Saturday, October 1, 2016


The literature concerned the performing arts, particularly traditional (mid-Twentieth Century) musical theater, is a mixed bag of impressionistic opinion, gossip, star-struck hagiography, quasi-history, and, maybe, a little bit of real experience and understanding. The personal memoirs of Richard Rodgers and Alan J. Lerner and numerous biographies of them, their collaborators, and contemporaries provide a “historical” framework for understanding their art. But there seems to be little in the way of exploration of the “why?” of their art in the memoirs and biographies. Rodgers did describe some of his methods, which apparently (apparently?) changed significantly as he moved from collaboration with Laurence Hart to working with Oscar Hammerstein. Lerner, in both his memoirs and in his posthumously published tribute to musical theater, explicitly dodged the issue completely, claiming he did not want to know the “why?” of musical comedy.

Journalist-critics of musical theater are oriented by necessity towards immediate reaction to new theatrical works. Commonly, the first review has been based on a single viewing of a work, rushed by press deadlines. There is little opportunity for reflection. Particularly since musical theater is a hybrid of dialogue, music, verse, dance, set, and lighting, it seems close to impossible for one individual to adequately evaluate the integration of each component. Musical theorist Joseph Swain has made remarkable contributions to characterizing the dramatic role of music in a number of significant musical comedies. In the process, Swain increases the respect due composers (and, possibly, arrangers) for their dramatic sense. For example, his explanation of the significance of Leonard Bernstein’s music for the pervasive dramatic impact of West Side Story makes plain that which the non-musicians among us have only intuitively experienced. Much of Swain’s studies achieve remarkable insights into the three components: together they modify the setting, advance the plot, and flesh-out otherwise sparsely defined character.

Nevertheless, Swain, perhaps because he focuses on only the surface dramatic effect, expresses doubts about the function of other elements which uses the music, such as dance, particularly the ground-breaking ballet sequence in Oklahoma! He questions the appropriateness of the music which accompanies the Laurey-makes-up-her-mind ballet at the end of the first act of Oklahoma! Is there some dissonance in the great initial triumph of Rodgers and Hammerstein? Has Swain found a pocket of inconsistency in Oklahoma!? He suggests that Rodgers was looking the other way while the ballet was constructed. But, assume that the ballet, whatever its superficial dissonance, is essential to understanding the whole of the play. Further, by applying this approach to other creative efforts, perhaps an improved insight into the human creative process might happen.
From the Hollywood perspective on musical theater, three thousand miles west of Broadway, the show was the thing, at least from the Thirties into the Fifties (Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney’s “Let’s put on a show", through Fred Astaire’s Bandwagon and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain). The “show” not “play” is the world everyone wants to be in. Even for Broadway in the Seventies (Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line) and and London’s West End in the Eighties (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera), the stage is still a metaphor for the “real” world.

Fully one-half of Lerner’s autobiography is devoted to My Fair Lady. As with so many professionals, the seeming center of the person’s life is his or her great public success. James Watson’s principal personal and public publication is solely concerned with the construction of the DNA molecule model, colored by anecdotes and human frailties. Even Francis Crick’s memoirs can’t help but climax halfway through with their joint DNA triumph.

If the play is the thing and all the world is a stage (the idea is hardly original here), isn’t it also true for any creative person that his or her passion, however circumscribed and inaccessible it may be to the non-specialist, is their own world, their own personal stage? And, where is that stage: Cambridge, Broadway, Hollywood, Bloomington, Washington, or Arvada? Is it a place at all? And what roles do other persons play on the personal stage: what about collaboration?

Would My Fair Lady have successfully emerged without any one of the principals: Lerner, Loewe, Moss Hart, Rex Harrison, or Julie Andrews (never mind Shaw or the Greeks)? Oklahoma! without Rodgers, Hammerstein, or Agnes deMille (again, disregarding original playwright Lynn Riggs)? And what about that most fickle and determinative collaborator: the audience? Commercial success seems to be a prerequisite to artistic success in musical theater, perhaps more than any other of the arts, if only because of the high cost of a musical production. If musical comedies are not successful the first time, they tend to disappear, seldom to be rediscovered a decade or two later. In contrast, a Leonard Bernstein can almost single-handedly “make” Gustav Mahler a master, decades after his death. Has anyone successfully resurrected any musical play which failed to find an audience collaborator? Even some Hollywood drama classics may have originally failed in the box office: Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t light up the sky when first released. Now the former is almost always included in critics’ Top Tens, and the latter is viewed as Frank Capra’s masterpiece (personally, I prefer his first big commercial and critical success It Happened One Night). On the literary side, Flannery O’Connor was always deeply troubled by the sparse sales of Wise Blood despite its critical success; alas, its nearly universal subsequent inclusion in college freshmen curricula (in the mid-1960s at least) occurred after her untimely death.

