Born in 1961, John Logan attended Northwestern University in Chicago, where he began his career as a playwright. His greatest stage success thus far is Red, his play about the American abstract painter, Mark Rothko. Premiering in London in 2009, the play appeared in New York the following year, where it won six Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Mr. Logan has also had a distinguished career writing films, including Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo, and the screen-adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
Red focuses on the period in Rothko’s life—the late 1950s— when he was working on a number of large murals which were to be hung in The Four Seasons, a luxury restaurant in the Seagram Building, at that time one of the most admired new office buildings in New York. Eventually, Rothko decided to reject the commission, instead allowing his murals to be hung in the Tate Gallery in London and various other locations, where, according to Lauren Weinberg of Time Out Chicago, the playwright “stumbled” upon them, and began thinking about Rothko and the turbulent history of these works as the subject of a play. Time Out quotes Logan as saying, “I walked into that room with those murals and they stopped my heart. . . . Something about the size, the intensity, the seriousness of them, just slapped me across the face.”
After a year of intensive research, including readings of Rothko biographies and essays by the artist, viewings of his paintings at various sites, and sessions of stretching canvases and mixing paint in the studios of artist friends, Logan set to work on the play.
He explains his fascination with Rothko in an interview with Neena Arndt of Chicago’s Goodman Theater:
He's important because of his absolute, uncompromising purity. He deeply believed that art mattered. He felt that it should be like a religious experience, and his great dream was to create a space that was like a church. He wanted people to take art that seriously because he believed it was redemptive. He believed that it was important to the human spirit to create art, to experience art, to be open to art because he truly believed it allowed an exultation of the heart and the spirit. He was rigorous about exploring those themes in his work. I think he did something that no one else has quite done—particularly in Abstract Expressionism—and that is to create something that is profoundly simple and profoundly moving. There's no clutter, there's nothing unnecessary; his paintings are austere and savage. They're like Greek tragedies. They're not Racine, they're not Chekhov, they're not Ibsen—they're Aeschylus. They're that pure and that strong. And I think his contemporaries were influenced by other movements in art: Op Art, Pop Art, Impressionism. Rothko was too, of course, but he stayed the course on his vision, on single-mindedly doing what he believed he could do. He was never as popular as Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol, but he created art earnestly and completely and with his heart and soul. And I think for any artist that's admirable.
Logan also says he sees in Rothko, “a rabbinical streak. . . . [H]e brought a Talmudic seriousness and level of analysis to everything he did, while still letting it be pure and simple.”
Logan invents a young assistant for Rothko to provide a dramatic foil for the painter and to create the conflicts necessary for compelling stage action. An aspiring artist himself, the assistant, Ken, provides the other half of a binary relationship in which, as Logan sees it, “the characters respond to one another and segue back and forth. I knew that Rothko would have to be the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the ocean and Ken would have to be the wave that billows around it for most of the play.”
But, says Logan, “To me the play is really not about art at all, it's not about painting; it's about fathers and sons. I think people respond to the flamboyant grandeur and intensity of the character, but what really moves them is the father-son relationship. I wanted to write a play about teachers and students, mentors and protégés, fathers and sons. To me the piece has always been very domestic. Rothko had an awareness of young artists and an awareness of responsibility to young artists. . . .”
The action takes place in an old gymnasium on The Bowery in New York during the years 1958 and 1959. Rothko selected this location for his studio because it approximated in size and shape the space in The Four Seasons restaurant where his murals would be hung. But unlike the swanky restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the old gym represents the antithesis of luxury and glamour. By the late 50s the gym’s address had given its name to the embodiment of failure and dereliction—the proverbial “Bowery bum.” In addition to the stigma of its unsavory location, the gym also bears the marks of old age and abandonment, to which Rothko adds the wear and tear of an artist’s studio: a “floor splattered and stained with hues of dark red paint. [A] cluttered counter . . . filled with buckets of paint, tins of turpentine, tubes of glue, bottles of Scotch . . . coffee cans filled with brushes. . . .”
