On the wall outside the bathroom at the New York Theatre Workshop:
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." (George Bernard Shaw)
These lines are from the "Epistle Dedicatory" Shaw included with his script for Man and Superman. He is writing to Arthur Bingham Walkley, the English theatre critic who gave him the idea to write a Don Juan play, and Shaw's wide-ranging discussion eventually lands on this statement of artistic values, which he ascribes to the artist-philosopher. Turns out that Shaw's actually taking a stab at Shakespeare here, whom he calls a "fashionable author who could see nothing in the world but personal aims and the tragedy of their disappointment or the comedy of their incongruity" rather than the "constructive ideas" he wants artists to espouse.
Hmm, well. Despite my initial surge of good feeling at these words, I can't completely agree with Shaw. This is good advice for living, and even for art as a vocation in general (a mighty purpose if ever there was one) -- but I tend to think that feverish, selfish little clods make for great characters, assuming they are human and emotionally alive. They can even work in service of stories that, among their many other effects, serve as critiques of our social world. (See: Shakespeare, of course, and Hardy and Woolf, and also Aleksandar Hemon, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, T.C. Boyle...and so on.) But I guess Shaw, the Fabian, is never very implicit in his arguments. Don't get me wrong, his attention to injustice and the exploitation of women and the working classes is admirable and often very finely rendered, but literature cannot always be about publicizing injustice and exploitation. Sometimes it has to be about personal demons -- which after all, help build all sorts of unjust worlds.
Anyway, this was great food for thought during the intermission of Elevator Repair Service's production of The Select. As an adaptation of The Sun Also Rises, it served up three and a half hours worth of the Lost Generation's most iconically feverish, selfish (and drunken) little clods. And a damned fine lot of them, too. See it before it's gone, New Yorkers. You've only got till October 23.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream