The strange and fascinating phenomenon whose magic we try to capture with the word “love” has been the motivation for more forms of artistic expression than all other sources combined. I recently had the rare treat of spending a day watching its influence on artworks from the early days of both the 17th and 21st Centuries.
First, the 21st. Spike Jonze has done something with her that I don’t remember seeing before: he’s written a love story that’s missing one of its lovers (at least in her physical form). Scarlett Johansson’s voice, and the words Spike Jonze channels through it, are attractive enough to make a believable object of affection and, like a lost sense, the missing body heightens the other perceptions of just how loveable she is.
One of art’s great achievements is its ability to act as a mirror. There’s something familiar and universal about watching a person fall in love with someone he can never touch. Another recognizable romantic problem is falling in love with someone who is not what they appear to be.
At the Belasco Theatre on 44th Street in Manhattan the Shakespeare’s Globe troupe has built a time machine every bit as effective as Jonze’s with their production of Twelfe Night. But where Jonze travels to a slightly distant future where men where brightly colored, collarless shirts and hike their pants up past their navels, Shakespeare’s Globe pulls us back to the 17th Century where men portray women portraying men. It’s easy to get confused a story where both actors and characters are pretending to be things they’re not, but it’s even easier, when the lines they’re reciting come from the pen of the world’s greatest writer, to get lost so deeply in their world that you can enjoy even the confusion.
Love in both the 17th and 21st Centuries is a confusing thing, eternal and mercurial at the same time. Consequently, it’s a great source for both humor and poignancy. We recognize that the love Theodore has for his operating system as the same sensation Olivia feels in Twelfe Night for Viola (at least when she’s dressed as Cesario). It’s the customs of love, not its substance, that evolve over time. Love, in the art of the 17th Century, was such an overwhelming force that those caught in its grip willingly humiliated themselves in its pursuit. Today’s art holds love a little closer to the vest. Love in the art of the 21stCentury is a more transitory thing, undone by divorce, or by petty arguments about taking your shoes off before you sit on the couch. Audiences always have, and probably always will, be spellbound by a talented artist’s attempts to understand it and to share their perpetual bewilderment with the rest of us.