A Classic Tradition

classic film bogart casablanca footlightsIn the Oxford Dictionary, the first definition of the noun, “classic,” is

classic (noun): A work of art of recognized and established value.

The inclusion of the words “of art,” however, makes this definition unnecessarily narrow.  Here’s a better one:

classic (noun): A work of recognized and established value.

It’s necessary to widen the definition because works of science can also be classics.  Examples include Newton’s Principia  and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  That you’ve likely heard of both these authors is proof of their works’ classic status.

Colloquially, the meaning of “classic” can vary.  Most people would loosely define “classical music” as that written for orchestra and as distinct from “popular” music.  Though classical music has been very popular and some popular music is definitely considered classic.  Like “classic rock.”  Or music from Cole Porter.  Who wrote popular tunes for orchestras.

classic picasso woman with book norton simon
Woman with a Book (Picasso, 1932)

Is it fair to consider “classics” as old?  Yes, because many classics are  old.  But “old” does not mean dated.  The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is loaded with classic paintings, most of which are more than 75 years old.  For example, Picasso’s famous “Woman with a Book” hangs in the museum’s “modern” wing.  The picture is quite popular with visitors.  It is also over 80 years old.

Many popular – and seemingly modern – topics in the sciences are old as well.  In 1905, Einstein single-handedly upended all of classical mechanics by considering the physics of the very fast (using relativity) and the very small (using quantum mechanics).  Yet this “modern” period began over 110 years ago.  In fact, Einstein’s 1905 papers, despite dramatically displacing classic physics, are now considered classics themselves.

Einstein classic photoelectric effect paper footlights
A page from Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect where he ushers in the age of quantum mechanics and wins the Nobel Prize. The title of Section 2 is “On Planck’s Determination of the Elementary Quanta.”

The cinematic arts are barely 100 years old and yet it would be daunting to list all the classics of this art form.  “Old” films like Citizen Kane  (1941) and Casablanca  (1942) have enduring popularity – once contemporary audiences wrap their heads around black and white images and 4:3 aspect ratios.

And what of theater?

Like all performing arts, theater has a two-step creative process.  First, it requires an artist to write it; laying out the instruction set.  Second, it requires an artist to perform it; giving life to that instruction set.  Without both sets of artists involved, you don’t have anything.  And worse:  even if the instruction set is considered a classic, the produced art will not be considered such unless the second artist is highly skilled in bringing it to life.

That’s a serious problem.  Consider that it’s tough enough to get just one extraordinary artist involved in a creation.  Performance art demands we must daisy chain two artists in a row.

And it’s even worse than that.  For the great actors you want to bring these classics to life are thoroughly familiar with the works.  After all, great actors are well-versed in their craft and we’re discussing the classics, the very foundations of their craft. And so actors can come to these roles with a been-there-done-that attitude.  Speak the names of Chekhov or Shaw or Wilder or even Miller and many theater practitioners will politely roll their eyes:  “Oh, them.  Again.”

And I get it.  Because every time I walk into a science museum or planetarium, I – and many techies I know – experience the same thing.  As interesting as the science is in those exhibits, be it the ball rolling around on a warped surface to demonstrate general relativity or the laser light that’s bounced by a mirror, I’ve seen all it before.  In fact, it’s likely the toys equipment I’ve used in my professional life as a scientist is far more dangerous fun than what you’ll see in a museum.

crucible original production arthur kennedy footlights
The Crucible by Arthur Miller opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City on January 22, 1953.

That’s how it should be.  Because those science exhibits aren’t designed for the likes of me.  Just as those guided audio tours in art museums aren’t developed for those who create visual art professionally.  These experiences aren’t about advancing the culture; they are about participating in the tradition of it.

Which is the problem with classic plays.  I saw The Crucible, a classic, for the first time only a few years ago.  For me, the play was brand new despite having read it in high school.  In contrast, a professional actor may have encountered the play multiple times.  It’s a highly assimilated experience and artists tend to look for the new, not the familiar.

But when the best theater practitioners are bored by the classics, the preservation of tradition is left to places like high school auditoriums and community theaters.  Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that the average person perceives classical theater as something to be endured rather than enjoyed?  How to build enthusiasm in an art form when the practitioners, who have already absorbed the exciting elements established in the classics, assume their audience has had that experience as well?  Imagine if your painter friend discouraged you from seeing impressionist works in a museum because you’ve seen these images countless times as posters in college dormitory rooms.

Claude Monet’s paintings are older than Chekhov’s plays.  Yet, to the public, the plays are viewed as “old” and the paintings aren’t.

Who’s fault is that?

caryl churchill david hockney footlights
Caryl Churchill and David Hockney

And there is a cascading effect.  When tradition is lost, the context of more recent classic work is left adrift.  For example, playwright Caryl Churchill and painter David Hockney are contemporaries.  Both are well-known within their respective art communities and both are highly accomplished.  I wonder, however, who’s had larger recognition outside those art communities?

The more the audience has engaged an art form’s classics, the closer their sophistication is to that of the best practicing artists of their own time.  The audience can then keep up when these current artists bend or expand the conventions of the art form.  Painting would be in a very sad state indeed if drawing perspective were still considered as innovative today as it was when introduced over 500 years ago.

Einstein is old news.  Very old.  Yet I still delight is discussing him with the newly initiated because it quickly brings me to more recent topics like the operation of GPS devices (which requires an understanding of relativity) or the manufacturing of circuits on silicon (which requires an understanding of quantum mechanics).

Similarly, the more theaters popularize the classics – from 100, 50, or 30 years ago – the more flexibility current playwrights have to expand the art form.  Embracing the classics of the past creates the classics of the future – those that excite performers and audiences alike.

About Kevin Delin

Kevin Delin is a Los Angeles-based writer and scientist. He has 4 degrees from MIT, including a PhD in physics, and co-authored Foundations of Applied Superconductivity, a popular internationally-used textbook on superconductivity. While at MIT, he also took writing courses from author Frank Conroy, poet Stephen Tapscott, and playwright A.R. Gurney, the latter becoming a life-long mentor. After a post-graduate stretch in Silicon Valley, he worked at NASA where he invented and patented the Sensor Web, a unique wireless sensor system suitable for Mars (and Earth). Kevin is also a member of the Antaeus Theatre Company Playwrights Lab. His numerous pieces on art and society have bylines in American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, Footlights, and Stage Raw. His adventures include deploying his technology with firefighters in first response operations, inventing the future with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and solving national security issues with generals inside the Pentagon. He’s the recipient of the prestigious NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal and, drawing from his extensive tech background, professionally advises storytellers who want to ground their work in science. He tweets at @kdelin and his stage plays can be found on the New Play Exchange. His other writings are at kevindelin.com.

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