There’s a vast difference between history and historical fiction. I tend to prefer the latter, finding myself in awe of writers who can carry readers into a world that’s both factual and imagined. Obviously, there’s the underlying question of trust: How do we know when and whether we can trust an author who presents a mélange in which fact and fiction aren’t easily teased apart? We don’t.
Nevertheless, Upton Sinclair’s cult epic Lanny Budd novels may tell us more about the complex interweavings of 20th century history and culture than many more scholarly tomes. And David Lodge’s recent biographical novels about Henry James and H.G. Wells may include fantasy events, but they also expand on our grasp of each writer’s life, if not his writings. The risk, as playwright John Logan writes in “Red,” his play about Mark Rothko, is that “[y]ou insult these men [i.e., Matisse, Pollock, Van Gogh] by reducing them to your own adolescent stereotypes. Grapple with them, yes. Argue with them, always. But don’t think you understand them. Don’t think you have captured them. They are beyond you.”
Would that Logan had taken his own advice in writing the play that won him the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. Logan reduces Rothko, the now-legendary Abstract Expressionist painter, to something of a stereotype. Nevertheless, he has also managed to create a vehicle for a gripping theatrical experience — at least if the leading role in this two-character play is acted by Alfred Molina.
Molina starred in “Red” when it was first presented at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009, and he reprised the role in 2010 at New York’s John Golden Theater (where I saw it). Luckily, L.A. theatergoers will be able to see Molina play Rothko yet again this summer. It’s breathtaking theater, worth seeing if only for Molina’s brilliant performance. And for those who prefer their cultural clichés unchallenged, it may even come off as profound.
But a cautionary word from the perspective of one who has spent a great deal of time around art and artists: Despite our longing for artists to speak to us in words, we may well be better off knowing them primarily through their work, albeit with the added gloss of those unchallenged myths that often accompany them. Even Logan seems to understand that, although the published script of his play is dedicated to Stephen Sondheim “for reminding me.” If the reminder referenced here is “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim’s homage to the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, it’s worth considering that Sondheim skillfully made certain we recognized his Seurat confection as a fictional riff on the agonies of artistic creation. Logan, on the other hand, invites theatergoers to join a sort of historically depicted artist and his (presumably imagined) assistant in disquisitions about the creative process. One of Sondheim’s songs — “Finishing the Hat” — conveys more about this inexplicable question of creativity than all of Logan’s play.
Rothko was born in Dvinsk (Vitebsk Province, now in Latvia) in 1903, and came to the United States in 1913. While he may well have commented on “thinky, talky Jews” — an odd expression Logan puts in his mouth — it seems unlikely that by 1958-59, when the play is set, he would have said, “My first dealer said he had too many Jewish painters on the books. So Marcus Rothkowitz becomes Mark Rothko. Now nobody knows I’m a Jew!” Surely everyone knew he was a Jew. However, this play isn’t really about a Jewish Rothko. He describes himself far more accurately earlier in the play, when he says, “I’m a noun. A Rothko.” Of course that’s precisely what makes this work a theatrical, if not an intellectual, tour de force well worth experiencing.
As I’ve written before, viewing Rothko as a Jewish painter — which doesn’t equate with viewing him as a Jew — has always been hovering around discussions of his work, and this play is no exception. But there’s never been a consensus about what that might mean. Early works abound in unreadable, vaguely referential imagery — signs and symbols whose wonder lies in their ambiguity. The multilayered paintings that we have come to identify as quintessential Rothko — one of which he’s working on through the course of Logan’s play — are too complex to be pegged as “Jewish” in any sense. Logan’s imaginary artist, painting one of the celebrated murals commissioned for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant (where they never were installed), is meant to be so plausible, we’re not supposed to ask too many questions. Some dialogue from the script:
Rothko: All my life I wanted just this … to create a place … a place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work and give it some of the same attention and care I gave it. Like a chapel … a place of communion.
Ken [the young assistant]: But … it’s a restaurant.
Rothko: No … I will make it a temple.
For those of us who love Houston’s Rothko Chapel, a later commission for a spiritual space created through the patronage of John and Dominique de Menil, these words make the artist sound somewhat prescient. But clever quips don’t get to the heart of what this play is about: generational conflict, sons metaphorically killing their fathers, and how an artist who really loves and knows the art of the past has the guts to create work that is truly his own expression. We are becoming accustomed to celebrating ignorance in the public sphere, which includes cultural ignorance. But until recently, when many art schools no longer bother teaching art history or basic skills in media like drawing or painting, we used to expect artists to grapple with their predecessors’ work as well as their technical prowess.
Diving into a large Rothko canvas (we want to do it physically, but are stuck with doing it visually) is a profoundly moving commentary on the work of earlier artists who tried to understand the relationships between color and space. That may, in fact, be the essential Jewish component in Mark Rothko’s work, because Jewish culture is so insistently about layered accretions of learning: sons respecting their fathers’ wisdom while trumping them with even greater erudition.
To make this happen on stage, playwright Logan lets us know that Rothko is parrying with his predecessors, as he emotes: “Rembrandt and Rothko … Rembrandt and Rothko … Rothko and Rembrandt … Rothko and Rembrandt … and Turner. Rothko and Rembrandt and Turner … Rothko and Rembrandt and Turner …”
Perhaps that’s what the talmudic scholar Rashi was doing when he cited earlier commentators: legitimizing his own writing by letting the reader know that he understood what came before him, thereby becoming one with them. And possibly, as poet David Lehman writes about Richard Rodgers, we understand Rothko as someone who has “done a lot for the Jews just by being one.”
The challenge is that Logan’s Rothko is a martinet and a pedant, and does not suggest the vision of a genius painter of indefinable and sublime color mutations. You can’t really create a painting on stage anyway (credit Sondheim with being clever enough not to try), and — back to questions of history and historical fiction — the attempt to have a large painting somehow develop before your eyes promotes an illusion of ease that’s wholly at odds with what we see when we spend time looking at Rothko’s actual paintings. The stage is, however, a splendid venue in which to establish interpersonal tensions, and with Molina’s acting skills, it’s a forum for tough intergenerational combat. Rothko was, in life and in this drama, intellectually astute and sophisticated, well-read and thoughtful. And while his various pretentious homilies, scattered throughout the play, sometimes can sound inauthentic in this context, the verbal combat nevertheless produces some amazing theatrical fireworks.
And that, in the end, is likely the most significant merit of Logan’s play.
“Red” will be staged Aug. 1 through Sept. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, visit centertheatregroup.org/tickets.
Tom Freudenheim is a New York-based art historian and retired museum director who writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.