But rising out of this mess are “representations of some of Rothko’s magnificent . . . paintings. . . stacked and displayed around the room.” The physical setting itself thus conveys the drama of creation, the emergence of beauty from the muddle and confusion of human existence: the seedy neighborhood, the chaos of brushes and paints, the bottle of whiskey. And in the middle of it all, also muddled and disorderly, we see an individual soul struggling to express itself by turning the mess into art.
The historical setting of the action is also important. The late 1950’s mark a transitional period in American art, when the dominance of the abstract painters of the so-called New York school was about to give way to a new generation of artists associated with the movement known as “Pop-Art.”
The New York school came to prominence in the years following the Second World War, when the world center of artistic energy moved from Paris to Manhattan. Janson’s History of Art tells us that the artists belonging to this movement were influenced by, “existentialist philosophy” and “the anxiety brought on by the nuclear age and subsequent Cold War.” Among the most prominent names associated with the New York School are Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Willem De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and, of course, Rothko himself.
The biographical sketch supplied by the National Gallery of Art tells us that Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Russia to a Jewish family that emigrated to the United States when Rothko was ten years old. Raised in Portland, Oregon, he entered Yale University in 1921 intending to become an engineer or an attorney. After two years he left Yale, moving to New York in 1923 where he began his career as an artist. His work passed through several phases, including periods when recognizable, representational figures populated his canvases. But by the late 1940s he had found what would be his final stylistic manner: fully abstract paintings featuring rectangles of various sizes and colors, arranged to induce meditative or spiritual states of mind rather than to depict objects from the natural world. This approach to art put him fully in accord with the New York School.
What playwright John Logan says about Rothko could be applied to virtually all the members of this movement. Like Rothko, they “wanted people to take art . . .seriously because . . . it was redemptive. . . .[They believed] that it was important to the human spirit to create art, to experience art, to be open to art because . . . it allowed an exultation of the heart and the spirit.”
About Newman, Janson notes that he was “beset by profound religious and philosophical concerns, which he struggled throughout his life to translate into visual form.” About Rothko, Stella Paul, writing for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, declares that, “his glowing, soft-edged rectangles of luminescent color should provoke in viewers a quasi-religious experience, even eliciting tears.”
In short, these painters and sculptors were supremely serious, conscious of carrying on the priestly function of the artist that developed during the romantic era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when art became a secular sacrament, replacing for many the spiritual support of traditional religion.
The generation succeeding Rothko, by contrast, approached art from a vastly different perspective. Many of the young artists of the late 50s and early 60s remembered the War as a distant event of childhood or early adolescence, and knew the Depression only as an historical era narrated by their parents or described in their school books. For them, growing up in post-war America, the world had long been at peace, albeit precariously, while among life’s defining features were abundant consumer goods, ubiquitous pop culture, and ample leisure time in which to enjoy them.
Much of the work of this generation is a direct response to this affluent and media-saturated environment. According to Janson, the best-known of these younger artists, “seized upon [the] products of commercial art catering to popular taste. Here, they realized, was an essential aspect of our . . . visual environment that had been entirely disregarded as vulgar and anti-aesthetic by the representatives of ‘highbrow’ culture, a presence that cried out to be examined. “
Among the “patron saints” of this emerging group was Marcel Duchamp, the artist-joker who, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, submitted a urinal to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, offering it as a legitimate work of sculpture. This cultural prank was a pin meant to prick the balloon of the art world’s highbrow seriousness, but it was itself a semi-serious gesture. From that point on art became subject to radical redefinition. Any object framed as art and shown at a venue accepted as a gallery or museum could count as a work of art regardless of its beauty, the skill of its maker, or the spiritual depth of its content. Even “readymade” commercial products meant for mass use or consumption, like urinals or bicycle wheels, would qualify. Thus was art redefined, in a phrase attributed to Andy Warhol, as “whatever you can get away with.”
