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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

In 1978 the National Lampoon released its Sunday Newspaper Parody — a weekend edition of the fictitious Dacron, Ohio Republican-Democrat, in its production and appearance a precise imitation of a small-town Sunday newspaper. Published on newsprint, there were several news sections, as well as a comics section, a magazine, and an advertising supplement for Swillmart, a local department store. This last offered shoddy, cheap, unnecessary products for sale; the four-page color supplement was headed: “Swillmart! Where quality is a slogan!”

The same thing may be happening to the word “innovation.” In the contemporary American theatre, the word is being applied to everything from marketing and public relations to the structure of non-profit producing organizations to, of course, theatre and dramatic work itself. The word often means different things in each of these contexts, but identical to all is the intent to try something that’s never been tried before. Any long-time observer of modern drama will recognize that it seems to be getting harder and harder to do exactly that. The Caffe Cino in the 1960s was producing plays with a superhero comic-book aesthetic, fifty years before the Vampire Cowboys; the Judson Dance Theatre at the same time was experimenting with new marriages of sound, movement, decor, and text; and in the 1920s Erwin Piscator in Berlin was implementing the mass media novelties of film and radio into his politically-charged productions, as some companies are trying to implement iPhone and Twitter technologies into their productions today. And these examples only scratch the surface.

The curator of this salon, Caridad Svich, tells me that some scholars are now referring to our time as a “meta-modernist moment” in theatre history. This reminded me that it has been nearly 80 years since that Modernist-par-excellence Ezra Pound issued his clarion call to artists to “Make it new!” — an imperative to continuous innovation in the arts if ever there was one. But as Louis Menand pointed out in a 2008 issue of the New Yorker, a great deal hinges upon the antecedent for that pronoun “it.” “It” does not refer to form, or content, or process. “The ‘It’ in ‘Make It New’ is the Old — what is valuable in the culture of the past,” Menand wrote. “A great deal of Pound’s poetry therefore takes the form of translation, imitation, allusion, and quotation. He is trying to breathe life into a line of artistic and intellectual accomplishment, but it is a line of his own invention — a ‘tradition’ that includes, among others, John Adams, Confucius, Flaubert, the Provençal troubadours, and Benito Mussolini.”

For those who know it, Pound’s poetry is certainly innovative and has even become a part of a personal tradition for poets like George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Olson; and how much contemporary theatrical work which we call “post-modernist” shares in the forms of translation, imitation, allusion and quotation?  Another iconic Modernist writer, T.S. Eliot, expanded on this idea in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which remains a milestone in criticism, whether literary criticism or any other kind, and in which the idea and definition of innovation is a central theme. The poet, Eliot concluded, “is not likely to know what is to be done” — that is, how to innovate, how to differentiate his own work from the work of the past — “unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”

The dramatists of the capital-M Modernist period exhibited these traits of innovation in a variety of ways, but all of them recognized the importance of tradition to their art. (As Eliot also wrote in the same essay, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”) None of them are entirely sui generis. Georg Bűchner, the first of the great Modernist playwrights, drew from Shakespeare and folk drama; Ibsen from Lessing, Zola and Flaubert; Brecht from the Expressionists; Beckett from Synge and Yeats. Even arch-experimentalist Richard Foreman built on what had already been accomplished by Brecht and Gertrude Stein.

While all this may be true of artistic creation, “innovation” was a by-word of the business end of Modernist art as well. Now as then, the kind of art that innovates had to be somehow disseminated. It is a bit of a myth to think of the Modernist poet starving in his garret, his work completed when he put down his pen — he had to be published, and now as then it wasn’t easy. A variety of little magazines and visionary publishers sprang up to disseminate this work, and of necessity these editors and publishers had one eye on the art and the other eye on the till: it cost money. One need only turn to the publication history of Joyce’s writing to see that the publication of Dubliners and Ulysses were as fraught with as much difficulty and stress, with as many financial challenges, as the production of any play or musical.

Producers of Modernist drama also needed to innovate, to find new avenues to the production of work which challenged prevailing aesthetic conventions. Some formed private, subscription-based companies, like Jacob Grein’s Independent Theatre Society, which produced Ibsen and Shaw for the first time in London, the forerunners of subscription-based regional theatres today. (In music, Arnold Schoenberg created a not dissimilar organization, the Society for Private Musical Performances, to premiere the work of Modernist composers — and critics, it should be noted, were barred from attending its concerts.) Roger Blin was only able to finance the Paris opening of Waiting for Godot — an inexpensive show, one would think, if ever there was one — with a combination of government money and private donations.

When we talk about innovation, we tend to forget these early innovators, who were faced with similar challenges to our own. The lessons are often cautionary (neither the Independent Theatre Society nor the Society for Private Musical Performances lasted for more than 10 years), but their success lay in that they accomplished what they set out to do: the work they produced made a mark, changing these art forms irrevocably.

Sometimes the contemporary rush to innovation in theatre and drama seems indiscriminate, bearing signs of desperation and despair: to “innovate” is to wildly throw any number of “new” ideas against the wall to see if any of them stick. But innovation in either art or business is hard — and to have a better chance of succeeding, artistically or financially, you have to do your homework, even if it’s only to see what’s been tried and failed and to therefore avoid wasting our time. The desire to innovate carries with it a necessary obligation to be aware of the accomplishments and traditions of the past. It is, as Eliot said in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” hard work: “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”

The word “innovation” is not going away — it is too valuable, too descriptive, of what we all hope to do. But unless we are well-versed in this history of innovation, whether we’re artists or producers or critics, we are unlikely to innovate in any meaningful fashion: we must innovate from knowledge, not ignorance, if we are to avoid having a theatre “where innovation is a slogan.”

George Hunka has written several plays and essays, as well as reviews, theory, and feature stories about theatre for American Theatre, Yale University’s Theater, Contemporary Theatre Review, the New York Times, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and other publications. His first book, Word Made Flesh: Philosophy, Eros and Contemporary Tragic Drama, was published by EyeCorner Press in March 2011, and he contributed “Eros/Sex, Death/Murder: Sensuality, homicide and culture in Musil, Brecht and the Neue Sachlichkeit” to Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance in 2010. He wrote the introduction for the recently published Richard Foreman collection Plays with Films, and his essay “Access to the Body: The Theatre of Revelation in Beckett, Foreman, and Barker” will appear in Howard Barker’s Art of Theatre, to be published by Manchester University Press later this year.

  • Jeff McMahon

    Strong, smart essay that burrows into that assumptions behind our automatic use of “innovation.” Thanks!