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J.S. Bach and Arthur Miller

A play in a book is only the shadow of a play and not even a clear shadow of it...The printed script of a play is hardly more than an architect's blue print of a house not yet built or [a house] built and destroyed. The color, grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper or thoughts and ideas of an author."

Tennessee Williams

If you’ve ever studied music, the point that Williams is trying to make with this poetic statement will seem quite clear. Usually, when we read, we are accustomed to the pages and the printed words holding all the dramatic tension of a work; a novel is, or should be, a complete, a coherent, an autonomous thing, and it should require only the eye and voluminous imagination of a skilled interpreter for its many colors and deft movements to be brought to life. This can make reading a play misleading, though, if you assume that it follows the novel’s suit. Better to compare the playwright’s printed script to the composer’s naked score, for these two both share that quality of incompleteness native to the blueprint of Williams’ architect.

I went to the symphony a couple of weeks ago to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Arlington theatre. An Israeli violinist, something of a child prodigy by the name of Gil Shaham, played the solo part for the finale, which was a violin concerto by Brahms. It was mesmerizing. I have played the piano for ten years or so, teaching myself the rules and language of music, and trying to parlay what mental prowess I have developed with theory and scales, into a facility with the keyboard, so I have some appreciation for the difficulties involved in stringing together the thousands of notes that comprise any respectable piece. It often seems to me that the chance of erring increases with a very reliable geometric regularity; each added note stacks the odds further against your successful interpretation, and each correctly executed movement adds to the dramatic tension and the size of your feat. Of course, the mood, and the emotional experience which each musician brings to his instrument also varies dramatically from man to man, and each score is really only the vaguest hint at what its message might be. A score alone contains none of the emotion, or the depth of a piece brought to life. So too with a script.

Arthur Miller’s latest masterpiece, Resurrection Blues, is an excellent example of Williams’s point. The script is a brilliant, savvy bit of satire, that spends most of its time reflecting on the philosophical, moral, and practical implications of America’s rampant consumer culture, idealism, and militarism. Miller’s dialogue is insightful, funny, sharp, and reflective of the admirable fact that he still, at the age of ninety-seven, has his finger firmly on the pulse of America. Despite all of this, the play has drawn a couple of mixed reviews that have stated it “could stand to lose some marginal characters, and at times, things bog down in rhetoric” , that it “slips out of control”1 at times, or that

In its first outing, Resurrection is funny and dark, but until it resists an inclination to broadcast its moral undercurrent and pushes all its characters into the embrace of satire, it will not punch us square in our complacent American guts.

Comments like these did not plague the production I saw in April, at Old Globe theatre, in San Diego. This production was executed almost flawlessly, and filled with a star studded cast. It managed, with the same script, not to get bogged down in the rhetoric that has plagued some of the earlier productions, and to instead place a strong emphasis on the humor, and the repartee that develops between the various characters. The more dry, philosophical monologues were delivered in an offhand manner that provided them with levity that, I assume, was missing from earlier productions. In any case, the point that these various productions, that have met with equally various reviews, make is precisely that which Tennessee Williams is trying to make in the opening passage: A play is not truly a play until it has been brought to life by actors, directors and costume designers, on the stage, and before a real audience.

Williams mentions ‘color, grace and levitation, [and] the structural pattern in motion’ when discussing what he considers to be the elements that bring a live performance to life. Returning to the musical analogy, Bach’s Goldberg Variations is an excellent example of this. This piece, composed of 35 variations on an absurdly simple opening aria, swells and contracts by turns as Bach, in his genius, leads it through an extensive set of variations that ranges across a number of keys, and varies greatly in complexity, tone, and character. If you read music, or even if you know the theme and do not, you can pick out the patterns in the notes of the first variation. Each successive variation, however, becomes more difficult to interpret visually; while maintaining the theme throughout, Bach applies a new motif to the original aria, reinventing the melody in each variation. Some of the intricacies of these variations can be read in the notes but each pianist’s interpretation breathes a unique life into the piece.

Andras Schiff gave a rendition of this piece last week at the Lobero theatre that was simply wonderful. Yet his interpretation, tied closely to the original score, and its origins as a piece for the Harpsichord (an instrument incapable of volume control) differed immensely from Glen Gould’s famous 1955 recording, which interprets the piece as a work for the modern piano, with all its marvelous modalities. The color that Williams is talking about is, of course, not literal – he does not mean shades of red, yellow, and blue. What he is talking about, as it applies to music, is the tone, the volume, the timbre, and the accent (i.e., staccato, legato, etc.) that the musician applies to the notes. These are, incidentally, the very things that bring a piece of music to life, and the same that bring a play to life.

In terms of a play’s script, Williams’s colors, grace, and structural pattern of motion refer to the set design, the lighting, the physical movement of the actors upon the stage, and their delivery of their lines. These are the tone, the volume, the timbre, and the accents of a live play, and they are no less integral to the life of a play than they are to the life of a piece of music.

The mixed responses to Arthur Miller’s new play are an excellent example of how integral the production is to the success of a play. Miller is a past master at the art of theatre, and in Resurrection Blues he has written an excellent script, but until the San Diego production, at the Old Globe theatre, much of the positive commentary on Miller’s play seemed to hinge on his reputation. It took an excellent production, and successful interpretation for someone to say, “…this latest offering by America's most important living playwright has been waiting for the right production. Happy to report, it's here, now, directed by Mark Lamos, with an ace Globe cast sparking the mordant, where-do- we-go-from-here spirit of " Resurrection Blues" to life.”

While a play, or a piece of music is given its first breath of life by the playwright or composer who envisions it, and while the basic structural framework of either one is bound to the words or notes of a piece, the success or failure of a work depends heavily on the live performance, and the actors or musicians who perform it. What Tennessee Williams is referring to with his poetic reverie is, I think, embodied more simply by the term Performance Arts, the gentre of which both theater and music are members: in order for a work to be ‘performance’, it must be performed!