Academic freedom is once again in the news, as a scandal rages in Texas–but this time, believe it or not, it is a scandal over alchemy. It seems that a Texas A&M University chemistry professor, who accepted a $200,000 grant to engage in research aimed at transforming base metals into gold, claims to have succeeded in producing small bits of the precious yellow stuff in his laboratory. No one else has been able to replicate his experiment, but 15 of his colleagues have demanded his resignation for accepting funds for “non-standard” purposes that have been discredited for three centuries. Remember the sorcerer’s apprentice?
The scandal raises the unlooked-for question of whether alchemists deserve the same kind of protection in the name of academic freedom as do unpopular political views, racial slurs, homophobia, anti-Semitism and all the other hot-button issues rampant on today’s campuses. The issue of academic freedom, along with the current congressional debate over violence on television, recalls Anthony Lewis’s article in the September 1992 issue of American Theatre (based on a speech given at a TCG National Conference) in which he reminds us that free speech includes tolerance for the speech that we hate.
While alchemy might not seem to present any immediate threats to either the theatre or the populace, it has been controversial for as long as would-be alchemists have lusted after the secret of alchemical transformation. As far as we know, no one has ever succeeded in producing the desired results.
Theatre, on the other hand, is expected to achieve alchemy on a regular basis. Playwrights transform ideas into dramas. Actors transform characters and dialogue into flesh-and-blood people. Designers transform words into visions. In today’s climate, even theatre managers and boards are asked to create something out of almost nothing–and they sometimes succeed.
Occasionally, theatre is also viewed with as much fear and suspicion as sorcery. Recent events like the debacle in Cobb County, Ga., which resulted in the elimination of public funds for the arts because of objections to a production of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, remind us all too vividly that transformation of ideas into live drama can be dangerous. People who are afraid to make the journey with the actors and the playwright view art as a threat. They fear that the world of the play will become their world–or that their world will become the world of the play. The very expression of new ideas strikes fear in their hearts.
It is true that theatre, at its best, is capable of inspiring change … of opening new frontiers of thought … of introducing audiences to new worlds.
S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, currently running at the Pittsburgh Public Theater (see story on page 10), is just the kind of play that reflects such fear–and inspires it; it’s a play about the alchemical melding of two souls in which the spirit of one “possesses” the body of the other. Such plays remind us that theatre can be more than a replication of what exists; theatre possesses the capability of alchemical transformation…of telling a nonliteral but truer truth.
In a mid-January broadcast of ABC’s Nightline from Eastern Europe, President Clinton appeared with Czech President Vaclav Havel in a basement theatre in Prague. Ted Koppel’s first question to Havel was significant: “How do you view recent world events as a dramatist?” Transformation: from the objectivity of the journalist to the spiritual/aesthetic interpretation of the artist. Seeking a truer truth.
In this strange and difficult post-Cold War time, with its lingering world recession, global revival of religious zeal and expansion of conservatism, theatres might be inclined to retreat to safe, popular and nonconfrontational work. But another school of thought argues that a little sorcery is a better antidote for what ails us. There is a compelling case to be made for adventurousness and daring as the way to inspire audiences and attract support for the theatre. And while there are never guarantees that a theatre work will be transformed into aesthetic “gold,” alchemy does happen.
To continue with the metaphor, theatre managers are also forced to engage in alchemy these days. Short of accepting grants to create gold bricks in the basement, or capturing the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg, they must transform scarce resources into the capability of producing art.
We live in a time of unparalleled social change which makes many demands on individuals and institutions alike. The fact that we are now a truly multicultural society is one of the obvious challenges the theatre faces. Achieving cultural diversity among audiences, on stage and in the back offices may seem to call for a little alchemy, but we know it’s possible. Consider how President Clinton has begun to transform the federal judiciary in just his first year in office: Out of 48 appointments at press time, he has named 18 women (including Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the Supreme Court) and 14 people of color–62 percent of his first-year appointments to the federal bench–while maintaining a high quality rating from the American Bar Association. (By comparison, Jimmy Carter appointed 18 percent women and minorities, Ronald Reagan 8 percent and George Bush 26 percent.) The impact of this degree of change may not be immediately apparent, but make no mistake, a major transformation is taking place.
Artists, and particularly artists of color, may feel that the incipient efforts to transform the American theatre into a reflection of our changing society are not moving fast enough. But even if alchemy hasn’t yet been achieved, at least there’s progress. The ultimate transformation will take more commitment than sorcery, but it may lead to a kind of artistic alchemy that will ignite imaginations and unleash artistic resources in ways we have never known before.