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Richard Nelson ’72 delivers Tolles Lecture

By Lauren Lanzotti '14

April 3, 2014

For the past few years, there has been a buzz about the visual and performing arts departments in anticipation of the new studio and performing arts building. With the grand opening just around the corner, the theatre department was excited to bring Richard Nelson ’72 to the Hill as the Winton Tolles Lecturer on Tuesday, March 11 to discuss the topic of the peculiar nature of theatre. Nelson’s goal was not to validate the importance of the arts, however. Rather, he came to the Hill to explain why art should never have to be validated.

Richard Nelson is one of the most celebrated playwrights of the day, having written the Tony Award-winning book for James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the Olivier Award-winning “Goodnight Children Everywhere” and, most recently, the critically acclaimed “Nikolai and the Others,” which debuted at Lincoln Center last May. Having such an accomplished alumnus as the Tolles speaker this year was truly a pleasure for the theatre, English, and creative writing departments.

Professor of Theater Studies and English at Yale University Marc Robinson ’84 introduced Nelson as a playwright who has a great appreciation for other artists. He spoke of Nelson’s use of other artists’ work within his plays and explained to the audience that “Nelson finds equivocal characters, who are themselves actors, to be the most interesting and expressive on stage.” Nelson’s plays are filled with artistic characters ranging from acting instructors to novelists, and it is clear in both his plays and his lecture that Nelson holds these creators in high regard.

Nelson explained to the audience that when he was first asked to be the Tolles lecturer, he assumed that the theatre department wanted a lecturer who would give a special purpose to the new performing arts center. “Why build a new theatre now when money could go elsewhere to seemingly more lucrative work?” Nelson asked his audience. “I assumed I was being asked here to give credibility to this new theatre. Then I realized that I was here to talk about why the theatre matters to me, not why it matters to Hamilton.”

Nelson acknowledged that theatre has evolved over time as technology has changed, but he stated that he ultimately believes that theatre has a peculiar nature or essence that cannot be changed. “If we can define this ‘peculiar nature’ of theatre, then we can discover why theatre has lasted so long and why it matters so much,” Nelson explained. “The theatre is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression. Nothing between them and us. As long as we have this equilibrium, theatre will find its way back.”

Many audience members were intrigued by Nelson’s decision to speak through the parables of his characters, using their voices to express his own views. He repeatedly quoted characters from “Nikolai and the Others” and “Goodnight Children Everywhere,” including some choice messages like, “A theatre by nature is full of strangers,” and “A theatre building by itself is nothing.”

Nelson clearly has a great appreciation for art in all of its forms, as demonstrated by his claim, “Art shouldn’t prove anything or have an ultimate goal other than being art.” He encouraged the Hamilton community to look at art morally rather than economically.

The National Endowment to the Arts requires justification for projects on its funding applications, which specifically asks, “What can art give back?” Gradually, society is viewing art and theatre as economic enterprises, and Nelson believes this is stripping art of its purpose. “Art shouldn’t need to justify itself as an engine for anything,” said Nelson. “It’s taken me some time to arrive at this, but I now realize that the purpose and place of the art itself is distorted in justifying art for things that it does not justify to make paying an artist seem fair to the rest of the community.”

In addition to his thoughts on art and its purpose, Nelson spoke briefly on the responsibility of playwrights, directors and actors alike to foster a relationship with the audience within the theatrical space. He addressed professors and students in the audience, urging them to continue their training so as to strengthen this relationship.

Though Nelson came to Hamilton resolved not to justify the new facilities, by the end of the evening, he had left his audience with an explanation of the importance of academic theatre. He left his audience with the final thought, “Theatre is not a building or style or political platform or entertainment or escape. Theatre, at its essence, is an intimate human relationship between the actor representing playwright and the audience. It is where we may finally gain the knowledge of our souls.”

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