The History of the World in 100 Performances
Adam Gopnik February 8th, 2016
“The History of the World in 100 Performances.” Really? Can we tell history in terms of great singers and dancers and conductors and choreographers and all the other kinds of people who occupy stages instead of battlefields? The stage may be a world, but does it show the world? In a word: Yes, we think we can; yes, we believe it does. Art changes consciousness in myriad ways—by planting new images, arguing for new ideas, illustrating inspiring texts—but perhaps it most immediately happens in those moments when a perfectly prepared performer in the grip of an essential story lights up new possibilities of human existence. Performances define periods, and periods give shape to people—who, in turn, make new performances that give birth to newer periods, in an ongoing and unending cycle that we call, exactly, history.
When Richard Burbage stepped out on the stage of the Globe around 1600 and played Hamlet for the very first time in history, the possibilities of what it meant to be alive broadened: The torn inner life of actual people, homicidal one moment and melancholic the next, was made real. When Marlon Brando four centuries later became Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, the spectrum of acceptable sexuality, not just on the stage, but in our imaginations, broadened immeasurably. Sexual revolutions were heralded by stagecraft.
Nor is it only actors and texts who make such changes in the minds of men and women. When Leonard Bernstein, in 1943, stepped up against all odds and precedents to become overnight the image of an orchestra conductor, the possibilities of what it meant to be an American expanded. The potent simulacra of the real that we call performance broaden what the real can become. One of the greatest students, and celebrants, of performance, the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: “Life mimics art, not art life . . . if light plays, small and mean are written and acted, fashions and manners will tend to ape them. If large ones exist, we call back a departed spaciousness to our pattern of living.”
Life does copy performance—in the small ways of a young girl dancing her way across the Lincoln Center plaza after a performance of The Nutcracker; in the larger ways that a single audacious turn on the stage gives us all license to try some audacious turning ourselves. Lincoln Center has, throughout its history, been graced by countless great performances, large and small. In this series at the David Rubenstein Atrium, we won’t pretend to compete with those performances, but we’ll attempt to do the lesser but still essential work of understanding, even as we commemorate. The secret to great performance is that high intensity gets married to hard discipline—an overwhelming animal gift of presence gets entrained by a human effort at craft. We are in search of that kind of high definition performance: not the loudest or the most grandiose or spectacular but the most intense. We’ll seek out, enumerate, and celebrate those moments of high intensity.
In a sporting spirit—meant to be taken seriously, but with an understanding that many another list might be made by many other viewers—we’ve constructed our own list of the hundred performances that tell the world’s history (or at least the European and American edge of it) from the 16th century on. Many, of course, we can only recreate from literature and the inferences of history: What that first Burbage Hamlet was like or how the Messiah sounded that very first time in Dublin are hard questions, but not unanswerable ones. Some useful work for history is to make them live again. Some of our effort in the series will be at recreation; some at celebration; but most at criticism in the true sense. A celebration that doesn’t include criticism of the higher kind—an intelligent commentary on what’s being celebrated—is merely an occasion for congratulation.
The first season will take as its subject five familiar American performances, nearer at hand than many on the “list.”
4. To Be Determined