Curiously, then, musical comedy seems to require active “collaboration” with the audience in such a way that virtually no other art form requires. In a sense, musical comedy has something in common with science, because science is intrinsically collaborative. Even the solitary researcher ultimately submits results for publication requiring peer review, a kind of “anonymous” collaboration. The research itself builds on the contributions of others, and the resulting article is to an extent tailored to a particular audience of professionals in the same or related disciplines. The team research efforts of “big science” are now all well known. Since the Manhattan Project of the Second World War, large groups of scientific researchers have become the rule, for both basic and applied science. The aborted Super-Conducting Super-Collider south of Dallas is one of a long line of such ventures.

Popular scientific literature represents a mix of attempts to convey non-technical understanding of contemporary scientific theory, models, practice, and (particularly beginning with Watson’s Double Helix) anecdotal accounts of scientific discoveries and/or careers. Significant attention has been paid to the importance of collaboration and interaction among scientists in many such accounts. Nevertheless, there has been significant effort to attempt to understand the nature of scientific progress. Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been readily embraced by many active scientists themselves; an excellent example from my own field of geology and geophysics is the commentary which accompanies the late (Stanford geophysicist) Allan Cox’s compilation of milestone contributions to the development of plate tectonics and recognition of magnetic field reversals. Kuhn’s distinction between normal and crisis science has found some resonance in the experience of many scientists who survived the “fixed versus drifting continents” crisis and subsequent plate tectonic revolution.

Karl Popper’s theory of scientific progress (concisely, if somewhat inexactly states that science progresses by advancement of hypotheses as a result of experimental or logical falsification of prior hypotheses; thus only testable hypotheses can be admitted to scientific respectability) has been popular among some philosophers of science. But, recently, Popperian approaches (which also imply the existence of objective falsification methodology – for example classical statistics) have been undermined by Bayesian philosophers, who argue for the primacy of the initial subjective inference and its progressive confirmation or denial. Subjectivity, some Bayesians contend, is inherent even in the supposedly objective assumptions of classical statistics. The exploitation of Bayesian inference and its cryptic role in science seems to be a particularly stimulating area for future investigation, along the lines developed by Edwin Jaynes, for example; Jaynes seemed to suggest that scientists, indeed all rational human decision-makers, are actually unconscious Bayesians in the way in which they solve problems.

The essence of Bayesian inference is the incorporation of prior experience into hypothesis formulation and testing. Prior experience involves experiment, observation and interaction, any of which may be disciplined, undisciplined, or capricious. The great trepidation of scientists in general and classical statisticians, as well, has been fear of subjective bias, which might color not only the hypothesis formulation, but also hypothesis testing. British Bayesians Howson and Urbach argue that bias is unavoidable, and, as such, should not only be acknowledged, but exploited. A particular mathematical theorem advanced by an Eighteenth-Century clergyman, Thomas Bayes (in l763), provides the means by which this prior experience (after all, one person’s “experience” can be another person’s “bias”) is explicitly incorporated into and evaluated as part of the decision-making process.

This book is an attempt to apply seemingly esoteric inferential logic to human creativity. The most important point I wish to make is that subjectivity does indeed play an essential role in science, not merely because scientists are fallible, but because all the knowledge of the universe or any part of the universe necessary for complete understanding cannot possibly be obtained. Therefore, inference based on inadequate information is always required. And, in its genesis, inference is subjective.

The intrinsic subjectivity of the arts has never been in dispute, but it may come as some surprise to the uninitiated that science has an essential subjective component as well. The subjectivity, to reiterate, is not merely inherent in the humanity of the scientist, but in the formulation of possible problem solutions, in their execution, and even recognition and selection of the problems themselves.

I recall some time ago, a recruiting video was being prepared by a university college of science, for encouraging high school students to consider a scientific career, especially at that university and college. One of those interviewed for the video was a distinguished professor who occupied an endowed chair in the chemistry department: “We are the new high priests of society,” he told the anonymous interviewer and, through him, the potential scientists of tomorrow. Another professor, from a different department, wrote a note to the dean objecting to the endowed chair’s comments, and observed that no one was making sacrifices on altars in his department; his department didn’t have altars, although he couldn’t vouch for what was going on in chemistry. Nevertheless, the almost conscious identification of contemporary science with ancient religion, made by that professor, isn’t necessarily that far off the mark.

The most subjective and creative of human endeavors often has religious overtones. Jung saw significant foreshadowing of his own theories in the work of the German poets Goethe and Schilling, particular the former’s Faust, a reworking of the Old Testament Job story with a profoundly different twist. The medieval precursors of science were the alchemists and astrologers, many of whom were clerics who mixed heretical theologies into their cauldrons of myth and futility. The performing arts in the Middle Ages centered on Passion plays in song, out of which opera emerged. Liturgy has much in common with the formality of experimental science and the structure of theatrical performance. To the untrained, science can seem esoteric and mysterious, rather like the Gnostic mystery sects of the first few centuries. But, is it the formality of science that is so mysterious, or its requirement of rigorous initiation by intensive training, or is the mystery in the creative urge that seems to motivate the scientific process?

