The Seattle Repertory Theater recently began running John Logan’s Red, 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play. The story follows the fictional two-year relationship between abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko (Denis Arndt) and his assistant, Ken (Connor Toms). Situated around Phillip Johnson’s 1958 commission for Rothko’s first set of murals to be displayed in the Seagram Building’s Four Seasons Restaurant, Ken is the outside invading the master’s space just as the master is about to invade the space of the affluent. The apprentice’s mission: to keep Rothko from selling out in the face of a precipitously close obsolescence, that is, in the face of a burgeoning movement. Namely, Andy Warhol. At the sound of his name, Arndt howls and squirms in a chair beside his Mozart-warbling record player. It is a play about the old and new, their clashes as well as their “symbiosis.”
For anyone studying romanticism, Logan’s story is familiar. A genius, locked away in his temple of a studio, struggling with his work, on his own, of course. When Ken arrives, it’s hokey, over the top, and a bit of a relief. If you accept Red for what it is, at times it charms. It’s a silly play about a young upstart learning from the old master, a throwback to the wise shepherd instructing the young swain.
But there is also violence. Aside from romantic shout-outs to Turner, Wordsworth, and Byron, the predominant figure operating in the background is the early Nietzsche. The two artists debate over The Birth of Tragedy, while Rothko pours bright red paint like wine into a bucket The depth of the conversation is thin, but the importance is the historical situation. In the late fifties, Nietzsche remains a dangerous name. Only a decade earlier Hitchcock reminds his audience of the philosopher’s influence on Leopold and Loeb in Rope, and in his effort to spare future victims, Walter Kaufmann warns his readers not to read Nietzsche in “snippets” in the 1967 edition of The Genealogy of Morals (3).[i] While Rothko corrects Ken to say Nietzschean conflict is symbiotic not violent, Rothko curses his assistant enough to clarify the point: symbiosis is not exactly tranquility either.
While the philosophical discourse is entertaining, as Ken complains, all Rothko does is talk. Screaming at the height of an aria, Ken wishes his mentor would start painting. The audience agrees. There is a brilliant scene where the two characters prime a canvas together with an energetic, romantic symphony driving their movement. They paint, weaving around each others’ bodies within the canvass’s close framework. It’s messy, it’s dynamic, a moment of entanglement. The scene represents Logan’s best effort to demonstrate the Apollonian/Dionysian dance, paint splashing outside the contours of the canvass. Perhaps it is best that they paint only the one time, because watching them work makes the story feel insignificant. Rothko wants to eschew memory, history, geometry, “swamps of generalization,” he tells The Tiger’s Eye in 1949 (quoted in Fineberg, 111).[ii] Only when the characters stop talking does Logan completely free us of the swamp.
The director, E.T. White, wisely capitalizes on Logan’s discussion of the paintings themselves. When the lights come up, Rothko stares, brush in hand. Arndt leans into the canvas, searching. It’s unclear if he analyzes a vibrant block of paint or a face. Or faces. For the moment, the audience plays the role of painting and it’s suspenseful to think that at any point, with a lick of his brush, we’ll be different. Later he describes his vision of the murals hanging in the Four Seasons, oppressing the rich and speaking to each other after hours. The lights must remain dim in the studio to “protect” them. Even though he describes himself as a “banker,” not an artist, as an “employer,” not Ken’s teacher, he treats the paintings as something sacred still. They “matter.” Rothko scowls at the commodification of the art object and the banality of those who buy it. Everything to them is “fine.” But he treats the paintings with a particular reverence: the paintings are not anthropomorphized; they’re apotheosized.
Logan’s play does not really challenge art or art criticism, but it’s not supposed to. In the end, Red caters to the audience it pokes fun of, and they still laugh at the jokes. It never taxes the patience, it never overwhelms, and most of the tension is displaced by a quirky joke or a zippy comeback. Ironically, Rothko bemoans the fame he attains, and it is precisely Red’s popularity that will make it difficult to experience the play properly. It belongs in a small space. If companies want the audience to have some kind of phenomenological experience (as the dialogue gestures toward), then patrons cannot sit twenty-something rows back. When the paint moves it can be seen. It should also be heard. And smelled. It would be best if the audience was instructed, like Ken on his first day on the job, to dress for the part. Art is not a “pretty picture,” it’s not “fine,” it’s work.
Red runs until March 18th at the Seattle Repertory Theater and at Portland’s Center Stage until March 18th along with a Rothko exhibit at the Portland Art Museum until May 27th. Red is currently being staged in various cities across the country. Check local listings for details.