By Isaac Butler
I wanted to briefly expand on the points about separate brows, class, and taste that I was circling around in my post yesterday on The Designated Mourner. Basically, one of the things the play embodies is liberal contradictions around class and culture. Jack, for example, notes that Howard and his coterie of intellectuals all claim to be doing what they are doing for the lower classes who, in turn, hate their guts. While it's never really articulated, you can tell that Jack is essentially middle class to Howard's upper, and that their class differences manifest in part as conflicts of taste.
Anyway, I happened to finish Rick Perlstein's brilliant Nixonland yesterday and recalled that, early on (pages 41-42 in my copy), he talks about these dynamics as they played out in the America of the 50s:
With the boom that [liberalism] had helped build, ordinary laborers were becoming ever less reliably downtrodden, vulnerable to appeal from the Republicans. The pollster Samuel Lubell was the first to recognize it: "The inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping."
Their liberal champions developed a distate for them. One of the ways it manifest itself was in manners of style. The liberal capitalism that had created this mass middle created, in its wake, a mass culture of consumption. And the liberals whose New Deal created this mas middle class were more and more turning their attention to critiquing the dgraded mass culture of cheap sensation and plastic gadgets and politicians who seemed to cater to this lowest common denominator.... Now came the boob tube, "a vast wasteland," as ... Newton Minow would later say, when he became FCC chair. A working class that was no longer poor, but seemed so much poorer in spirit. (emphasis mine)
This very dynamic leads to the rise of the NEA; while it makes me very uncomfortable to talk about, one of the reasons why the NEA was founded was so that it could protect "high" culture and elevate the new middle class so that they wouldn't be so gosh darn distasteful and poor in spirit. If you look at, for example, Zelda Fichandler's congressional testimony, the idea behind theaters being non-profits has its roots in them educating the masses, in her words working "as an instrument of education – e-ducere, to lead forth – from not-seeing to seeing; not-knowing to knowing; from darkness into light."
I don't mean to pick on Zelda here, who I think is a hero. If you believe the arts have value beyond as entertainment or engines of economic growth (as i do) one of the reasons why you believe they have intrinsic value is that they help (gulp) enlarge and embolden the human spirit. They help make us less lonely. They help expand who we are, and change our perception of the world. But, for those of us endeavoring to provide that experience to others, there's the other side, the side where I claim I am doing something for your own good as audiences. That we became more likely to do this, and the Government became more likely to support it, at the exact time when, thanks to the GI Bill, the iddle class was growing and demographically changing, is not a coincidence.
One of the major struggles arts advocates have faced since the collapse of the various cultural brows is why certain culture is deserving of funding and certain other culture is not. This question has splintered off people who, thirty years ago, almost certainly would've supported the NEA and been arts advocates. There used to be a rough consensus that certain arts needed to be protected and funded because they culturally lifted us up. They were the better kinds of arts that would, in turn make us a better kind of people.
The Designated Mourner embodies these tensions. But it doesn't know quite what to do with them. Its impulses are both socialist and elitist at once. So long as the play remains in the voice of Jack, its embodiment of these contradictions is fascinating. After all, Jack is unable to resolve them even after all of his friends have been killed. He dedicates his life to preserving a culture that he despises. He is stuck at the end of the play, unable to do anything but make jokes, talk about daisies, and slam doors out of impotent rage. But the play's anger at Jack, its ability to show us his conflicts and then condemn us for sympathizing them, its desire to poke the audience, eventually overwhelms these interesting contradictions and it becomes a play by the end where the fact that someone might pretend to like Schubert in order to look better to their peers is placed roughly level with abandoning a loved one to their doom at the hands of a totalitarian state. Both crimes, after all, are different shades of hypocrisy, and thus are given equal time, weight and discussion within the text.
It's rare that i've seen a play where what's effective about it and what is problematic about are so deeply intertwined as to be inseparable. The ultimate effect is provocative, and I wind up likign the play more the more I think and write about it, even if the play itself-- and, more importantly, the production-- isn't convincing.