Stephen Dietz is a playwright I admire greatly, not only for his wonderful, beautifully crafted and deeply insightful plays, but also for his incredible attention to process and craft. Once, after watching Stephen listening intently to an actor reciting lines that Stephen has just revised during a workshop of one of his plays, I asked him why it was so important to him to hear the words read aloud. He told me he had learned, long ago, that when he was confronted with a choice in his writing between meaning and sound, to go with sound every time.
A few years ago, I had the extraordinary good fortune to hear one of Stephen’s lectures, in which Stephen proposed what he called “The Four Seductions” – pitfalls that ensnare us and seduce us away from the real business of creating art and instead lead us down blind alleys and stymie our growth as artists.
Stephen’s list of the Four Seductions is:
Distrust of Beauty
Disparagement of Craft
Blaming the Audience
Distrust of Beauty – In the current art world, it’s fashionable to advance our work by making it ‘edgy’. There’s a sort of consensus that ‘beauty’ has been done to death, and that if a work is beautiful, then it must be passé. There’s a sense that since beauty is a quality that’s awfully hard to pin down, that it must therefore be unimportant, and that striving for beauty is a fool’s errand. It’s a whole heck of a lot easier to provoke an emotional response by doing art that’s gratuitously offensive than it is to make art that arouses a passionate response by making something beautiful. Because of these pressures, it’s often the case that we’re not attentive enough the place of beauty in our art. And, before we get caught up in the “I don’t want to just make pretty things”, I’d like to quote Eolake Stobblehouse, who wrote that “Note that beautiful does not necessarily mean pretty. Pretty is Beautiful’s popular sister.”
Disparagement of Craft – Likewise, there’s a sense that craft is not what art is about, and therefore it’s unimportant. Thus we get plays that are poorly structured, with poorly written dialogue and hopeless plotting, offered up with the excuse that because the subject matter of the play is socially relevant and ‘edgy’ (note the implicit disparagement of beauty) we should excuse the poor craft. Stephen told an anecdote about going to Europe with his family and some friends, and seeing all the glorious sculptures done by Michangelo, Donatello, et al. He asked his friend (a sculptor, apparently) why no one did representational sculpture any more. His friend replied “Because, Stephen, it’s Very Hard to Do.” Craft is sometimes hard, and the temptation to slip one past can be overwhelming.
Criticism – It’s far easier to criticize than to create. There are lots of artists in the world who look at work and say “Hey, I could do that, and do it better”. But somehow, they never seem to get around to doing the work – they’ve been distracted by the flush they get when they elevate themselves above the productive artist by picking apart work that’s actually been done. Stephen suggested that when you catch yourself engaging in some criticism, that you should look at what you’re thinking/saying. Are you trying to figure out what went wrong, and what might be done to put it right? Or are you looking at the work and trying to find ways to run it down so that you feel superior to the artist?
Blaming the Audience – Finally, when one of our works of art fails, the temptation is to blame the audience. They aren’t perceptive enough, they aren’t smart enough, they don’t have the right education, or perhaps they simply aren’t sensitive enough to respond correctly to your work (which you feel is absolutely superlative in every respect). If only we had the RIGHT audience, we assure ourselves, our work would get the recognition and acclaim it (and we) deserves.
I’m sure I’ve done an inadequate job of trying to capture Stephen’s ideas accurately – for one thing, he advanced all of this in a far more articulate way than I ever could. But I heard the lecture a couple of years ago, now, and I find that I’m still turning all these ideas over in my head. If you can look past my meager presentation and try to get to Stephen’s ideas, I think there’s a lot there for consideration.