. But the dynamics of the debates going on, and the issues we all face in a culture that does not properly subsidize the arts, are directly related to a certain amount of privilege.


Zack Calhoon said...

I would say 95% of the actors, writers, directors, and frankly artists that I admire come from humble beginnings. Character is at its basest level about wants, needs, and actions. Therefore I tend to gravitate toward artists that grew up with struggles in their life. Who know what hunger is. It's in their bones. Their understanding of desire is ingrained. It can't be taught. It's that goldmine of experience. I think as an artist your baggage can also be your gift from heaven. It's what makes you unique, what propels your forward.

It's not a socioeconomic decision that I sat down and made, it just tends to be that way for me.

On the other hand their are other artists who came from distinguished theatre families or from incredibly rich upbringings who are just as good. Toby Stephens, Doug Hughes, Trip Cullman, etc.

At the end of the day you can only play the hand you were dealt to the best of your ability.

Scott Walters said...

But I think the point that Matt is making, Zack, is not that it CAN'T be done, but that there are many, many who must work twice as hard, and who may, ultimately, give up in the face of the struggle. This is an interesting article that, without intending to, deflates the "cream rises to the top" myth: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html?referrer=emailarticlepg

This is about venue. The musician in this article is almost totally ignored, because he lacks the trappings that makes him "visible." What does that say about those who can afford to rent those nice theatre versus those who must struggle in -- shall we say -- less desirable venues?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Matthew, great post. There's no doubt that class is a factor in the arts, but at the same time, it's a factor that is often hard to trace. These things might be exaggerated where you are; in my small experience of the US, it seemed to me that people were much more hierarchical than they are here and much more obedient to ideas of social status. Nobody says "Sir" in Australia. Doesn't mean that class doesn't exist - it does - but it perhaps operates in different ways.

Because the arts are subsidised here (still) it's a little easier for artists. Not much, though. So it's a matter of pride that Daniel and I have managed to feed, clothe and house - however wonkily at times - three kids while remaining full-time artists. We're definitely middle class, what else would we be? though Daniel is from a working class background. I never went to university, and all my education is in my grasshopper reading and arts watching. Daniel trained in drama to be a teacher. Neither of us have a private income, nor any possible access to one. We're heavily in debt. Somehow we get through, though sometimes it's tough, and it gets tougher as you get older. That's balanced by the undoubted privilege of spending your life doing work that means something to you. We don't own a house, we don't even own (or drive) a car. No regrets, though I do wish I were rich. Hence the genre writing, which provides some kind of regular income.

In a way, I'm kind of fortunate that I write poetry, because it's very clear that poems will never make a living: I feel no temptation to change my art to meet economic imperatives. It seems to me better to write something different that I know will sell, and let the art be what it is (I should add that I take my genre work seriously, and I do it honestly, but I wouldn't write it if there were no contracts, whereas the other work is all for no or little pay).

In terms of class, I think artists are cross-dressers. They don't belong anywhere. I've felt like a victim sometimes, often of my own bad sense, but that is offset by knowing that it's a choice I've made. But being an artist has for a long time seemed to me as much about the pragmatic question of how you survive as anything else. Moreover, how you survive with your soul intact, rather than betraying the things you value. There are some things I won't compromise; it's made life harder sometimes, but it's also made life better.

Joshua James said...

Really dug this post, dude, and I'm jealous 'cause it says much of what I'd like to say . . . nevertheless, I wrote a bit on the subject myself over in the Dojo . .


Anonymous said...

I remember reading, for example, a profile of Arielle Tepper... And... are her choices bad?

Well - I giver her credit for spending but the choices are pretty awful and there is a strong whiff of cronyism from SPF.