And of course Warhol was among the most prominent members of the pop-art generation, together with such figures as Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg. For many of these artists, the key ingredient in their work was irony—the “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs” (American Heritage Dictionary). The ironization of art went this way: Traditionally, a work of art was venerated—and validated—by being treated as a unique and even sacred object. It was hung on a wall in a majestic public space like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, carefully framed and lit, and gazed at reverently by a hushed public. But wouldn’t it be funny to give the same treatment to a picture of a Campbell’s soup can (Warhol)? Or a soft sculpture of a giant hamburger (Oldenburg)? Or an immense painting reproducing a panel from a newspaper comic strip (Lichtenstein)? Funny, incongruous, and ironic. If you get it, you’re hip. If you don’t, you’re square. If you get it and hate it, you’re Rothko.
Red is a relatively short play that unfolds over the course of five scenes.
In the first scene we are introduced to the drama’s two characters: Rothko and his fictional assistant, Ken. We first see the artist gazing intently at an imaginary painting hung between him and the audience, as if he were regarding us—and we him—through a frame. Ken enters “nervously’—this being his first day on the job—and Rothko, after initially commanding him to silence, opens their conversation with a momentous question. Gesturing to the invisible painting he asks, “What do you see?”
This prepares the way for a lesson in “seeing” in which Rothko attempts to teach the younger man how to “engage with” his work. Above all, Rothko commands, “Be a human being. . . . These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer. . . .”
“Red” is Ken’s answer to the question about what he sees; and “Yes” is his answer when Rothko asks if he likes the painting, a response which, paradoxically, provokes the artist’s wrath:
Of course you like it—how can you not like it?! Everybody likes everything nowadays. . . . Where’s the discernment? Where’s the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect, what I deem worthy, what has . . . listen to me now . . . significance. . . . Maybe I’m speaking a lost language unknown to your generation. But a generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before. . . .
So Rothko at once establishes himself as a defender of artistic “significance” as opposed to mere likeability, and of the spiritual gravity embodied in tradition as opposed to the light-weight frivolity of the present. He also presents himself as a stern teacher of the errant young, reminding Ken of his duties to art and history.
He then executes a 180-degree turn, laying out Ken’s mundane responsibilities as his employee, insisting that, “I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher. . . . You understand?”
But he turns the tables again, demanding to know Ken’s favorite painter, browbeating him on the folly of his answer, lecturing him about the gaps in his reading, and informing him that he has much to learn: “Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama.” And so on, naming virtually every branch of the tree of human knowledge of which his assistant has a deficient grasp. Rothko is especially insistent that Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is an essential element in any artist’s education.
He returns his focus to the paintings in the studio, explaining that these somber murals, with their freight of tragic feeling, have been commissioned by the architect Philip Johnson to be hung in The Four Seasons restaurant in the newly-completed Seagram building on Park Avenue. He boasts that his fee for this project is thirty-five thousand dollars, a huge sum for the time, and worth as much as a million of today’s dollars. He has accepted the commission, he tells Ken, because the paintings will be hung together in a single room, filling the space with their “inescapable and inexorable presence,” like “doom.” Which doesn’t sound like an inviting atmosphere for a festive—and expensive—dinner. But for Rothko that incongruity is immaterial. What really counts is that the project will allow him to fulfill his lifelong desire “to create a place. . . . I will make it a temple.” With this rather grandiose pledge, the first scene ends.
Scene 2 picks up the action after “[m]onths have passed,” although, just as at the beginning of the play, we find Rothko still staring at the invisible painting hanging between him and the audience.
Ken enters with a bagful of Chinese food, and Rothko reminisces about how he and his generation replaced the Cubists, whose aesthetics ruled the art world in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Actually, Rothko’s verb referring to these artists is not “replaced,” but, “destroyed.” “The child must banish the father,” he pronounces, little realizing that a gang of unruly sons will be virtually pounding at his studio door before the play is over.
He goes on to praise Picasso for teaching him that paintings must contain movement, some sense of dynamic interplay among the elements of the canvas. But such movement will, of course, be the product of the viewer’s perception, since the paintings by themselves are in fact static. Therefore, the paintings “need the viewer” to bring them to life, and in particular they need to be seen in the kind of subtle muted lighting that allows them to work their magic, to “pulsate.” Unlooked-at, or seen in the wrong light, they die.