In an effort to explore these questions further, it might be worthwhile to consider the flip side of creativity. One can speculate about the how and why of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady and Crick and Watson’s DNA model, but what about the meaning of each to its respective audience? Since the total audience for a successful Broadway musical is larger than that of a scientific theory (although the eventual social importance of each might well be reversed), and success of the musical is dependent on that audience, they are, in effect, essential collaborators in musical theater. This is extended further by considering the creative contribution the audience makes. Isn’t there a kind of creativity involved in the reception of a work of art that complements the initial creativity of its production? And, if we can acquire some insight into this creative response, maybe this can be used as a basis of consideration of the creative effort involved in genesis of the product.

The biographical accounts of the process of play-making leave the distinct impression that the critical steps in the creative, productive process are interactive. What Alan said to Fritz; how Richard dealt with Larry; Moss made this suggestion… But, to reiterate, even in the most intense collaboration, the ideas, verse, and notes emerge from individual human imagination, memory, and reason. So it is that the response of the listener and viewer is largely internal, affected and effected, certainly by the subtle collective physical response of the rest of the audience. The individual response is in essence internal. The senses feel the perception of light, movement, color, sound, ambience, and smell in the brain, where the real stage or screen is. For each member of the audience, My Fair Lady happens in his or her own consciousness and, perhaps, unconsciousness.

The distinctive characters played by flesh-and-blood actors whose own personalities may be different from the characters played, are, nevertheless, real to the audience person, insofar as response is concerned. The reality is in interpreting the response of the individual to a particular play or motion picture; it may assumed that the meaning is grasped to the extent that each character finds identity with a part of oneself; the relationships of characters also find reflection in internal dialogues, and the whole of the story (inadequately and grossly, of course) approximates the whole of the person. To the person, then, Henry Higgins is not Rex Harrison; Professor Higgins is part of oneself. Eliza Doolittle is not Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn or Marni Nixon; she also is part of the individual, as are Alfred Doolittle, Colonel Pickering, or even Freddie-Eynesford-Hill.

The second assumption has to do with the dramatic content of the play. The fully satisfying play is itself, by definition, fulfilling. As the postulates of a theorem imply its conclusion, the fullness of the (complete) play is implicit in its parts. The music of the best of plays not only serves and advances the plot, it expresses it. The portents of chance impel the change; the consequence is in a sense its own cause. The medium is the message.

The third assumption is that the response of the audience produced by the inner drama of the individual in its own way shapes the play. The play is its own cause and consequence. The concepts of inner characters and interior dramas can be an alien idea in approaching the performing arts in particular and human creativity in general. They may not be self-evident, without a little imaginative work. Viewing the concepts as hypothetical may sound quasi-scientific. But, for the individual encountering these ideas for the first time, perhaps he or she could view himself or herself as a kind of laboratory.

Histories of American musical theater emphasize the growth of musical comedy out of the European operetta, as well as American folk and African-American spiritual and jazz forms. Typically, the musical play of the first few decades of the Twentieth Century was more of a revue, with a very thin plot line supposedly connecting otherwise unrelated song-and-dance routines. Typically, such revues incorporated songs by several different composers and lyricists, who had little to do with the overall form of the play. Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat (1927) is usually recognized as the pioneer of a new form. Storyline and music were integrated, to a great extent. Thus, some of the music of the play, instead of providing an entertaining interlude, was actually designed to advance the plot. The very setting of Showboat, however, provides the backdrop for apparent interludes, since the principal characters are explicit performers aboard a floating theater (hmm, interesting stage, that).

With Oklahoma!, however, the vision of a fully-integrated musical play was most completely achieved; it is difficult to point to any other play, before or after, which is its match. By the addition of Western ballet, virtually every part of the play is connected; there are no isolated interludes. Some standard “dramatic” elements still remain: there are the primary love triangle of Curly-Laurey-Jud and the secondary triangle of Ado Annie-Will-Hakeem. Parallel love stories are common in other musicals after Oklahoma!: Carousel, South Pacific, West Side Story, and Music Man. Lerner felt he and Loewe were breaking new ground in My Fair Lady’s absence of obvious subplot, represented by a secondary love story. However, the common assumption made by so many stage historians is that the subplot represents a kind of convention, for example, “comic relief.” Stephen Sondheim said that the purpose of “Send in the clowns” in A Little Night Music is to express the recognition by the female protagonist (herself a stage performer) that the plot is getting too heavy; it is time for comic relief. The character and the creators of the play see the apparent need for a change of tone and pace, and for the principal characters to change costumes.

Certainly, traditional forms of the performing arts, by the very fact of their tradition are to be dealt with by adapting, adopting, or even rejecting them (although rejection might mean a mirror image of the spurned ingredient is the replacement). But it might be worthwhile to consider the possibility that subplot has a deeper function than that of providing relief, a break, or new garb.

[Some of the articles which follow were originally posted on maxfrac; a few edits and observations have been added.]


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