In his turn, in a letter to a friend, composer Zelter from Berlin, Goethe let him know of his meeting with Beethoven: “I met Beethoven. His talent astonished me; nevertheless, he unfortunately has a tumultuous personality, which is not completely wrong in thinking the world repulsive, but undoubtedly he makes no effort to render it more pleasant to himself or to others. He must be shown forgiveness and compassion, for he is loosing his hearing, thing that affects less his musical side, but more his social one. As laconic as he usually is, he is even more so due to his disability.”
As I research the role of Beethoven for the upcoming production of 33 Variations at Threshold Theatre, I am struck once again by the identities, traits and expectations of artists in society, past and present. In the past, and in many ways, still today, madness and the eccentric art spirit are celebrated as the hallmarks of a great artist. I call this the Van Gogh syndrome. Today, madness is considered the ultimate state of unawareness. And yet, we still romanticize it every chance we get. Trust me, as one who’s played that hand, it is not romantic.
Personally, I believe we need to stop celebrating it as anything other than the embodiment of suffering. And suffering is not humankind’s natural state. Beethoven’s madness was nothing more than the product of unrestrained masculine ego and an understandable reaction to his deafness and ill health. No doubt insanity and madness is real. The mentally ill among us are afflicted and we need to treat them well. But by definition, madness is blind. Yet, the real question, does madness produce better art, still looms. I know many personally, who are willing to take that risk. Yes, I said willing. Once understanding is achieved, particularly on the level of Beethoven, madness ultimately becomes a choice.
Beethoven saw Goethe as a traitor to artists because he functioned well in society. As I read these different perspectives it is clear artists of today still are walking this thin line. As I prepare for the role, I realize from my own perspective as an actor, that I dare not play Beethoven as insane, because from his perspective, his actions and behaviors were justified and quite understandable, given his dire circumstances. But his responses were a choice. And so they are for me, as an actor embodying his essence on stage. For him madness was a deliberate choice for freedom from the norms, from old forms, the tired ways of being in the past. He wanted to wake us up, to see in a new way. And boy did he ever?
So, was his “madness” essential to his success as a composer? It wasn’t for Goethe and many other great artists and poets, past and present. The world may never know how many great artists are trapped in the minds of the insane, where it is unable to find coherent expression. Or should we be mourning the millions of normal people who will never realize their creative potential for fear of becoming insane? Are we medicating the next Beethoven into oblivion? Or are we releasing the potential for greatness by mitigating the madness?
If you like/don’t like or want to add your thoughts to the conversation, I encourage you to comment. Also, you may want to get a copy of Point of Art – Second Edition, or download it today. I offer career coaching for those serious about a career in art. Don’t forget to check out The Portrait – a painting video and The Power of Positive Painting, the original portrait painting video.