If we’re going to talk about innovation, I think there might be worse places to start than with acknowledging this: innovation has nothing to do with being new.
So. Okay. What does that mean?
One of my favorite bits of Shakespeare is that moment in The Tempest when Miranda marvels wide-eyed at the glorious assembly of wealthy and powerful men that has suddenly appeared in the middle of her chess match with Ferdinand. Unable to control herself, she exclaims, “O, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!” It’s a nice moment.
It’s nice, mostly, because we want to believe her. But we can’t. Unlike Miranda, we know who this assembly is, we’ve seen them in action: traitors, criminals, their handlers and enablers. Miranda’s hopefulness is so beautiful, but so delicate—a little knowledge spoils it completely. Prospero’s response acknowledges the deep irony of the situation with such great and real tenderness: “’Tis new to thee,” he says, and we can almost hear his heart breaking as he says it.
“’Tis new to thee.”
This moment says something very true about the nature of newness. And it’s not so much that the new will eventually get old—everything gets old. That’s life. We all know that. No, I think this moment in The Tempest speaks to the complexity of newness by creating a lovely human tension between Miranda and Prospero, innocence and experience. This tension shows us, first, that newness is a subjective, not an absolute value. It is fleeting. Easily dissipated. Ephemeral and evanescent. After our experience of the new, the moment’s gone. It’s not new anymore. And chances are very very good that it was only ever new to us, and that for but a moment. But, second, it shows us that newness, as fleeting as it is, represents something to which it’s important to remain connected. The new isn’t a thing, an object, it’s an experience. Moreover, it’s an experience of wonder: an acknowledgement that we don’t completely know everything that the human adventure has in store for us, even though that adventure is only new to us.
Prospero, paraphrasing the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, tells us there is nothing new under the sun. And he’s right. Miranda shows us that newness is an experience of the world and a disposition to the world that looks like wonder. And she’s right, too.
But it gets complicated. Because we can talk about Prospero and Miranda and newness-as-wonder-while-acknowledging-that-nothing-is-new all we want, but we live in a particular time and place and are in a very deep relationship with the culture and values of our time and place. We live in a commercial culture that eschews Prospero’s wisdom and can’t comprehend Miranda’s wonder beyond wanting to figure out how to package it and sell it. It’s a culture where newness is only ever really about novelty—new stuff. New stuff is saleable stuff. Everybody wants new stuff. Everyone’s going to want to buy new stuff. “New and improved” is a commercial trope that speaks volumes to what newness actually means to us: improvement. Better lives through the purchase of more new stuff. Of course we look at that trope—New and Improved—and we know it has more to do with marketing—with the manipulation of appearances, with a perception of something which may or may not be there—than it does with a sense of wonder at the really real. Still. Stuff that’s new is appealing, even if it’s only new in a theoretical or rhetorical sense.
We are so steeped in all of this theoretical/rhetorical newness that, more often than not, when we think about innovation, we tend to think that it means: making a new thing or saying a new thing. And we need Prospero and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes to remind us, “There is no new thing under the sun.”
Which, apart from being a true thing, is actually a good thing. Because innovation is not about more new things. The new is not a product. It can never actually be a product. So what is innovation about?
I think Miranda can help us here: innovation is about a sense of wonder based in a unique human experience that is brought to bear on the world-as-it-is. (I would argue, by the by, that wonder is not always a pleasant thing. Horror is a form of wonder and not less important or less truthful or less needful for being less pleasant.) We innovate as artists when we introduce our own experience of the world into the cultural conversation, when we honestly articulate our experience of the world to the world. The newness of an artistic innovation is in the uniqueness of the vision that produces it, not in its novelty. It’s inevitable that whatever we create comes from our encounter with what other people have created. That’s one of the great and beautiful things about being human: all that we are and all that we do comes from being in relationship with the world—with our time, our place, and with the people, things, cultures, ideas which make us the people we come to be. I truly believe that if we want to be innovative, all that’s necessary is that we be true to those relationships that have created us, true to our encounter with the world.
No one is in any need of more new things that aren’t actually new. But what makes life more interesting, what best reveals the mystery, wonder, complexity and horror of the human adventure, is a multiplicity and diversity of visions, of ways of thinking about the world. Innovation lies in the articulation of such visions. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to create (to innovate!) lasting structures in which this multiplicity and diversity of visions can be fostered and supported.
How beauteous mankind is, indeed!
Mark Schultz’ plays include: The Blackest Shore; Ceremony; The Gingerbread House; Deathbed; Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (for which he won the 2005 Oppenheimer Award and the 2006 Kesselring Prize); Polar Bear; Gift. He has received commissions from Playwrights Horizons, MTC (Sloan), Birmingham Rep and The Exchange. He was selected for a 2006 Royal Court Residency. He is a member of New Dramatists and Rising Phoenix Rep, and is coordinator of MCC Theater’s Playwrights’ Coalition.