Striking vs. Plain

When I began composing operas, I quickly became aware that different people hold highly contrasting attitudes towards the theater and people who work in the theater. Fascinated, I did a lot of reading about this subject. I discovered that numerous scholars believe these contrasting attitudes stem from basically different views about the nature of world, as well as different views about how best to present ourselves and our work to the world.

Contrasting approaches to life have endured for centuries. Some people desire certainty and permanence, and, accordingly, they tend to seek unchanging values, ideals they can hold as certainties. They tend to believe the values they cherish are based on external, universal truths and essences. Valuing permanence, they often see themselves as having a single unchanging identity (a ‘central self’), to which they strive to remain true. In communicating with others they tend to value sincerity, brevity and plain-speaking.

Other people are more fascinated by various changing aspects of the world, and they may seek variable ways to meet the challenges offered by changing situations. They may see themselves as playing various roles in life (child, parent, sibling, friend, artist, lover, and so on) and often enjoy playing these roles with a measure of noticeable style. In communicating with others they tend to appreciate a measure of playfulness, artfulness, and eloquence.

An awareness that you play contrasting roles, perhaps being a parent to one person and a child to another, can add a humorous perspective to a situation. T.S. Eliot wrote that “The really fine rhetoric of Shakespeare occurs in situations where a character in the play sees himself in a dramatic many of those situations in actual life which we enjoy consciously and keenly, we are at times aware of ourselves in this way...when any one is conscious of himself as acting, something like a sense of humour is present.”

Richard Lanham calls one group homo seriosus and the other homo rhetoricus. (‘Rhetorical,’ ‘playful,’ and ‘theatrical’ are all terms Lanham associates with the second type of person.) ‘Serious people’ distrust the ability of ‘theatrical people’ to change character as they shift from one role to another. One serious person called them ‘loud liars.’ On the other hand ‘playful people’ sometimes feel that people who consider themselves ‘serious’ have cast themselves in that single role and then gotten stuck in it. ‘Serious people’ regard this kind of thinking as an example of the inability of the ‘loud liars’ to see the ‘true’ serious nature of the world.

Individual artists and writers stand on different sides of this debate. Some celebrate the artifice of what they do (see the Picasso and Dylan Thomas quotes below). Other artists and many philosophers see their work as representing the true nature of their “self” or the world (as they see it). Yet “serious” artists who argue against artifice often use artistic language playfully (see William Carlos Williams’s pun on “noble"/"no bull” below). And artists who produce comic works often take their craft very seriously.

“Rhetorical” artists often delight in displaying their technical mastery. “Serious” artists sometimes seem embarrassed by their technical mastery, and, rather than overtly display their skills, they may apply their skills in ways that serve to conceal technique. But an artistically satisfying “plain” style is difficult to achieve, and close study of a passage of “artful simplicity” will reveal that considerable artistry was required to achieve it. Art requires artistry; otherwise it is not art.

I personally love playing with the materials of both words and music, and (echoing Dylan Thomas’s thoughts below) I need to enjoy myself sometimes. Below, I had fun juxtaposing some quotes and a few examples of work from people who profess opposing viewpoints.

“Rhetorical/Theatrical/Playful” People “Serious” People
value artifice and extremes; enjoy rhetoric and theater as flamboyant, exciting, and expressive; often see their lives as various roles to play; view moderation as unexciting (especially in art). value moderation; see plain-speaking and brevity as sincere, dignified, and honest; see themselves as expressing their central selves; view rhetoric and theatricality as immoderate and artificial.
We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.
—Pablo Picasso
when we speak . . . beyond the limits of credit I for his immoderate excesses call him the over reacher...or loud liar.
—George Puttenham
Once when asked about the secret of his success as an actor, Laurence Oliver responded, “Sincerity, sincerity. Once you can fake that you can achieve anything.” True eloquence does not consist in speech. Words and phrases may be marshalled in every way, but they cannot compass it. It must consist in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion.
—Daniel Webster
I lie, in order to tell a more significant truth.
—John Cheever
What a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style.
—E. B. White
Shakespeare well knew that, amid high-flown expressions full of sound and fury, simplicity could be a precious and useful commodity.
—Gary Schmidgall
Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Some teachers of writing want to make a voice a moral choice between a false voice and the voice "authentic." I suspect that we all speak in many voices, no one of which is more or less false, more or less authentic than any other...The problem is to hear the voice you are projecting and to change it when you want to. That's no more false than choosing how you dress, how you behave, how you live.
—Joseph M. Williams
Players are evil because they try to substitute a self of their own contriving for the one given them by God. Plays are evil for analogous reasons: they attempt to substitute “notorious lying fables”...for things that have truly happened.
—Jonas Barish, summarizing the concerns of 16th-century anti-theatricalists
The public comes to the theatre to see the art of man, but what art is there in walking about the stage as oneself? The public expects invention, playacting and skill.
—Vsevolod Meyerhold
Style is organic to the person doing the writing...Therefore a fundamental rule is: Be yourself.
—William Zinsser
the highbrow and the lowbrow define the exciting edges of prose...the middlebrow dooms it to mediocrity.
—Constance Hale
Style is the dress of thought; a modest dress,
Neat, but not gaudy, will true critics please.
—Samuel Wesley
I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved and devious craftsman in words...I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks... Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes
—Dylan Thomas
No ideas but in things.
—William Carlos Williams

The revolution
is accomplished
noble has been
changed to no bull.
—William Carlos Williams
Dylan Thomas used to say . . . that his poems had be read either very soft or very loud, and it is true that he has none of the middle style of Hardy or Auden.
The search was...for a more even-tempered, conversational idiom, more accurate than magniloquent....The reverse of grandiose or straining [written of Philip Larkins' poetry]
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
When only the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
—Dylan Thomas
Come to Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin.
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
Hotel with palms
—Philip Larkin
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?)
—T. S. Eliot
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
—William Carlos Williams
Lincoln was highly intelligent. Almost everything he did was calculated for effect.
—Shelby Foote
Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Rhetoric—the artificial composition of sounds and words—gives these characters and the actors who impersonate them their displays of eloquent virtuosity...deliberate rhetoric should arrest attention, persuade.
—Gary Schmidgall
Such power there is in clear eyed self restraint.
—James Russell Lowell
Isn’t it selfish of you to expect three thousand people to sit and watch you lift your leg if you’re not going to do it beautifully?
—George Balanchine
Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good.
—Lao Tzu
Personify the high style and the low, woman dolled up and woman made plain. Both are inviting us to assume certain attitudes.—Richard Lanham There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.—Martha Graham
If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in the library?
—Lily Tomlin
As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure.
—John Dewey
When occasions call for eloquence, you need poetry, not Plain English
—Constance Hale
I design plain truth for plain people.
—John Wesley