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Sunday, February 5, 2012


Before the curtain went up, I said to the friend who came with me, "I have a sinking feeling that the play may disappoint me." Maybe my expectations for the John Logan play was too high.

In the end it both did and did not let me down.

The play is necessarily didactic, which is not necessarily bad. There is something vaguely Tom Stoppard about all the intellectual and philosophical discussion about modern art, the meaning and purpose of art. This potential dryness is relieved by the physical enactment of the labor of painting --- mixing paint, assembling the frame, fixing the canvas, and, climactically, priming the canvas with a thick layer of the color of dried blood.

In the end the play is not entirely satisfactory, but at least it met my hope that it would illuminate Mark Rothko for me. Rothko, here, is presented as the anti-Pollock. See, I've always felt I "get" Pollock, but I had felt like I get Rothko, even after sitting in the Rothko Room at the local Phillips Collection for at least 15 minutes.

The play does succeed in making sense of Rothko to me. That is perhaps enough.

During the post-play discussion, a woman in the audience characterized Rothko in the play with "an impenetrable loneliness." Indeed. He went to his studio and worked alone every day, from 9 to 5, like a banker. The monochromatic palette of his paintings is a mixture of both self-effacing isolation and unfulfilled yearning for connection.

"I'm sick of your neediness," says Rothko at one point to his fictional assistant Ken. It is perhaps the most significant insight into Rothko himself. He needs, and he does not want to be needy. Hence the conflict and sadness.

The least successful part of the play is the (overly dramatic but ultimately underutilized) psychological background of Ken. Is he a projection of Rothko's own youth? A spiritual "son" for Rothko? Or merely a board to bounce arguments with Rothko? In contrast to Ken's sob story, Rothko's own history and its effect on his art and life and eventual suicide are not presented in the play. Perhaps it is not a flaw to restrict the play's scope to the discussion of his art and its place in history, etc., but the curious thing is that, once I learned a bit of his psychological history, things made a lot more sense than the play has presented.

He emigrated from Russia (after the revolution) to Oregon at the age of 11. In childhood, he suffered periods of separation from his parent(s). At 17 he won a scholarship to Yale, where he did not fit in with the privileged WASP kids, himself a Jew in 1920. He was an outsider, shut out and shunned and isolated and, very likely, despised. He hated it and dropped out after 2 years. Isolation then became a kind of self-protection, and an apparent arrogance/audacity was a strategy to reconcile his sense of self-worth and a lack of trust for others. Yes, I know just how that works. Deep down he is the needy Ken, waiting for someone to embrace him whole and without reservation, understanding the large and small heartbreaks he suffered in every year of his life. On the other hand he could not bear to hand over all his vulnerabilities and heartbreaks and disappointments, for weren't they all just the same lot as the Yale bastards? They would just reject and abandon and ridicule him, wouldn't they? How could he trust anyone? I do wonder whether John Logan, as an American-born writer, is able to understand the sense of displacement of an immigrant child.

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