One of my ongoing obsessions is how people change over their lifetimes. When discourse about an artist doesn’t include some understanding that they grow and change, I get frustrated. The Dr. Seuss who wrote And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (not to mention many atrocious political cartoons) is fundamentally different from the person he grew into, the man who went to Japan, met actual Japanese people, created the absolute love letter film Our Friends, the Japanese, and dedicated Horton Hears a Who to a man he met there. The William Shakespeare who wrote The Taming of the Shrew was a much younger and less experienced person than the one who wrote Antony and Cleopatra. People grow, learn about the world, and, with any luck, develop more nuance and depth.
This development is easier to process in visual art than in other forms. We can look at early, middle, and late Picasso and watch his technique evolve, notice where he begins to explore specific ideas, observe his absolute mastery of realistic painting and the freedom that skill affords him when he rejects it. In written work, this is harder; in an ephemeral form, like theater or dance, nearly impossible.
The ideas that persist throughout a person’s body of work intrigue me. What is it about circuses that makes Chagall return to them over and over? Why does Stoppard continually juxtapose chaos and order as the central question of his work?
To this end, I like to read a person’s work in order, as an exercise in following their development. I read all of Shakespeare this way (based on best guesses, of course), many years ago, and I find that this experience continues to frame how I direct his work. Knowing where in Shakespeare’s timeline a particular play falls helps me situate it in his development as an artist. I know what patterns to look for. Unlike Shakespeare himself, I know which themes he returned to, and I can use what he learned in latter attempts to inform my present work. For example, I can never work on Much Ado, with its clumsy redemption, without allowing it to be informed by the much more successful reconciliation in The Winter’s Tale.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Peter Brook, as I recently listened to Barbara Bogaev’s interview with him for the Folger podcast. The interview took on the framing of a life retrospective. I started to wonder about how Brook’s ideas and work have evolved over his 96 years of life. Lucky for me, he has written a good bit through the latter half of it; even though his primary work is in a medium that is impossible to capture (before you come at me with recording technology, I think we can all agree that one lesson of this year is how much we miss when we aren’t physically in an audience together), he’s created a trail.
I’m setting myself a little project of reading his books in order of publication. I’ve read many of them before, but not in sequence like this. I am curious what themes will keep showing up, and which ones will fall away as both he and the world move together through the latter chunk of the 20th century and into the early bit of the 21st. I’m not including books about him or his work, although if you want a truly wild ride, John Heilpern’s Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa is a fantastic and bizarre read.
I’ve also been compiling a mental list of other writers I want to experience in order, both within the theater and beyond it. Anne Bogart, definitely. Maybe Isabel Allende—there was a point at which I had read all of her work, but she kept writing, and I went to grad school. I’m curious whether other people set themselves these sorts of experiments or challenges. I’d love to hear what artists you’ve taken the time to become a completist in. Besides Shakespeare, I’ve read or seen all of Caryl Churchill, and nearly all of Tom Stoppard. I’ve listened to everything Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Natalie Merchant have recorded. I’ve read all of Edward Lear and Roald Dahl (I went through a phase in elementary school), Jameses Michener and Harriot (middle school), Sara Teasdale (high school), Grace Lin (parenting!).
What about you? What do you learn by experiencing an individual artist’s entire output?