What makes a classic?

December 15, 2008.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Tyrone Guthrie might have dismissed this critic’s opinion last December that after a single performance, “All Is Calm” was “likely to become a classic.” Guthrie famously argued that new work required at least 50 years simmering in the theatrical stew pot before it could be considered a classic.

Had the critic committed the baby boomer crime of declaring every new thing that happens along “The Greatest Ever”?

Or did he see something transcendent in “All Is Calm,” a poignant ode to Allied and German soldiers who dared to declare peace at Christmastide 1914? After all, even Sir Tony allowed that “Death of a Salesman,” a stripling just 14 years old, has “potential classic status” when he produced it at his new theater in 1963.

Perhaps time itself is not the sole arbiter of a classic. For example, “All Is Calm” – a theatrical concert – feeds our need for heroes, gives space to out dreams of human nobility, allows us to approach the enigma of Christmas and puzzle over the miracle that stopped enemies from killing each other for one day.

Other consistent themes unite classics. “A Christmas Carol” reminds us that if Scrooge – withered and bitter – can be redeemed, we too can transform our lives. In “The Wizard of Oz,” a young girl’s self-discovery is also a fantastic journey. The centuries-old Greek hubris of “Oedipus” still speaks to us, as does noble martyrdom in “A Tale of Two Cities” or “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Handel’s “Messiah” proclaims hope, and “Guernica” screams against inhumanity.

These enduring works of art are paradoxes, constantly evolving yet never changing. They reveal themselves in metaphoric layers – much like Peer Gynt peeling the onion until he is left with nothing. “Every classic has some element of mystery in it,” said Charles Baxter, a writer and professor of literature at the University of Minnesota. “Gertrude Stein observes that we go back to ‘Hamlet’ not because of what we all understand about the play but because of what we don’t understand.”

I think I’ll write a classic

Peter Rothstein, Theater Latté Da’s artistic director, never intended to write a classic when he approached the story behind “All Is Calm.” As former theater critic Dan Sullivan points out, “Classics are not invented; they are discovered. It’s as if they have always been there.”

Provoked by the story, Rothstein began investigating why it moved him.

Start with the awesome mystery of war, which has fed classics since “The Iliad” and “The Persians.”

Rothstein recognized that art sometimes works best when it has identifiable heroes.

“There is that hero in classics who the audience gets to align themselves with,” he said.  “What is most intimate is most epic, where we can get inside the mind and heart of a human being.”

Consider the World War I foot soldier. By December 1914, he stood in muddy slop up to his knees. He stared out from his trench, through coils of barbed wire, across frozen fields littered with mates and into the eyes of men similarly mired. Where was the pomp and pageantry of conquest, the promises of leaders, the glory of national pride?

Some of these soldiers came to feel more kinship with each other than they did with their distant officers. They were worn to their spiritual nubs and wondering how in God’s name they had gotten there. There is a universal quest for meaning, particularly when we feel desperate.

“In so many of those classic stories, people start out with all the cards stacked against them,” said Elissa Adams, director of new-play development at Children’s Theatre Company. “Then the qualities we tend to honor – bravery, courage, honesty, love, faith – transform those circumstances.”

Allied and German soldiers showed courage and bravery not to shoot each other that Christmas. They defied the superiors and reached out for what was noble and faithful in the human spirit. So contrary to war’s intentions were their actions that day we marvel in awe.

The truce of 1914 lasted only Christmas Day, a whiff of goodwill blown away on the winds of war, and nothing in mythology is sweeter or sadder than beauty lost.

Rothstein created authenticity by using the soldiers’ own words, from letters, poems and journal entries. The a cappella group Cantus, directed by Erich Lichte, then wrapped the story with song, an element that cannot be understated. (“Music goes deeper than any words,” Osmo Vänskä said in an interview last year.)

“Standing in the lobby after the premiere last year, the most frequent comment I heard was, ‘You have to do this again next year; you have to do this every year,’” Rothstein said. “There are hits that are huge commercial successes but no one would regard them as classics. I think a classic has to feel important enough that people invest in making it part of the canon.”

Beyond the holidays

The holidays have provided a natural bleeding ground for what might be called modern classics in literature, theater, film and TV. Next time the spiked eggnog has loosened tongues, ask around: Is the Claymation “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” a classic? Mr. Magoo’s deft turn in “A Christmas Carol”? Do Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” or O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” pass muster? How about “Miracle on 34th Street”? You’’ find out in a hurry who was already drinking at home before the party.

Then there is “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” which has appeared in book, TV, film, and onstage. Doesn’t that four-for-four performance rate a spot next to Scrooge?

“It’s not for me,” said CTC’s Adams. “Even if it says something worth returning to, it doesn’t feel like it transcends its Christmas story-ness.”

No, for a classic to take root, it requires more than a single villain flinging gifts at the daffy denizens of Whoville. “King Lear” is driven nearly insane in his quest for legacy – his immortality. “Oedipus” sparks in us the mystery o whether lives are destined, or created. Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean confronts his own shortcomings and emerges redeemed for good, only to be chased by overweening evil in the form of justice.

“There’s something eternal, unvariable, a touchstone common to all eras,” said Gary Gisselman, who directs “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie and teaches at St. Olaf College. “There’s something terrific about making connections about how your life is, how your country is, and how life was in the sixth or seventh century B.C.”

Family and taboos

Gisselman expands the playing field. The family is a rich role lode of dramatic material that has taken on classic dimensions. Think of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Will Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” join that pantheon? Time will tell. In “Antigone,” Sophocles dramatically united both the intensity of family allegiances and the war between state and individual. Then there is our fascination with taboos, which makes for timeless art. In Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” a man lusts for his niece – a page right out of the Greeks.

“What is it that makes that so compelling and at once disturbing?” Gisselman asks. “It’s a great puzzle to us.”

Sullivan used a lighter reference – Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” Couples being naughty appeals to a daring instinct in us, Sullivan said.

“A lot of farce is that way,” he said. “It’s about breaking the rules without getting caught, and we delight in it.”

The beauty of Coward’s play is its time and place. It is as specific as “All Is Calm,” and specifically is crucial to the universality of the classics, said Charles Nolte, who spent more than 60 years in the theater as actor, director, playwright and educator.

“You get a play that mirrors life accurately, no matter what period it’s written in, and you have the definition of a classic,” he said.