When Rothko suddenly flips on the harsh fluorescent lights of the studio, he asks Ken the same question that opened the play, the question that keeps popping up throughout the action, and that defines the fundamentals of the relationship between the artist and the viewer: “What do you see?” Ken’s answer is, “White,” which makes him think of, “Bones, skeletons . . . Charnel house . . . Anemia . . . Cruelty.” In short, white makes him, “Frightened.”
When Rothko asks why, Ken’s answer is strikingly personal: “It’s like the snow . . . outside the room where my parents died.”
Just as Ken is frightened by the harsh white light, so Rothko’s pictures are also traumatized by the glare. Rothko points out how “vulnerable” the paintings are, how he must protect them, how they require “companionship,” and how “risky” it is to send them “out into the world.”
As we listen, we become aware that, for Rothko, these canvases are as alive and needy as real, flesh-and-blood children, and that he is bound to them with the fierceness of a loving father.
Then, Brush in hand, Rothko readies himself for the first time in the play to apply paint to the surface of the invisible canvas he has been looking at with such intensity. He studies the surface of the picture, “coiled” for action. “He tilts his head, studying, adjudicating. He considers the color of the paint in the bucket,” deciding it needs something. He asks Ken to add a dash of this, a pinch of that, but is still not satisfied. “What does it need?” he cries out. And Ken, foolishly, answers, “Red.”
At which suggestion from his underling Rothko explodes, demanding to know “[b]y what right do you express an opinion on my work?” He challenges Ken to define what he means by “red,” a color with a vast array of variations and nuances: “You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? . . . What is ‘RED’?” Ken’s answer sets off an antiphonal exchange in which the two characters name some fifty objects or emotions associated with red, in effect demonstrating the power of a color to evoke multiple worlds of meaning and possibility, to capture the experience of life itself.
From red, the dialogue moves to a consideration of what Rothko takes to be its opposite: “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend . . . One day the black will swallow the red.” So Rothko reveals that he lives in continual fear of the irresistible power of death.
The next scene begins, not with Rothko staring at his work-in-progress, but with Ken occupying the stage alone. He has arrived early to concoct a vat of paint that “will be the base layer for a new blank canvas.” He has also brought a sample of his own work to the studio, “a small painting wrapped in brown paper . . . tucked unobtrusively in a corner.” Ken is on the phone as the scene begins, explaining to the person on the other end of the line that whether he shows Rothko the painting “depends on his mood.”
Rothko arrives, explaining that he has paid a visit to the room in the restaurant where his work will be hung, finding that there is “Too much natural light,” but confident, despite Ken’s doubts, that his paintings will find a receptive home there because, “they are being created specifically for that place.”
Demonstrating that he has been a good student, Ken informs Rothko that he has read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, as per the master’s instructions in the first scene. When quizzed about the meaning of that work, Ken responds that it posits a sharp division of people into adversarial types: Apollonian rationalists versus passionate Dionysiacs. Rothko corrects him: “It’s not really conflict. More like symbiosis.”
In other words, the two tendencies coexist in everyone, “And the perfect life would be perfectly balanced between the two. . . . But our tragedy is that we can never achieve that balance. We exist . . . in a perpetual state of dissonance.” We long for the cool balance of Apollo, but are constantly assaulted by the emotional ferocity of Dionysus, which torments us by its terrible insistence on our mortality. In making art, Rothko explains, we “seek to capture the ephemeral, the miraculous,” thereby attempting to assert the victory of life’s vibrant red over the blackness of death. But there is no escaping from the final darkness, a fact that some people find unendurable. “That’s my friend Jackson Pollock,” Rothko observes, insisting that Pollock committed suicide, albeit indirectly, by driving “like a lunatic” while drunk.
And the source of Pollock’s despair was that his fame had transformed him into a “commodity,” a brand-name attached to paintings desirable for being chic, not for being serious, spiritually-energizing works of art. And Rothko sees the same thing happening to him: “It’s buying
class . . . It’s buying taste . . . It goes with the lamp . . . It’s cheaper than a Pollock . . . It’s interior decoration.” The idea that the paintings he cherishes as his children should become mere objects to adorn a room terrifies and infuriates him. And in this scene, it drives him to paint.
