The Melancholy Two-Step of Charlie Schulz

It was the image that got me first: Charlie Brown as suffering Van Gogh, sans ear. As Randy Kennedy observes in the NY Times piece out today (“You’re a Good Prop, Cruel Muse”), if we need to see even Charles Schulz as tortured for his art, what exactly is the expected ratio of angst to art in a given genius?

Reviewing the new Michaelis biography of the Charlie Brown creator, Kennedy provides some wry, Romantic comparisons: “Stacked up against the sundry misfortunes that were courted by or fell on the heads of history’s best-known tortured artists — prostitute mothers (Jean Genet); drug addictions (Coleridge); physical deformities (Toulouse-Lautrec) — those that Mr. Michaelis describes in Mr. Schulz’s youth sound tame and sometimes a little silly.”

In a fit of pique, I once declared that if it hadn’t been for my stepfather drinking himself to death, I really wouldn’t have any claim to suffering at all as an artist. This defensive gesture is, of course, complete horseshit. Really? Only the marginalized get to be artists? Isn’t there room for creation of something beautiful or even painfully true without the hairshirt?

It seems like those with the fiercest demons compulsively mine their earliest troubles again and again. But part of me is skeptical. We so fetishize suffering, especially suffering that is authentically one’s own, that aren’t we simply training artists (and critics and readers) to wallow in their muck? Write what you know, but if what you know is middle-class white amiability, there’s no heat. If, like Charles Schulz, you experience the kind of misfortunes we all do and feel a general sense of restless gloom, then it’s important for your biographer to imply you suffered more deeply than we know. Or else your life’s work is not worth taking seriously (and he created comics — get it? The irony? Get it?).

I used to compulsively read Peanuts as a kid on the floor in my stepfather’s house. He had several volumes in the bookshelf; while not much of a reader himself, Mel had the complete Peanuts archives from the very first comic strip to the late 1980s. Did Charlie Brown, as George Saunders claims, prepare me for Beckett, for recursive absurdity and melancholy struggle? Perhaps Peanuts simply let me coexist with a tricky, loving drunk, when Lucy yanked away the football and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back, and my stepfather and I laughed with familiarity. And we moved on.

Lately, I’ve been absurdly happy, and not particularly motivated to write anything anywhere. It’s not just that I feel lately like I have nothing insightful to say; it’s also that this feels like a healthy realization. I want to create things I can be proud of, but I also want to enjoy this period of love, and place, and purpose.

Art is a thin blanket indeed if all we ask is that it describes our suffering.

One thought on “The Melancholy Two-Step of Charlie Schulz

  1. With theatre you have to catch characters caught in a drama. Those with dramatic, eccentric and marginalised youths, it can seem, have more to draw on, than those of us whose greatest drama was a brief flirtation with an eating disorder at aged 18 and a failure to get into Oxford University (great dramas at the time, predicatably normal, not to mention priviledged, we find out). Audiences and the industry have an insatiable hunger for the new…. a new voice, a new experience, a new perspective. Those who experience extreme conflict first hand and have a gift will trasmute this utter understanding into art and we will step back breathless at the extremity of the experience.

    We falter. In the light of this what could we possibly have to say?

    But I think writing for theatre is about a number of things: 1. the craft of the storyteller, 2. a uniqueness of voice 3. having stories that you burn to tell 4. having an utter passion for humanity (to name but a few).

    We do not need to be marginalised to have these things, but we do need to accept the seriousness of the endeavour. We have to think of our relationship to our audiences, our relationship to our world in general. We have to think of our intention when we create. Whatever that might be. And we must be passionate and curious.

    And sometimes, in times of pleasure and purpose, the only story we wish to tell is a gentle one of ourselves witnessing the world transform itself. It is a story told to an audience of one, staring deep into our eyes.

    Thereby comes the hope at the story’s conclusion, and the pockets of possibility when the conflicts fall away.

    It’s a story that will be told many times in many moments in many tales: dark and amiable alike.

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