Voices February 11, 2019
Music, acting bring beauty into world of ugliness
The magic of live theatre is real. Taking us places we might not ordinarily go, it can transform our hearts in extraordinary ways.
Jessica Dickey wrote The Amish Project to explore what happened in 2006 in Pennsylvania, when a gunman, taking hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse, shot eight out of 10 girls.
Five of the girls were killed and the gunman committed suicide, but the subsequent response of the Amish community was one of forgiveness, mercy, and grace.
Out of respect for the victims, Dickey didn’t interview anyone, and her play does not offer characters based on specific real-life individuals.
Instead, the drama uses the magic power of fiction to explore an unusual response to an unusual situation. The Amish community responded with compassion, comforting even the family of the shooter.
Because it is so difficult for us to imagine such a response, we are naturally curious to watch humans acting in such a way.
Dark Glass Theatre, a local theatre company devoted to stories of hope and forgiveness, is presenting The Amish Project on Granville Island, with six performances offered Feb. 20-23.
A limited-run theatre experience is something special
A limited-run theatre experience is something special. Not only does the audience get to witness something rare and unrepeatable, but also the actors get a chance to enact performances whose beauty, like cherry blossoms, will last only for a short time.
This unusual beauty, blossoming forth before the eyes of the audience, intrigues me. It poses a profound philosophical puzzle.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a far-ranging mind that liked to think about almost everything. I find it thrilling to witness his curiosity running wild everywhere.
Aristotle wrote a classic little treatise on aesthetic matters, called the Poetics, which every university student who studies English gets exposed to sooner or later.
I was reminded of Aristotle as I read the second volume of the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics, a two-volume work written at the end of his life.
Aristotle’s thoughts survive only in the form of lecture notes, handed down to us from the fourth century before Christ. They were rescued from destruction many times through an amazing series of chance events, including being saved from a fire in Athens and brought to Rome.
Hildebrand wrote over a thousand pages on the puzzle of beauty
Hildebrand wrote over 1,000 pages on the puzzle of beauty, and his second volume runs over 600 pages. The second volume is less polished than the first, but this gives us a sense of how Hildebrand was hurriedly jotting down his thoughts right up until his death.
The Hildebrand Project published the first volume of the Aesthetics in English translation in 2016. The second volume was announced in October 2018, when Sir Roger Scruton, who wrote the foreword to the book, spoke at the Catholic University of America on “Beauty in a World of Ugliness.” In February 2019, the book is now finally available.
The telescoped and laconic style of Hildebrand’s hurried thoughts reminds me of Aristotle’s fragmentary texts. But above all the interdisciplinary brilliance common to both thinkers most impresses me.
Hildebrand ranges over architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music in his second volume. I was surprised not to see drama with a section of its own, but he does discuss it in his treatment of literature, as “the performance of literary works of art.”
Hildebrand’s enthusiasm about the unique power of the theatre is infectious. He even exclaims: “What a broad range of characters the actor has in which to fulfill his creative artistic task! What rich potential for nuance through the profundity of the actor’s conception, nobility of rendering, and persuasive power!”
What the actor brings to the artwork makes the greatest difference
Hildebrand recognizes that in theatre, what the actor brings to the artwork makes the greatest difference: “Quite apart from the beauty and artistic importance of a work, the talent and the accomplishment of the actor are an object of our admiration and our enjoyment.”
Somewhat controversially, Hildebrand argues that a dramatic performance by a great actor is of higher aesthetic value than a work performed by a solo musician. I confess to having held the opposite valuation, since young actors are seemingly dime-a-dozen, while real musical skill takes decades of patient practice.
But Hildebrand insists acting’s aesthetic value “is on a higher artistic level than the enjoyment of the virtuosity of a singer or of a violinist, pianist, or flutist.”
“It is interesting that the actor’s theatrical mastery itself stands on a higher artistic level than the virtuoso mastery of the musician,” he writes, since “the accomplishment of the great actor, even in the performance of an unimportant work, is still more separable as a value in its own right.”
My recommendation? Go to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, as well as The Amish Project. Then debate beauty over a late-night dessert.
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