He and Ken set to work priming a large, new canvas, each one applying paint to a different part of the surface:
It is like choreography, they move in sync, they move toward each other and then across, Rothko lurching back awkwardly as he continues to paint so Ken can dive in under him. . . . It is hard, fast, thrilling work. . . . And then they are done. . . . Rothko steps back, exhausted. . . . Ken sits heavily on the floor, also exhausted.
The primer they have applied suddenly calls to mind an appalling memory for Ken. It reminds him of the color of the dried blood he found on the carpet when he discovered his parents’ dead bodies. In a stunning revelation he tells Rothko that they were murdered—stabbed to death by burglars. So for Ken, the color red has yet another, darker association than anything touched on earlier in the play: it reminds him of death.
Ken also reveals that, though the men who killed his parents have never been caught, he paints their pictures, imagining what the murderers would look like. Rothko challenges him to go deeper into this traumatic experience, to, “Go into all that white,” which, as we learned earlier, is the color Ken associates with the death of his parents. Then, perhaps, he will understand Rothko’s obsession with black, the antithesis of life-affirming red.
Ken objects that many artists, facing death, nonetheless filled their canvases with explosively vivid colors, citing Van Gogh and Matisse as prime examples. To this, Rothko responds with fury and derision:
You insult these men by reducing them to your own adolescent stereotypes. Grapple with them, yes. Argue with them, always. But don’t think you understand them. Don’t think you have captured them. They are beyond you.
In response to this blast, Ken “unobtrusively” removes his own painting from the studio, and offers to go fetch coffee. Clearly, he feels that the master is in no mood to look at his work. But before Ken leaves, Rothko detains him with a final lesson, describing Rembrandt’s painting, Belshazzar’s Feast. This depicts the moment when Belshazzar, king of Babylon, having blasphemed, sees the proverbial “handwriting on the wall,” an inscription that reads, “You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting.” That dire judgment from the Lord of the universe, says Rothko, is “what black is to me.” On that somber note, the scene ends.
Scene 4 begins with Rothko entering in high dudgeon, having just come from an exhibition of the work of the rising generation of new artists—the painters who will succeed him and his contemporaries. He calls them “arriviste SONS-OF-BITCHES,” he claims that they have “[p]olluted the museum walls where the paintings of Newman and Pollock once hung, and he declares that, “These young artists are out to murder me.” And who are these assassins? None other than the innovators of Pop-Art discussed above: Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and others who share their ironic sense of art as a medium for recombining and recycling the pervasive imagery of popular culture. And Rothko’s complaint is that they lack seriousness.
When Ken observes that, nonetheless, these new artists are popular, Rothko explodes into a rant denouncing the shabby infatuation with what is pretty, nice, and fine. He is most certainly not “fine.” On the contrary, he is, “Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine.” Commanding Ken to look at his paintings, he returns to the question asked at the very beginning of the play, “What do you see?“ And he answers it:
You see the dark rectangle, like a doorway, an aperture, yes, but it’s also a gaping mouth letting out a silent howl of something feral and foul and primal and REAL. Not nice. Not fine. Real. A moan of rapture. Something divine or damned. Something immortal, not comic books or soup cans. . . .
But rather than accepting this anathema without protest, Ken responds with a denunciation of his own, reminding Rothko that he has boasted about killing off the Cubists, and confronting him with the fact that it’s now his turn to be obsolete: “Exit stage left, Rothko. Because Pop Art has banished Abstract Expressionism . . . I only pray to god they have more generosity of spirit than you do.” Looking around at the murals, he dares Rothko to recognize them as, “the last gasp of a dying race . . . Futility.” And then he tosses in a final taunt, echoing the contempt Rothko had earlier expressed for Picasso’s frivolity, “Don’t worry. You can always sign menus for money.”
