Art & the Face of God

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

A friend of mine died late Monday night. Her name was Karen Goodwin, and she was an accomplished artist, a Broadway producer, but most important, a remarkably faith-filled and lovely woman.

I have a little tribute up, as a very small thanksgiving for her friendship and witness, here.

Among other things, she was a producer for a little play called Les Miserables on Broadway.

Shortly after receiving the news that she has fought her last battle with cancer, I Googled in the hopes I might hear her voice. And what I found was a lecture to the International Arts Movement on Drama as Divine Comedy.

As she was introduced there: “Karen established Fifth Avenue Entertainment to develop finance and produce plays, musicals, screenplays, and teleplays for domestic and international markets. Broadway partnerships in which Ms. Goodwin served as producer, co-producer, associate producer, and fundraiser include the first run and or touring companies of the London, New York, U.S. and Australian productions of Les Mis, The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Oliver.”

You can listen to her beautiful remarks here — a worthy reflection for anyone, but especially those who tell stories in one way or another for a living here, or read the transcript National Review Institute intern Carmella O’Hanlon kindly produced.

And now for the little gift from Karen:

Every morning we awaken to a bombardment of information, and on some mornings I have to admit to being anxiety ridden about whether I, or someone I love is conforming to the deforming conditions we find ourselves living in these days.

How shall we then live?

What is the best response from an artist to the vision of life offered in our daily exposure to counterfeit images and ideas that are not simply corrupting the culture in some “macro” way but can corrupt our daily life as well? We’ve had many inspired thoughts to consider from the conference. As a theatre producer, a woman of faith, and a practicing Catholic Christian, my response is governed by two sets of golden rules. First: To love God with all my strength and love my neighbor as myself. And second, the golden rule of dramatic writing: Show don’t tell.

That said, I may be a “Broadway Angel,” but I’m no saint. I could illustrate my point of view with the confessions of an accidental producer but in these few shared moments today, the best way for me to address the role of live theater in cultural renewal is to briefly highlight some of the lessons learned from a few of my favorite storytelling mentors: Dante, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Christ.

From the poet Dante, we learn that he too was an artist whose life was torn by the issues and views of his day: political, religious, and personal. He saw his life as blighted by the injustice and corruption of his times. His talent was put to use in the creation of a dramatic narrative poem The Divine Comedy that glorifies the ways of God and is also a keenly crafted reflection on the ways the people of his day thwarted any divine plan.

He did not write as a protesting crusader, however, nor as a pessimist. He wrote as an optimist, in my view, he wrote as means to contemplate joy and hope despite the reality of hell. For his professions of faith, Dante became a penniless exile, a political prisoner, a convicted felon. Separated under pain of death from home, family, and friends, his life seemed to have been cut off from the middle, like Christ before him, like the fictional character Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables, after him. Like many of us feel in our various midlife crises, despite all Dante tells us that human reason alone is self-limiting. It must be wed to divine love to yield truth in art, and happiness in love and life. We can learn the importance of hope in art from Dante.

Aristotle’s Poetics is the bible for storytellers. From him we learn many of the principles of good dramatic writing. Most especially, that good writers serve their stories, bad writers serve their personal agendas. I’ve applied his principles to the formation of a corporate mission statement. The action, idea, or plot of my little company is to produce work that does no harm; that serves the good, the true, the beautiful. I learned from Aristotle that I want to participate as a creative minority, a term I relish; it’s a term from the historian Toynbee. To be a creative minority in an ongoing story: the story of love incarnate, the story of the redemption, the story of human freedom. I want to identify projects that have an overarching theme, as Les Miserables does: “to love another person is to see the face of God.” When I let these principles guide the selection of my projects I choose stories well, honor the stories I’ve chosen, and avoid proselytizing on stage. Truth in theater, whether in the form of comedy or tragedy, will lead an audience member to an honest catharsis and will touch their souls, may possibly be an agent of renewal, certainly will make memories, and perhaps even inspire a change of heart. The goal however, is to entertain and engage first, to enlighten and inspire as the story permits. From Aristotle we learn the craft of storytelling, but also the lesson to persuade not coerce.

Of the many lessons one can learn from the study of Shakespeare, one of the most powerful lessons for me came after attending an outdoor, amateur production of Macbeth. We can make theatre with characters and events from history, and re-imagine them dramatically with all the means of language, stage-craft, music, and movement. These plays powerfully evoke the truth by remembering the past. We learn the importance of memory in art from Shakespeare, of keeping the memory of important virtues alive in contemporary works of art through the prism of the past.

And how did our greatest storyteller Christ teach us the loss of love? He did so poetically and in parables. He did not speak in a hand-fisted overly direct way. He told us stories simply, memorably, and with images even a child can understand. The best theater, especially musical theater, follows these same guidelines. From Christ we learn the supremacy of simplicity and mystery in storytelling. From Christ we also know that we in our culture are already redeemed.

But like the characters in Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, we creative minorities must be the ones who metaphorically walk through the woods memorizing books to keep them and other cultural artifacts, their pleasures, and transformative power, alive, despite the savage burning of the word.

Creating work for the stage or for any other artistic medium that is true and alive and the best it can be perhaps can only happen when the artist creates, in what Lewis Hyde calls, the “Gift Economy.” An economy that allows the artist to function with autonomy and integrity without the pressures and sometimes cynical influences of the commercial economy. In the Gift Economy, the means of production are sustainable time and place, passion, inspiration, and cultivation of craft. Once the work of art has been completed, it is then up to a representative of the commercial economy, an agent, a producer, a publisher, to present the work effectively to the intended audience.

This system harkens back to the days of Church patronage and the emergence of the art dealer in the 19th century. It is the time now in the 21st century to re-imagine a new patronage, which I am encouraging, that’s probably another conference certainly another talk, but I think we do need to examine financial structures that give an artist what is needed to create well. From the first imported Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas of the late 19th century, to more recent musicals such as Les Mis, Phantom, and The Ark, that I have been involved in as fundraiser or producer. Most aficionados of musical theater associate the productions in the American canon with delightful diversions, such as My Fair Lady or Annie, which we’ve all seen probably, even if you’re not a lover of musical theater, at some school production or community theater. But as with any art form, the collaborators and the creation of musicals often create work that has social relevance that directly or symbolically engages us in contemporary politics and culture.

Richard Weaver tells us that ideas have consequences, and that there is an enfolding and driving love that infuses our imagination, our dreams, our expectations about life and relationships with family, colleagues, and friends. This love, by any other name, has a transformative power: for self, for your relationships, and for the wider community and culture within which we live and work and develop our habits of being.

It is not only our physical world, habitats, and creatures that may be endangered today, but certain traditional habits of being, that celebrate a living culture, these are equally threatened with extinction. Those habits both sacred and profane, the ones that inspire rather than scandalize, that give hope rather than discourage, that ask us to engage in the life around us instead of being apathetic and cynical participants seduced only by utilitarian purposes. Or equally dangerous, the habits of the overly sentimental.

So I choose hope, I choose to remember. With likeminded colleges who recognize the need for anima mundi, soul in the world, we tried to create a theater of spirit, a theater of hope.

Thank you very much.

Thank you, Karen. May Christ’s peace be your eternal rest.

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