Over the years I've been blogging about the arts, I've never been showered with more feedback than I received for a post I wrote about Susan Boyle a few weeks ago. Following the hype surrounding the middle-aged chanteuse's rocketlike ascent from the backrooms of obscure Scottish bars to becoming the darling of the U.S. media, I watched the YouTube clips of the singer's breakout appearance on the TV show Britain's Got Talent to see what all the fuss was about. The fact is that it's almost impossible to discern Boyle's vocal abilities from these clips. As soon as she opens her mouth to sing, screams of shock and amazement surge from the studio audience, a reaction that persists to her last note.
When I dared to suggest that people were more entranced by the spectacle of Boyle — her dumpy appearance and bittersweet backstory — than they were by her reportedly impressive voice, and therefore generally hadn't really heard Boyle sing at all, I was met by a tornado of disavowal. Most people were quick to praise her voice. "Susan Boyle could well be in Maria Callas' league," one overawed commenter wrote. I am, of course, delighted by all the feedback. But I am also concerned that the majority of my Susan-struck readers have missed the point of my blog post entirely: I wasn't dismissing Boyle's artistic talent so much as trying to demonstrate the overpowering influence of spectacle on our reception of art.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre has lately faced similarly cloudy perceptions regarding the relationship between art and spectacle. According to the Rep's public relations manager, Terence Keane, the organization received a bunch of complaints from theatergoers about its recent production of the Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's bloodthirsty black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The play includes a graphic torture scene and some particularly unpleasant stage business involving a couple of household pets. Some have criticized Lieutenant for celebrating violence. Others have suggested that the drama might incite cruelty to animals. In both cases, critics have completely misunderstood the purpose of the writer's heightened sense of spectacle. Far from being gratuitous, the flagrant gore underscores — and sneers at — the way in which the pointless brutality that has stained so much of Ireland's history stems from a misplaced sense of patriotism. As audience reactions to both Boyle and McDonagh's play show, spectacle sways people's opinions about art in interesting and sometimes unproductive ways.
Which brings me to Berkeley Rep's latest production, You, Nero. Inspired by the life of the Roman emperor Nero (AD 37-68), Amy Freed's new toga-clad comedy is all about the dulling effect of spectacle on a nation's culture. But unlike McDonagh's grueling but brilliant play, which uses spectacle as a vehicle for art, Freed's thin and predictable parallel between ancient and contemporary Western society fails to draw any artistically astute conclusions regarding the nature of spectacle. What's worse, director Sharon Ott's half-hearted mise-en-scène even robs us of the considerable pleasure derived from experiencing pure theatrical flamboyance.
Ignoring the political and civic achievements of Nero's career (e.g., his successful peace negotiations with the Parthian Empire and improved relationship with Greece) and choosing instead to focus on the emperor's reputation for debauchery and sadism, Freed paints a picture of Rome on the cusp of ruin. At the center of the implosion is the sorry fate of "high art" at the expense of such "low" entertainments as gladiator fights and dancing girls. As such, the comedy's plot centers on the evolving relationship between Nero (played by an impish-shrill Danny Scheie) and Scribonius (Jeff McCarthy in earnest form), a jaded writer of such serious, socially conscious dramas as Death of a Sailmaker and Incident on Aqueduct Seven. Just as Scribonius' distinguished career looks like it's sinking into the River Tiber, Nero summons the once-celebrated playwright to his palace. With the aim of restoring his flagging reputation among the populace, Nero commands Scribonius to write a flattering play about his life. Scribonius reluctantly obliges. However, the playwright soon becomes enthusiastic about the project when he realizes that he might be able to use his art to improve the emperor's wayward morals. Unfortunately, Scribonius' high-minded plan backfires. Spectacle wins the day, leaving the miserable writer to question long-held beliefs about the redemptive power of art.
In Freed's earlier plays like The Beard of Avon, so-called "low" and "high" culture delicately collide. The playwright delights in mixing erudite wordplay with penis jokes. In its dull derision of mass-market entertainment, You, Nero unfortunately favors didacticism over playfulness, and the dramatist ends up selling both artistry and spectacle short. With the possible exception of a wonderfully hyperbolic speech in which Scribonius describes his night of passion with Nero's ex-lover Poppaea, only to hit us at the end with hilarious bathos — "and after that, we had sex" — the play's language and laughs are mostly pedestrian. For instance, at one point Scheie's Nero shows off an ornate leather footstool and says, "Another ottoman from the Ottoman Empire. They just keep sending them."
The production's sense of theatricality feels similarly banal. Scheie's penchant for leopard-print Spandex and his coterie of eunuchs and skimpily clad handmaidens convey Freed's message about excess. But like Eric Flatmo's Las Vegas–inspired set design — complete with gaudy upholstery, wall-to-wall mosaics, and a Coliseum-sized bust of Nero — the hyperbolic visuals soon become wearing. Even the play's climactic final scene in which Scheie — wearing tight black pants and wielding a microphone against a backdrop of swirling TV-game-show–style lights — lives out his American Idol-like fantasy, fails to live up to modest definitions of spectacle. The actors tried their best to get the overtly supportive opening night audience to join in with claps and cheers. But their efforts mostly failed to inspire the desired reaction.
Like the aforementioned McDonagh detractors and the Boyle fans on my blog, Freed's play demonstrates a worrying trend. At their best, art and spectacle complement one another. To harp on about the denigration of art at the hands of spectacle is to miss the real issue at stake here: that some people clearly have trouble telling which is which.