Dancing in the Dragon’s Mouth: The Civic Role of the Performer

Nov 15, 2018

Tutti Frutti, aw rooty
Tutti Frutti, aw rooty
Tutti Frutti, aw rooty
Tutti Frutti, aw rooty
Tutti Frutti, aw rooty

This is how the inscrutably professorial Arnold Aronson began a lecture one afternoon in a theater history class he taught while I was working on my MFA at Columbia. This is also the distinctive beginning of Little Richard’s first hit, and one of rock and roll’s most iconic songs: Tutti Frutti. Professor Aronson was well aware of how funny it was for this text to be emanating from behind an Ivy League podium, spoken as if it was the driest possible mathematical formula, by a man who ticked off most all the criteria for central casting’s version of “Professor.” However, what he was pointing to was far from a joke. 

He went on to explain how this song displaced The Ballad of Davy Crockett on the American pop music charts in 1956. This constituted the pivot point of a move from clear calm classical narrative, to something so visceral it was almost unintelligible. He attributed this move to the shared cultural experience of World War II, and the fact that everyone now had been exposed to unspeakable horror, either directly, or through media.  Simple stories about folk heroes just didn’t cut it any more.

And what stepped up to carry the weight of this cultural shift? Not the theater. It was rock and roll. 

Throughout my graduate career it was not unusual for Arnold to blow my mind, but this rocked me to my core. He explained that we often complain about theater not being taken seriously in our society, but that as a historian, he only saw two times in all of world history when theater was taken seriously: Classical Greece and Golden Age Spain (which coincides with both Elizabethan England, and the Genroku Period in Japan). The remainder of human history, theater is complaining about getting the short end of the cultural stick, wondering if it’s relevant etc.

Imagine a world in which theater had played the role that rock music played in the second half of the 20th Century. Wow! Imagine if we used the word “actor” the way we use the word “rock star.” Wow!

I was thinking about this recently because of a rather singular experience. While we were in Los Angeles this summer, working on The Bacchae, I met and became friendly with the truly amazing Bianca Sapetto. Bianca is a former champion rhythmic gymnast, an aerialist, choreographer, the list goes on… (I’m not doing her justice here, but suffice it to say that she’s an amazing person). She is also married to the guitarist Robin Finck, formerly of Guns and Roses, currently of the Nine Inch Nails. So when NIN was playing Radio City Music Hall in early October, Bianca came to New York with their two little girls to visit, and she invited Akiko and I to come hang out and see the show. It was an amazing evening.

Before the show we hung out in a kind of green room near Robin’s dressing room where Robin was playing with his kids and plunking around on a kind of electronic xylophone. The whole vibe was extremely chill. Chatting with him, he talked about how on a show day like this, he’ll get a setlist in the morning which lays out what he needs to do to prepare for the evening’s performance. Which would be pretty straightforward except for the fact that there are often songs on the set list they haven’t played in a long time and occasionally songs they’ve never played live. The xylophone he was “playing” around with, was not a toy he was entertaining his daughters with; he was prepping. There was a section of a song to play on it that night and he needed to get it into his “muscle memory.” The relaxed calm with which he went about this belied how difficult the task was, and spoke to not just his prodigious talent, but the years of experience that are running through his veins and arteries.

After a bit there was a guitar in his hands and as he walked around chatting and getting ready his hands danced around the strings with the same breezy ease as his breathing. An ease, that almost obscured lightning speed.

Akiko and I had the same thought: He’s like a Noh actor!

In the ancient Japanese theater form of Noh, the performers have a huge repertory of material encoded in their muscle memory. Historically Noh was an art form of the aristocracy, so the troupe would be in residence with some lord or another. On any given evening they may be required to perform any one of a huge number of plays. No rehearsals. There may be some practicing of some techniques, and a couple of calm conversations with the musicians and the stagehands that would be facilitating things. But nothing like a run-through or rehearsal as we would think of it.

This is a situation in which the material is known. It is known extremely well, and deeply understood. But there is nothing rote about the performing of it. Performance, even of material that is set and handed down generation to generation is suffused with an effervescent spontaneity. It’s something I think we associate with top level athletes; performance is not the presentation of a state that has already been achieved, but a pressing up against and stretching of limits.

I have listened to a good deal of NIN’s records, but I had never been to a live show. It blew me away. Standing there in the middle of Radio City Music Hall with a sound system that clearly went to 11, pounding this clearly articulate sound through me, and the new LED lights that allow for effects Little Richard never dreamed of, strobing photons directly into my brain, it was as clear as it could be that this is an artistic response to our times. That rock and roll was still fulfilling its cultural role.

Like a lot of theater that I love, here was a stage where highly skilled performers were loudly doing something taxing, and difficult enough to challenge their limits, for the benefit of a crowd of people who were really into it. How could I not love this?

Watching Robin play, I had a realization: this wasn’t self-destruction, this was catharsis.

Let me explain through the lens of David Bowie, an artist who has had a huge effect on me. Among his many great works of art is his entire project centered around the character of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was a sci-fi rock star who he portrayed as a way to simultaneously participate in, and critique the idea of rock stardom. Central to my understanding of this critique, is the observation that the rock star is fundamentally self-destructive. That to be a rock star is, at its core, an act of self-immolation. In the 1970s Bowie wasn’t the only one noticing this. It seemed axiomatic that part of the function of these figures was, like Jimi’s guitar, to burn.

Working on The Bacchae over the past few months, and the way Ellen Lauren played Dionysus, these thoughts have been very much on my mind. But watching Robin play, I had the realization: This wasn’t self-destruction. The world that Trent Reznor and NIN are exploring in their music is a pretty dark place that is filled with alienation, pain, and an almost cosmic level of existential angst. But the performance of it, like the performance of Greek Tragedy, is something else. It is cathartic. And the thing that allows the performer to dance in the dragon’s mouth and survive, is technique.

But the mythological Ziggy Stardust had technique, and it wasn’t enough to save him. And this is where the true realization came: Because of the evening we had shared, it was impossible for me to watch Robin shredding the air with his mighty axe, and not overlay the image of him with his family. This wasn’t just technique. There was a deep, life affirming love that undergirds this. Not just interpersonal and familial love, but also the love of performing, the love of playing, the love of the music. This was technique plus humanity. And I think we might call the result of that combination “artistry.”

In his writings about Noh, 15th century playwright, actor and theorist Zeami describes a quality in a performer that he calls hana. This translates directly to “flower,” but what he’s describing is a quiet sort of ephemeral beauty that emanates from a performer. It is related to what Stanislavsky called the “charm” of an actor. Stanislavsky held that charm could not be taught, you either have it or you don’t. In contrast, Zeami spends a lot of time talking about what an actor must do in order to cultivate and extend hana throughout their lives. A lot of this has to do with combining the hard edge of technical skill with soft, quiet, human vulnerability. It is perhaps the bringing to the surface one’s deepest and truest virtues. It is virtuosity.

And I posit that it is in the public display of this kind of virtuosity that the performer takes on the task of shouldering the cultural load of their time. This is the civic role of the performer. We turn to the virtuosic performer to show us what virtue might be deep inside us as a people. And in this fusing of strength and vulnerability we find hope. And meaning.

There were a couple of moments at Radio City when the lights hit the rather spare stage in such a way that there was a shadow cast on the white back-drop and it looked for just a moment like the pine tree on the back wall of a Noh theater. And Trent and Robin looked like a couple of Noh actors, and it felt as if these rock stars had been doing this for centuries.