Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Art of Surprise

Below you will find an excerpt of a lecture by Steve Vineburg, which was originally delivered on September 18, 2006, as part of the "Last Lecture" series hosted at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Professor Vineburg is a noted theatre and film critic. Click here for the full lecture.

"The art I love most dearly emerges from an acknowledgement that we’re none of us pure of either mind or heart. It’s the art of mixed tones—buffoonery mixed with regret, as in Mozart’s Figaro; comic absurdity mixed with heartache, as in Chekhov’s stories; salvation that appears improbably out of despair, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, or when all hope is lost, as in The Winter’s Tale.

Yeats said that art is forgiveness for sin. I think what he meant was that art has to be generous. It’s always easy for us to look down from a great height on the characters in a work of fiction or a movie or a play and pass judgment on them—especially since most of the fiction we read and the plays we attend and, God knows, the movies we see give us points for doing just that. But just as “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance,” to quote Prospero in The Tempest, so it’s more difficult, more challenging and far more rewarding to see the humanity in a character who commits the kind of offenses that we may hope we wouldn’t commit but in truth know ourselves to be fully capable of. If we embrace these characters—Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, whose addiction to morphine puts her out of the emotional reach of her husband and her sons, or Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, whose terror of death drives her into the arms of teenage boys (“The opposite is desire. So how could you wonder? How could you possibly wonder?”)—we embrace them wholeheartedly, with a kind of moral depth that allows us to transcend the conventional and the small-minded."

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