Nothing in This World is Terrible

Abandoned House Wheat Field Ommay
Image by Ommay

I just finished a book on the difficulties in educational reform. On the last page, the author quotes H.G. Wells writing to Joseph Conrad:

You don’t care for humanity, but think they are to be improved. I love humanity, but know they are not.

The quote was given not in the context of defeatism, but of hope. Understanding this is essential to everything, frankly, but certainly to art-making.

Artists are always talking about “humanity” or “the people” or “change for the greater good.” But when engaged in a conversation on the subject, it becomes clear that many of them love only their abstractions and despise actual people. It becomes clear that at the heart of the pedantic placement of symbols on their coexist stickers is the desire for those symbols to disappear. “The people” might be beyond reproach, but actual people, it seems, are in constant need of the artist’s wisdom, help, and correction.

But not for serious artists. Serious artists know they are not teachers, but learners. People––actual people with all their flaws and flares––call up a deep love in the serious artist. Unserious artists approach their audiences with trite socio-political prescriptions and “things to think about.” Serious artists approach their audiences with awe and wonder.

I have said before that great writers rarely write characters they don’t like, and never write characters they don’t love.

Look at Waiting for Godot. I have actually listened to someone tell me with a straight face that the play should be boring (actual word used) and sober, so that the audience will really think about what it’s saying. That is some serious Brechtian BS, and it would be a big surprise to Beckett, who packed the play full of hilarious jokes and antics, and whose one comment on the meaning of the play was that it’s about hope. And it is. In the midst of all the despair, these two clowns show up every single day. Beckett knew there is nothing more beautiful than that. Godot was written right after World War II. He needed those clowns to show him how hope persists.

It reminds me of a moment in War and Peace when Tolstoy writes of Pierre, who has been starved and beaten as a prisoner of war, and who has been marched toward his execution, that “he had learned still another new, consolatory truth: that nothing in this world is terrible.”

It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s a sentiment expressed in various ways by many who have survived the worst of humanity’s atrocities. I don’t know if it’s true––I’ve never been put to that kind of suffering––but I want to understand Pierre. And whether it’s true or not is beside the point. In War and Peace, Tolstoy is not trying to teach us that nothing in this world is terrible. Rather, he wants to learn how people come to that seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion. How do they arrive at that kind of hope in the midst of that kind of suffering? Tolstoy isn’t suggesting we should all be like Pierre. No. Tolstoy is in awe of Pierre.

Our love of humanity is meaningless unless we love the actual people that make up humanity––the actual individuals. Characters made up of the ideals of ideologues are empty and false. Characters made up of the love we have for our audiences become real to our audiences.

I’ll conclude with some Seamus Heaney, from his poem After Liberation.

…to have lived through and now be free to give
Utterance, body and soul–to wake and know
Every time that it’s gone and gone for good, the thing
That nearly broke you–

Is worth it all, the five years on the rack,
The fighting back, the being resigned, and not
One of the unborn will appreciate
Freedom like this ever.

…Omnipresent, imperturbable
Is the life that death springs from.
And complaint is wrong, the slightest complaint at all,
Now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins.

Etragon and Moon


Separation. Isolation. Revelation.

This performance of Bad is helping me stave off the inevitable collectivist creep today. Of all the cloying republics, the art world, with its relentless social righteousness, is often the most suffocating. Just doing my best to lead the hearts of a few artists astray.

Clearing the Sill of the World

Creating art is the process of surprising yourself. And when that happens, when your creation surprises you by what it becomes––by what it was able to become because you stopped trying to control it––there are few things more exhilarating. The same is true of children––of themselves and their creations. I was not prepared for the profundity of my children becoming artists.

The Writer Justin Harris
The Writer, by Justin Harris

The Writer


In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.


I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.


Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.


But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which


The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.


I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash


And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark


And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,


And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,


It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.


It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.


