Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sun Fails to Illuminate Tragedy: Does It Matter?

Now that the auction of The Senator Theatre has been over for a while, I think it's time to reflect on some of the media coverage of the event. This is not to fight about the outcome, but just to raise the question of whether cultural literacy about symbolism matters in today's press.

On the day of the auction, the folks at The Senator had set up the auditorium, where the auctioneer had previously requested the auction to take place, with a Tragedy mask on the podium. I wouldn't have thought I had to explain to anyone with a basic education what this might look like, but it seems that I do. It looked like this:


The Baltimore Sun described it as [Kiefaber] "had hoped the proceedings would take place in the 900-seat auditorium, where he had set up a rostrum adorned with a giant frowning mask."

Now, I ask you. Is it really too much to expect that reporters for a major newspaper who are reporting on the auction sale of a theatre would understand that this "frowning mask" is called Tragedy and represents the concept of Tragedy and, together with its counterpart and opposite, Comedy, has adorned theatres since Ancient Greece? If so, I expect it's way too much of a stretch for them to also understand the symbolism, or the concept of Tragedy itself as defined in Aristotle's Poetics.

In classical tragedy, a noble hero who you'd think has a lot going for him is always brought low by one fatal flaw. In a more general, non-classical definition of tragedy, the requirement for it to be some grandly important downfall of a hero is gone, and a tragedy can become any story with an unfortunate ending.

Now, in this instance I don't care what side of the issue you find yourself on with regards to The Senator, whether you think, as I do, that Baltimore City has manipulated the situation inappropriately to seize control of something they don't fully understand, or whether you think, as the BDC and most of the media seems to, that it's all Tom's fault because he's a bad businessman. I think we can ALL agree that the fact that The Senator had to go to auction is a Tragedy.

So does it matter that the Sun completely missed the symbolism here? Or am I being a snob to think the reporters should have understood a concept I learned in junior high school drama class?

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Anonymous MC said...

Love the Senator, and I'm sure this does feel tragic to Tom and those close to him. But it IS possible that better things are coming for the theater and maybe even for Tom. Change happens.

I'm really more upset about the closing of St. Mary's School down the road -- THAT seems tragic.

August 01, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

Possible, but from my perspective, not probable or even likely. Unfortunately, I foresee The Senator being shuttered for at least a year after the City takes over, possibly longer. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm not holding my breath.

However, whether or not this ends up actually being a tragedy for The Senator is not really the issue I raised here. My point was, is it too much to ask that reporters writing for a major publication should understand the CONCEPT of Tragedy? Isn't it just weird that the Tragedy mask was described as a "giant frowning mask," because they clearly didn't know what it was called?

August 01, 2009

Anonymous MC said...

Wouldn't be too strange if it takes some time to get Senator operational again once it changes hands. But if it goes on too long, without obvious activity, that would feel dismal. Thanks for posting the RFP -- it's not final, it seems, but looks like the city has a reasonable timeline in place for submissions and decisions.

About the mask The Sun probably got it. Maybe they didn't want to use the word "tragedy." Or maybe they thought a lot of readers wouldn't get a reference to a Greek mask....

My guess is that the move outside was an effort to keep it a straightforward auction rather than the more colorful event Tom envisioned. Seeing the mask, it's hard to imagine the City would want news footage of the auctioneer in front of it. And it was their auction. Looks like a clever attempt on Tom's part to inject his message; no surprise that it was foiled. Is Tom going to have his own "Irish wake" for the place?

August 01, 2009

Blogger Stuart said...

Sorry Laura, you're incorrect again. Gayle Grove has claimed responsibility for the placement of the frowning mask. As I said to her, speaking as an actor, unless the smiling comedy mask is there too, a frowning mask is just a frowning mask. It's called "context".

As friends of the Senator, we can all agree that the Senator's troubles are tragic. As MC says, I'm optimistic that the future holds better things for the theater.

August 01, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

What you're both missing (and this is the danger of assuming you know something when you don't know the context) is that the auctioneer had no idea that that the Tragedy mask was even there before they started making noises about changing the venue. When the first person from the auction house came in, before even entering the auditorium, he started making noises to Tom about how the City might insist on changing the venue, and this was before most of the folks from the City arrived on the scene. So the change in venue had nothing to do with ANYTHING that was set up or planned at the theatre that day.

They gave Tom about an hour notice about the possible change of venue. They made the final decision and the public announcement of it with less than 5minutes notice.

They could have asked for a microphone outside. They didn't. They could have asked for the mask, which was only up there with tape, to be taken down if that was a problem. They didn't. They changed the venue for their own reasons that had nothing to do with anyone at The Senator, as far as anyone could tell who actually witnessed the scene from the beginning.

August 02, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

And Stuart, one more thing. Your assertion that without the Comedy mask, the Tragedy mask becomes "just a frowning mask" is ridiculous. That's like saying that Tragedy and Comedy are not two separate genres and must always co-exist equally in the same piece. You're grasping at straws if that's your reasoning for why the Sun didn't get it.

August 02, 2009

Anonymous MC said...

They might not have known about the mask specifically, but I gotta figure they guessed Tom wasn't going to be a passive presence at the auction. He's a born showman. For a guy who screens movies, he's got a soul that seems to belong on the stage. A great quality -- and it's definitely sad (if not tragic) to think of the Senator without it -- but probably not one the folks in charge of the auction wanted to take their chances with that day. I don't claim to know what the real reasons were, it's just what seems most likely to me.

August 02, 2009

Blogger Laura Serena said...

Then why did they specifically ASK HIM if they could have the auction inside, weeks before the auction, verify that there would be a sound system available inside, and then switch the venue AT THE LAST MINUTE? Talk about showmanship! If you're a magician and you want a sleight of hand to occur, you create a distracting environment so people can't focus on what's really happening.

August 24, 2009


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