Red, currently playing on Broadway in a limited engagement through June 27th, is a stirring play about art, commerce, civilization, despair and transcendence. It is a play that concerns the painter Mark Rothko, who was one of the most thoughtful and exacting artists of the 20th century—an artist who truly believed in the value of art and its place in the world as a civilizing, transfiguring, illuminating force for humanity. The play is a two-hander—the only characters are Rothko, played brilliantly by Alfred Molina, and his young assistant/protégé Ken, played by Eddie Redmayne—taking place in Rothko’s studio over the course of the two years he worked on murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. It is a completely compelling work about the nature of human existence and our search for meaning. Rothko, as written by John Logan, convinces you, that these notions are worth contemplating everyday and all day and if we are not contemplating our place in the continuum of human civilization, then we are not living well, or living completely. Rothko exhorts his protégé to “Think. Think harder. Think for once in your life!” and as he does, we are implicated in our own thoughtlessness. At one point Rothko enters a long diatribe against the culture of niceness that, in his opinion, had taken over mid-century America; the diatribe culminates in Molina throwing himself at Redmayne as he cries, “I’m here to stomp your heart!”
Rothko’s approach to painting was theatrical, which is one of the reasons a play that takes place wholly in his studio and concerns itself primarily with the painter’s ideas instead of real dramatic action, is so successful. At one point in the play, Rothko, who was a notorious control-freak about the conditions in which his work was both created and shown (including using dim artificial light rather than natural light in his studio), begins to tax his young assistant with his endless demands and pretensions. In a startling moment, Ken challenges him on the limits of his painting technique, which require smoke and mirrors to get the desired effect (the canvas meant to throb as if with a hidden life-force), by suddenly turning on bright overhead florescent lights. Immediately, he destroys the illusion Rothko has worked so hard to create and the canvases lose their power, appearing flat and mundane. The theatrical space, too, is exposed; the audience can see beyond the high flats that make up the artificial studio walls to the chipped white paint of the walls of the theater itself. The director Michael Grandage has crafted a brilliantly layered moment here. As the audience, we long for the lights to be turned off, so we can return to our illusory theatrical cocoon–we don’t want to be reminded that Rothko is Molina and Redmayne is Ken and that we are sitting in a Broadway theater badly in need of a renovation. When the lights go back down, and the play and the artificial representations of the studio and its inhabitants are restored, we understand Rothko’s desire to control his environment and exactly how delicate the moment of artistic and spiritual transformation truly is.
In contrast to Rothko’s mythic aspirations and attempts at transcendence stands his young assistant, who, also a painter, is aligned with the upcoming generation of pop artists–Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg. Whereas Rothko fashioned himself the high priest of high art, Warhol and his generation fashioned themselves the merry pranksters of low art. The Rothko character argues that painting should be serious, and that viewers should take it seriously—when they view a painting they should be visiting an oracle, not shopping at the A & P. In this tension between the old guard and the new, Logan effectively illuminates the dialectical cycles in artistic movements–one generation is formed as a seed in the previous, learning from it, growing within its fold, and then exploding to maturity and prominence, destroying the previous generation by making them obsolete. This tension is embodied in the relationship between Rothko and Ken, and we are seduced by the inevitability of it. Yet Rothko, as he castigates the next generation and laments his own artistic demise, makes a vital point–does what comes next inevitably improve on what came before? Does pop art, with its frothy love affair with the banal and the commercial, measure up to the profound depths plumbed by the abstract expressionists? Perhaps the function is simply different: one is unrelenting soul searching and the other tongue-in-cheek social commentary. Merited or not, pop art did replace abstract expressionism as the dominant force in the art world–relegating the Rothkos of the world, with their somber pursuits, to the sidelines, and setting the stage for our current obsession with popular culture, for better or for worse.
This battle of the generations, which stand in the forefront of the play as its primary conflict, pales in importance and complexity to Rothko’s deep and wrenching inner conflicts. In some ways, his young assistant’s true function in the play is simply as a sounding board–an excuse for Rothko to speak his thoughts out loud. This dramatic device works because Rothko’s inner conflicts are so pressing, for him and perhaps for all of us. The core of this conflict is Rothko’s love of pure artistic creation pitted against his need to function in the real world; his abhorrence of commercialism, and his inability to escape from it. Ken, again as the voice of the pop artists, postulates that there might be no need to struggle against the tide of consumerism, but Rothko does struggle, embodying the artist’s simultaneous desire for fame, fortune and notoriety on the one hand, and purity, integrity, and veneration on the other. Rothko, right before the play takes place, has been handed a prestigious commission to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant about to open in a fancy new high-rise in midtown Manhattan. For the commission, he received more money than any living artist, $35,000. Rothko, telling Ken about the job, waxes poetic about his plans to create a sacred space for the contemplation of great works of art that connect each viewer with unalterable, universal psychological truths; Ken responds, “Uh, it’s a restaurant.” to which Rothko retorts, “No. I will make it a temple.” In the end, Rothko cops to his own hypocrisy, and to the impossibility of creating a sacred space for art in the midst of one of the highest-priced, most exclusive restaurants in the Western Hemisphere, a place that caters not to titans of culture, but to titans of commerce. He reneges on the deal and sends the money back to the developers. But Rothko cannot escape the need to send his works into the world, the vulnerable children he imagines them to be, unable to protect them. He is also unable to protect his own psyche from the ravages of the brutish world, and unable to reconcile himself to the contradictions and compromises that we all, but especially artists, must face, as citizens of the actual world and not priests, protected by temple walls and allowed to contemplate only holy and sacred.
Throughout the play, Rothko’s imminent suicide, his tragic inclinations, his acknowledgment that the abyss of despair is his partner in art and life, is very present. It underlies his struggles, his brilliant thought trajectories, and his emotional and intellectual brutality. Rothko, as portrayed in Red, is not nice, is not kind, is not pleasant or happy, but in his presence, you want to live for once in your life, to move past trite assumptions and glossy acquisitive desires and to seize and grapple with your deepest, most hidden, and most urgent drives as a human being.