––Richard Wilbur




The Apotheosis of Progressive Art

I thought it was the Pepsi ad. I thought, in the upside down world of progressivism, where fair is foul and foul is fair, this was the hierophantic moment. This was art doing the only thing they believe art is meant to do. This was art as savior, supremely confident in its own righteousness.

But the Pepsi ad turned out to be a mere harbinger––a voice crying in the wilderness. The real apotheosis of progressive art comes as a perfect mixture of millennial scientism and identity politics. It’s even on a show whose title includes the words “saves the world.” It’s so awful, so perfectly progressive, it makes me want to grab Bertolt Brecht by the chin and say, “Look at that, you sonofabitch! You did it! You finally did it!” (Netflix keeps taking the video down. No doubt they are horrified by it.)

Art must never be created to save the world. It must never try to convince Plato that it is worthy of inclusion in the Republic. Never.

To me, the progressive view of art is what Milosz called “dull unconscious power.” Like him, I am against that dull unconsciousness. Art––real art––is a calling up of consciousness.

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful: Shakespeare and the Neo-Puritans

Shakespeare Penn
The Offending Portrait

Years ago, I read a certain interview with Sir Peter Hall. (I have since tried to find it many times, to no avail.) If I recall correctly, he talked about the crazy ways Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes directed and performed. This wasn’t a complaint. He made the point that, thus far, the undeniable quality of the plays has rendered them indestructible. He said something like this: Shakespeare is somewhere smiling; you simply cannot take him down.

But just a few months ago, a group of Neo-Puritan English majors at the University of Pennsylvania did just that. They took down Shakespeare. That is, they righteously took down a portrait of Shakespeare. His race, gender, and possible religious perspective lacked sufficient identity credit. Not even his ambiguous sexuality earned him indulgence.

Not surprisingly, these students learned their religion from the English department faculty. It’s they who originally voted to replace the offending portrait. Also not surprisingly, the faculty had a hard time coming up with an alternative. After all, this was Shakespeare they were trying to replace. Frustrated by the delay, the good students took matters into their own hands, and the space is now sanctified by a picture of Audre Lorde.

UCLAThis religious revival can be found on campuses throughout the country, and Shakespeare is a favorite target. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, only four of the top 52 universities and colleges in the country currently require an in-depth course on Shakespeare. Finesse your schedule just right, and you can get a degree in English literature from UCLA without ever reading the greatest writer in the English language. Where identity is the doctrine, English departments are the seminaries.

But it’s important to understand that, where Shakespeare is concerned, identity politics aren’t really the issue. They’re just the current weapon of choice in a centuries-long, fascinatingly strange movement to unseat the bard. I say movement, but that sounds too organized. Phenomenon is a better word. Shakespeare has weathered everything from scholars trying to take credit for his work to conspiracy theorists trying to credit others with his work. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf highlights the odd tendency of frustrated people to turn their frustration on Shakespeare––even people who have no connection to the literary or theater worlds.

Why? Because Shakespeare is, without question, the best. They hate Shakespeare because his work is so objectively good.

Graves Shakespeare QuoteYou see, it’s not that Audre Lorde is unworthy or shouldn’t be studied. No. Study her. English literature contains many more voices than it had or allowed in Shakespeare’s time. Make room for them. But here in 2017, like it or not, Shakespeare is still the greatest artist with a pen. Pretending that’s not true is perilous, sure, but it’s also stupid. Students who study literature-sans-Shakespeare learn an art and craft without experiencing its best practitioner. That’s just crazy. To excuse that omission because of Shakespeare’s race and gender––that’s even crazier.

Perhaps your attitude goes something like this: “Well, now you know how women and minorities have felt for millennia.” Fine. You can say that all day long, but at the end of the day you’re still just a bigot making value judgments based on race, gender, and religion.

Anyway, the numbers seem to suggest that the slow excommunication of Shakespeare is under way. And, who knows, perhaps they’ll eventually rid themselves of this insensitive writer who so crassly stands out as better than everyone else.

