When I know what I think, I couldn’t care less. It’s when I don’t know what I think, when I’m utterly baffled, . . . that's when I have to keep thinking.
-- Herbert Blau* (1926 - 2013)
He made me feel ignorant. He thought I was smart.
Thirty years ago I spent crucial parts of a summer in his company. There were eight of us,** and we sat in a seminar room with him twice a week for four hours, while each of us worked on our project -- some kind of a thought-project -- that had something to do with the theatre. Or with issues that were at stake in the theatre. Or in media. Or in fashion. Or in literature. Or in mimesis of any kind. Or in semiology. Or in epistemology.
And he talked. Not in circles but in spirals. Round and not quite round he'd go, leaning off his center in a direction we struggled to divine.
He was a historic man of the theatre. And he was done with it, but was still working it through, in his mind, his gut, his gutty mind. And he had read everything. Not just plays, but all of literature it seemed. And music. And philosophy. And history. And he didn't really understand how anybody could do theatre without having such learning. He thought that anybody who set out just to "do" theatre should be ashamed of themselves; and he had said so, in prominent places and to prominent people.
Perhaps that was why, when he came to New York in 1968 with Julius Irving his collaborator from San Francisco, to head the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, it went badly for him in a way that he never stopped churning about. It was the thoughtlessness of American theatre and culture, its lack of concern for what it might be trying to do or for what others might be doing through it, and how those purposes open or covert affect the means of doing theatre, that made him nauseous. And when he talked at his higher level, when he confused the complacent categories of showbiz in his spiraling, he may have just left the public behind, or at least the smaller public of Manhattan criticism.
And I was a fundamentalist. I had seen too many professors who couldn't as we used to say "direct their way out of a paper bag," but could explain how you were wrong if you named their failure -- that you hadn't understood their "concept," and if you had read some more books you'd understand how brilliant it was. So all I cared about in the theatre was how to do it right, and I didn't want to hear about how many books you'd read if you couldn't play the notes of the theatre, or even locate the keyboard. Insecure and immature, I was desperate to get my hands on the keyboard, and to practice the scales and arpeggios of an art that seemed to give clear answers without appeal. If no one laughs, the comedian sucks. If they tug at their collars while you intone the immortal soliloquy, you deserve a tomato in the face. Don't complicate it, I thought. Complication is just a cover-up. Entertain me or die.
But the Thinking Artist was an act that, unlike most of those who attempt it, Herb actually brought off. He was just too restless for brie and chablis. He would take us through the great texts of Beckett, word by word, not commenting but exhibiting how those words still shook him up. He took us through the Shakespeare sonnets that had already forced out of him a work of theatre. He exposed us to the avant-garde of the previous decade, who had presented performances that were perhaps not performances, but then what was a performance? and for whom? and why? and to what effect? All this not to justify his work but to show that it was still working on him. I could never really get to goodness or badness, success or failure; what he respected was the "inarguable," the thing that won't be criticized except on its own terms; the thing that can't be different than it is without becoming something else.
So now I started to understand that I was in the presence of someone who had done historic work, but that it wasn't a special knowledge of the theatre that made it so. He wasn't playing to the house but to history. The theatre was something he had learned so that he could do something with it; and by the time I knew him he had left it behind and was learning other things. In his ethic, means cannot be justified without the ends. You can succeed or fail at anything, but you'd better know what you're trying to do, which always means knowing the thousand things you're not trying to do. I heard him say, "I only argue with what I respect," and if you wanted to do work that Herb would argue with it would take a lot more than knowledge of showbiz.
He made me feel ignorant. I went on a crash course of reading that would last me fourteen years, a course in all things I had to know about before I could know what I was doing: history, philosophy, music, painting and sculpture, and eventually scripture. And after that, a kind of return to the performance of counseling: the listening, the naming, the blessing and the journey toward what is Inarguable, and won't be explained away.
He was a great man and he did some great things; and I have done perhaps some good things in small places. I've made a living in the theatre but not much good work there; I've done my best work in other arenas. Like Herb, I went elsewhere than show business to do what needed to be done, and in that sense I followed him. He keeps me thinking.
*interviewed by Nancy Joseph in University of Washington Perspectives (September, 2011)
**Summer Fellows in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar.