Thursday, 5 July 2012

Meaning In Entertainment

Rambling - under the influence

I struggle with the dichotomy of meaning and entertainment. Can I produce a show which at once is appealing to the mind and eternity as well as capturing the crowds imagination today?
The question is age old. Goethe writes about it in his Prologue In The Theatre from his Faust (1828) where three characters discusses the business of creating shows. The Manager character is interested in selling tickets and is trying to find the balance between the Jester and the Poet's contributions. The former is only interested in making the Crowd laugh and enjoy the moment whilst the Poet wants to create work that will last for eternity.
I wish the crowd to feel itself well treated,
Especially since it lives and lets me live;
The posts are set, the booth of boards completed.
And each awaits the banquet I shall give...
...How shall we plan, that all be fresh and new,—
Important matter, yet attractive too?

What dazzles, for the moment born, must perish;
What is genuine posterity will cherish.

Posterity! Don’t name that word to me!
If I should choose to preach Posterity,
Who shall entertain the Crowds today?

Jeff Koon's balloon dog at Versailles. 
So the problem is old and touched upon in much great literature. In studying these issues I have lately wandered into the camp of science fiction. I believe there are certain similarities between the literary sub genre of science fiction and the Craft of the Showman. For both are areas of art which many will simply brush away as 'mere' entertainment without taking any closer look at it. I readily admit that there are much empty chatter and mindless drivel produced both within science fiction and circus, but amongst all the dirt, gems of diamond quality is unearthed.
Is it so that even these gems are reserved for people with special interest in the genres or can they reach beyond their fans? And ultimately, does it matter if they do? We are in the show business which requires both the show and the business to be successful if we Showmen are to put nutritious and varied food on our tables.

I have been reading the underrated and relatively unknown polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem recently. For those of you that don't know this writer here follows Wired description of him:
Stanislaw Lem has never been beloved by the science fiction establishment. Philip K. Dick accused him of being a communist agent. Members of the Science Fiction Writers Association booted him from their group. And no wonder: Lem has denounced popular sci-fi as trivial pulp produced by mental weaklings. Science fiction, he once wrote, "is a whore," prostituting itself "with discomfort, disgust, and contrary to its dreams and hopes." But strained relations with his peers hasn't tarnished Lem's career. The author of dozens of books translated into 40 languages, he is considered among the greatest sci-fi writers of all time.

So why is it that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are household names, but Stanislaw Lem remains unknown to so many Americans? Start with the obvious: Lem writes in Polish. His most important books have never appeared in English. Even his best-known novel, Solaris, is available in US bookstores only as an English translation of a French abridgement of the Polish original. Yet the main reason Lem's never become established here is that his wit has always been too cruel, his love of science too prominent, his outlook too cerebral to fit easily into a publishing niche devoted to fairy-tale adventures and timeworn astronaut yarns.
Drawing by Stanislaw Lem
 In this description I find Lem to be a kindred spirit, one who seeks to inject some important and deeper subjects into a genre which so often is looked down upon by the literary elite, possibly for good reason.

"We are all lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

In his essay "Phillip K Dick: A visionary amongst the Charlatans," Stanislaw Lem brings up the subject of populism.
"Knight declared himself to have been mistaken earlier in attacking books by van Vogt for their incoherence and irrationalism, on the grounds that, if van Vogt enjoys an enormous readership, he must by that very fact be on the right track as an author, and that it is wrong for criticism to discredit such writing in the name of arbitrary values, if the reading public does not want to recognize such values. The job of criticism is, rather, to discover those traits to which the work owes its popularity. Such words, from a man who struggled for years to stamp out tawdriness in SF, are more than the admission of a personal defeat—they are the diagnosis of a general condition."
Should mass appeal make the work beyond reproach? I don't think so. Great art is rarely the most popular.

Does performances of the Carnival Arts have to loose their mass appeal when meaning is introduced? Let me rephrase the question. Does important topics necessarily make shows boring? I don't think they have to, but often they are.
Usually because the issues discussed in the performance are just that; discussed, or talked about. Some current political issue is just plastered on top of a performance like cheap wallpaper or shoved in between acts like mortar between tiles. This will not work. We must be more subtle and creative than that because our Crowds are smarter than that.
I know how one the People’s taste may flatter,
Yet here a huge embarrassment I feel:
What they’re accustomed to, is no great matter,
But then, alas! they’ve read an awful deal.

People say: nobody likes being preached to, but there are millions of religious people out there who gets preached at constantly so people can't mind it that much. I think it is a context thing. People don't mind being preached at when they are in church because they don't expect anything better from their local priest. Whilst when it comes to entertainment, they are a lot more choosy.
Squirrel powered musicbox
If a Showman has something to say, beyond the elements of his craft ie juggling, tightwire walking, magic etc, the Showman must make it funny or moving or scary or cool and fundamentally part of the act. Meaning should not be plastered over the top of an act it needs to be woven through it. Further and most importantly it needs to come across as real. If the person delivering the meaningful material doesn't believe in it 100% it will not work. But if they do share the passion so genuinely the Crowd might accept it and enjoy it in the most crude and preachy form, but I wouldn't rely on it. So make the meaning into material, treat the meaningful stuff with as much work as you do with your tricks and your Craft.
SO, for meaningful material to work it needs to be flawlessly integrated into the tricks and skill, it needs to be well crafted to hold its own as material whilst simultaneously ring true.

Most of the time when Showmen attempts this it falls flat, which must indicate it is a difficult thing to get right, but just because it's difficult doesn't mean we should stop trying. Rather the opposite. Like JFK said about the mission to get man to the moon:
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

No comments:

Post a Comment