For my part, I hope they succeed. Again, I think they’re crazy for doing it. But I sincerely hope they succeed.

The Puritans of Shakespeare’s time tried to shut down theaters in the name of the church. The Puritans of our time are trying to turn theaters and academies into their churches. I say get Shakespeare out. Kick him to the other side of the river. Let him build a new Globe. He’s good at that.

In the middle ages, a nearly dead Western theatrical tradition found a new ritual from which to emerge inside the churches of Europe. When it was no longer allowed there, it didn’t die. It flourished because it was set free. Western theater was born again.

For too long our academies have tried to make Shakespeare preach their myopic socio-political sermons. Unsatisfied with the success of that project, they’ve now turned to disparaging him, just like the frustrated Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.

Good. Let them. Set Shakespeare free. His works will emerge from academia untarnished, showing that Peter Hall was right about their indestructibility. And free from the zealotry of these Neo-Puritans, the plays will be more beautiful than ever.

Shakespeare has faced off with Puritans before. He beat them then. He’ll beat them this time too. Let them do their worst.

He’s still smiling.











2016 Theatrical Report


Elizabeth's Ghost*

THIS YEAR we celebrated 400 years of Shakespeare, and so I directed two Shakespeare plays and one play about Shakespeare. The year was peculiar in that it included three plays I wrote and one I created (This Bird). The remaining play was a Euripides.

At Waterford, we did the first three plays of the year on a beautiful stage built by Dan Whiting. Dan also painted the stage for Twelfth Night and Robin Hood. The mural was painted by Jason Sulivan. The stage was repainted by Madeline Ashton for Iphigenia in Aulis.


by Shakespeare (Waterford, February)

I love this play. This production was hilarious, and the music was beautiful. Twelfth Night and Hamlet mark Shakespeare’s shift from the heart clown to the brain clown. (He brings the heart clown back near the end of his career.) Feste and Sir Andrew are clowns, but they are not Kempe’s type. Sir Toby Belch seems like a character in the shape of Kempe, but lacking his heart––having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. Falstaff has an intelligence not seen in the earlier Kempe clowns, and yet Shakespeare manages to keep Kempe’s heart the driving force of the character. But there’s no denying that Falstaff was a kind of evolving clown. I wonder if this evolution was what made Kempe leave the company. Sir Toby is a great character, but I think, given the chance, Kempe would have refused to play him. (Photos by Dusty Heuston.)


by Javen Tanner. Directed by Tara Tanner (Waterford, May)

Tara wanted to stage the Robin Hood story, but she couldn’t find a script she liked. She asked if I would write one, and it turned out to be a great project. These annual Lower School plays at Waterford have been wonderful experiences for us over the past ten years. (Photos by Heather Mortenson.)


by Euripides (Waterford, May)

Along with Alcestis and The Cyclops, Iphigenia in Aulis is one of my favorite ancient Greek plays. You can read some of my thoughts about this play here. (Photos by Dusty Heuston.)


by Javen Tanner (Sting & Honey, July)

I feel like I’ve written a lot about this one. You can read my original post about writing the play here. It was first performed as a Waterford play, and then we produced a staged reading of it. It was always intended to be a play performed by adults for children and adults. It was lovely to see that happen this year. The cast was spectacular. Hopefully Sting & Honey will be able to produce more theater for young audiences. (Photos by Samantha Kofford Photography.)


by Javen Tanner (Sting & Honey, September – October)

About a year ago, I had the idea for this play: Shakespeare’s company––men who play women––played by women, Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne and Susanna, and an appearance of the ghost of Queen Elizabeth. It turned into something I’m so proud of. I loved working with the women of the cast. It is the first of three plays about Shakespeare. (Photos by Jason Hermansen.)


by Shakespeare (Waterford, November)

