It was a remarkable achievement, one that got me thinking about our current moment and the possibility that during this pandemic, society’s artful dreamers might find their own inspiration and make similarly groundbreaking creations. “The great work begins,” playwright Tony Kushner wrote as the final words of “Angels in America,” his sprawling dramatic diptych of another terrible modern epidemic.
In perilous, isolating times, we hunger with a special zeal for great work by artists who can capture the experience for us. The novel coronavirus that has infected nearly 50 million people worldwide and killed 1.2 million — including more than 233,000 in the United States — has also created a vacuum in live entertainment of all kinds. That includes the performing arts, whose theaters and studios have been forced to shutter for months as organizations also furlough or dismiss scores of the 5.1 million arts workers in this country.
All at once, the curtains closed on hundreds of plays, ballets, concerts, musicals — as well as the in-person classes in drama, music and dance that feed the future of these forms. Though some arts lovers have followed their favorite companies to the Web, where videos of old productions and super-skeletal versions of new projects are being tried out, one can’t avoid a certain hollow feeling — a cultural deprivation unprecedented in our lifetimes. Pause for just a moment from reflecting on the terrible losses inflicted on so many families by the coronavirus, and imagine another type of devastation: a life’s dream of seeing your new play onstage, or appearing in a recital marking the launch of your career, washed away in a tidal wave of worry about contagion in public places.
What, I wonder, is the fate of so many of these projects and events, some of them topical and inordinately perishable? With arts groups across the country deprived of ticket revenue and focused myopically on survival, where goes the impetus for the sorts of ambitious dramas, operas and other productions that put a stamp on an era?
And when at last we emerge from this cultural drought, is recovery a matter of picking up where we left off, with the work that had to be canceled or interrupted? Or does the energy arising from the experiences of 2020 — the sorrows unleased by this disease, the agony sparked by the killings of Black men and women — lead us in entirely new directions?
In other words: Does the great work begin?
I raise these questions out of curiosity about what goes on creatively at a time when very little is going on. In his mid-century novel “The Plague,” Albert Camus describes in stunning detail the torpor of a city, Oran, Algeria, as it seals itself off from the world to try to contain the bubonic plague. The story concerns a doctor, Bernard Rieux, as he ministers to the stricken population. But through another character, Joseph Grand, the author delves into a kind of imaginative stasis brought on by the epidemic that borders on the absurd: Grand, a city clerk, is writing a novel and can’t seem to get beyond the opening sentence.
He worries that line to death, obsessing for pages of Camus’s novel over every word. “Next he showed some anxiety about the adjective ‘handsome,’ ” Camus notes, suggesting in Grand’s equivocations a case of terminal writer’s block — a shutdown, if you will, of the creative mind.
Not that the times when public gatherings present health risks necessarily have to be devoid of inspiration. Consider the perseverance of Shakespeare during those outbreaks of plague and what might have been going through his mind. Although he alluded poetically to the epidemics, most famously in dying Mercutio’s curse — “A plague o’ both your houses” in “Romeo and Juliet” — experts such as Columbia University’s James Shapiro note that the impact on Shakespeare of these disasters can’t be known.
“While his personal life must have powerfully informed what he wrote,” Shapiro observed in a 2015 article for London’s Guardian newspaper, “we have no idea what he was feeling at any point during the quarter-century that he was writing — other than, in circular fashion, extrapolating from his works (which largely steered clear of plague, no matter how profoundly he may have experienced its impact.)”
Still, his life and extraordinary productivity remain fair game for enlightened guesswork. Earlier this year, novelist Maggie O’Farrell published “Hamnet,” a work of historical fiction in which she posited that Shakespeare’s young son of that name died of “the pestilence.” “The father cups a hand to the son’s chill cheek,” she writes. “His fingers hover, trembling, over the bruise on his brow. He says, No, no, no. He says, God in heaven. And then, crouching low over the boy, he whispers: How did this happen to you?”
One is allowed to imagine in such highly speculative accounts that the pestilence would have enveloped Shakespeare profoundly in anguish, of a sort that might have found expression in his plays. A half-out-of-his-mind Lear raging on the stormy heath at the injustices he’s suffered comes readily to mind. “Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air / Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!” Lear exclaims. It would be hard for a father to come up with a more terrible wish for his children.
In “Lear” and “Macbeth,” the grotesqueness of the violence — conjured in grief, perhaps? — is unmatched in his other great tragedies: “Macbeth” features the slaughter of Macduff’s children, and in “Lear,” Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out onstage by Cornwall. A plague on Gloucester’s house, indeed. In some productions, his suffering is so graphically depicted that audience members avert their own eyes.
The frenzied eruptions in Shakespeare would find a concordant fury centuries later in massively influential works such as Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Larry Kramer’s scathing drama “The Normal Heart.” Both were written in the 1980s and early ’90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The conservative Reagan administration’s lassitude in addressing the disease killing thousands of gay men fueled Kushner’s and Kramer’s incendiary prose. The ring of ineffectual, even detrimental official action in response to an epidemic is familiar, no? One wonders what artists of all stripes will have to say about this, and where the concurrent plague of white supremacy will figure in, as well.
The big dramatic statements about these immense issues are on hold. The paradox of the ubiquity and accessibility of art online is that little screens simply don’t do justice to epic unfoldings of great themes. Watching “Lear” or “Angels” on an expansive stage with 1,000 other people makes the heart pound harder; you are ideally meant to hear a resonant echo in the speeches of Shakespeare’s and Kushner’s characters. A laptop in the midst of a plague is better, though, than what Camus’s denizens of Oran in the 1940s have to work with, as they are left incommunicado with the outside world. Even letters are suspected of conveying disease.
Until the theaters and performing arts palaces reopen, we’ll continue to get small spoonfuls each week of what art is yet to come. A Washington company, Theater Alliance, for example, just completed a mini-festival of plays of Black protest, original playlets online that included stories about the impact of police shootings on the Black community. On Nov. 12, Theater of War, a group that typically dramatizes Greek tragedies to spark conversations of contemporary issues, will feature Bill Murray and Tracie Thoms in a digital evening of “Poetry for the Pandemic.” The work of Joshua Bennett, Mahogany L. Browne and Juan Felipe Herrera, among others, will be recited.
We who eagerly await the next big thing from one of the great imaginations of our time will have to contain our impatience. We have to sustain ourselves with the belief that the great work has begun. I like to imagine that some writer or composer right now is taking time to reread the plays of Henrik Ibsen — maybe “An Enemy of the People,” his timeless drama of a doctor who is ostracized for warning his community about a pestilence in the water supply. And who knows? Maybe when we all can gather again, we’ll assemble in a big concert hall for the premiere of “Fauci, the Opera.”