Another great Shakespeare play. As I’ve watched productions of Merchant over the years, I’ve noticed directors have a hard time accepting the play as a comedy. Not only is it a comedy in the truest sense, it is at times incredibly silly. Most of the characters match up with Commedia stock characters. But the play is also heartwrenching and brutal. Shakespeare realized that laughter opens an audience to feeling tragedy in a deeper way. And Merchant is also a tragedy in the truest sense, meaning there is a sacrifice required. We see the same thing happen with Chekhov and Beckett: so many boring, “deep” productions of plays that are meant to make you laugh heartily so that you can feel deeply. With these plays, you cannot feel the extent of the tragedy without the commitment to the comedy. This Merchant of Venice was silly and heartbreaking, and I was very proud of it. (Photos by Dusty Heuston.)


by Javen Tanner (Sting & Honey, December)

This was our ninth year with this piece. I still love it so much. This photo is from last year. New photos coming soon. (Samantha Kofford Photography)



HAPPY NEW YEAR, folks. The Cherry Orchard starts rehearsals next week.





Iphigenia and The Opposition of Mars

Supremely Strong AresI’ve been thinking about Mars for the past few months. Not the planet, though. I’ve been thinking about the god (Ares, to be more specific).

I’ve just closed a production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. One of the things I love about the play is that it subverts any reductive position you try to take on war. And unlike the traditional war play that focuses only on the men in charge who send our youth into battle, Iphigenia turns our focus to the youth themselves who heed the call and willingly offer their lives.

Is that a good thing? It’s a complicated question. Any thinking person has to be grateful that at certain points in history these young people have done just that. Was it right for Iphigenia? That depends on one’s cultural sense of honor. For Falstaff, probably not. But for Iphigenia, maybe so. Again, it’s complicated. For me it’s clear that there are times when tyranny must be fought, and we owe a great debt to the men and women who do the actual fighting.

So where is Ares in all of this? For most of my life I’ve thought of Ares as a quick-tempered, belligerent warmonger––the way he is portrayed in pop culture. But in working on Iphigenia, I’ve found something different.

I decided to have two choruses in the play. The first chorus was the one in the script, a chorus of women of Chalcis. I added the second chorus, a chorus of Greek soldiers. The main function of the second chorus was to be a visual representation of how Agamemnon allows the massive Greek army to get into his head and fill him with fear. But at one point in my production, this second chorus chanted Homer’s Hymn to Ares.

The Ares of the hymn is brave and ready, but he is also wise and slow to battle. He is a martial artist. His philosophy is peace, and so he understands when the rare occasion arises that peace can only be won through war.

Ares is indeed a god who teaches courage and preparation when it’s time to fight. He is a protector, an ally of order. (Tyranny may be orderly, but it is itself disorder.) However, for the most part, Ares is a god who understands war so well that he is able to steer his supplicants away from its horrors.

It’s appropriate then that last night, after I had locked up the theater, and as I walked to my car, I was thinking about how Ares, the god of war, could also be called a god of peace––that, in a sense, his nature is in opposition to his stewardship. Then I looked up and saw what they call the opposition of Mars, brilliant and “supremely strong.”


Supremely strong Ares,
golden-helmeted chariot-rider,
tough-hearted, shield carrying
guardian of cities,
bronze in armour, brave of hand,
the tireless, spear-sharp
rampart of Olympos,
father of war-winning victory,
the ally of Themis.

You are a tyrant to the rebellious,
a leader to the most just,
you carry the staff of manhood,
you whirl your disc of bright fire across the sky
among the seven tracks of the constellations
where blazing horses bear you forever
beyond the third orbit.

Hear me, helper of mortals,
whose gift is the courage of youth.
From high above, shine down upon our lives
your gentle light and your warrior’s power,
so I may drive away bitter cowardice from my head
and subdue my soul’s beguiling impulse,
so I may restrain the shrill rage in my heart
which excites me to charge
into the chilling din of battle.

Rather, blessed god, give me the courage
to stand my ground within the safe laws of peace,
shunning hostility and hatred
and the fate of a violent death.

–Homer (translated by Jules Cashford)