Picking up angry steam, Ken next expresses his bitterness at Rothko’s utter lack of interest in him either as a person or an aspiring artist during the two years they have been working together. That indictment leads him into a tirade in which he calls his employer a pretentious, “solipsistic bully.” “[N]othing is ever good enough for you! Not even the people who buy your pictures! . . . Who’s good enough to even see your art? . . . Is it just possible no one is worthy to look at your paintings? . . . So you lose faith . . . So you lose hope . . . So black swallows red.”
Rather than responding with equal vehemence, Rothko coolly notes that Ken in fact makes “one salient point,” namely that he does distrust the people who look at his art. “Selling a picture is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades. It’s going to get hurt and it’s never been hurt before. . . .” Which is why he wants the paintings in his studio to be “going into a place created just for them. A place of reflection and safety . . .”
Ken mocks the notion that the Four Seasons restaurant fits that description:
At least Andy Warhol gets the joke. . . . It’s a fancy restaurant in a big high rise tower owned by a rich corporation. . . . Your intention is immaterial. Unless you’re going to stand there for the rest of your life next to the pictures giving lectures. . . . Just admit your hypocrisy: The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption. You rail against commercialism in art, but pal, you’re taking the money.
Ken’s attack makes Rothko reflect on his motives, and he defends himself by insisting that he knows that The Four Seasons is a place “where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off . . . And I hope to ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who eats there.”
But Ken’s skepticism and derision have shaken Rothko’s confidence: “You think it’s all an act of monumental self-delusion. . . .” When Ken answers, “Yes,” Rothko drains his Scotch, dons his hat and coat, and heads out the door, leaving his assistant—surprised at not being fired—standing alone, studying, “the central painting. . . . glass of Scotch in one hand, tilting his head, very Rothko-like.”
The final scene opens in semi-darkness with Rothko, “slumped . . . on the floor, gazing up at the central picture. . . . He has been drinking for a long time, but is not drunk.” When Ken arrives, Rothko announces that he has again visited The Four Seasons, this time actually having a meal there. What he has discovered is exactly what Ken predicted: a temple of consumption, a place filled with “the chatter of monkeys and the barking of jackals. It’s not human . . . And everyone’s clever and everyone’s laughing and no one looks at anything. . . .” His precious murals will in fact be trapped in a room full of razor blades. So he has decided to resign the commission, return the money, and save his artistic offspring from imprisonment amid the inhuman cacophony of a four-star restaurant.
Having revealed this momentous choice, he moves on to another major decision, telling Ken that he’s fired. Initially he refuses to explain this move, but eventually he lays out his reasons:
You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life . . . You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off. . . . Make them look. . . . Okay?
Ken not only accepts this fiat, he actually thanks Rothko for pushing him out of the nest, forcing him to take his life into his own hands. “Make something new,” Rothko commands, and as Ken, about to leave, stands in the doorway taking a last look at the invisible painting, the senior artist repeats his question from the play’s beginning: “What do you see?” And Ken’s answer is the last line of the play: “Red.” As the lights fade, we see Rothko, seeming “a little lost” staring at his unfinished work, standing “alone.”
Mark Rothko was a real man, with a personality observed and commented on by his contemporaries, and with a body of work we can see hanging in museums or reproduced in books. Thick biographies of him sit on library shelves, and essays from his hand explaining his ideas about art are available for anyone interested in reading them.
But the “Mark Rothko” who exists in the play Red is not that man—or, rather, not exactly that man. Instead, he is a version of the actual historical figure, shaped and modified by the playwright to fit the requirements of drama. He is given speeches that were never uttered by the real Rothko, and put into a relationship with an assistant who never existed.
His major decision—to renounce The Four Seasons commission—did occur in reality, but the Rothko who made that choice was not goaded into it by a wised-up young painter who saw through the master’s self-delusions. Instead, according to biographer James B. Breslin, the artist decided on his own to have a meal with his wife at the tony eatery. As soon as he returned home from that experience, he called a friend and professional associate ‘”in a state of high emotion’ to say he was returning the money . . . and withdrawing his paintings.” In other words, he came to the crucial realization that his pictures had absolutely no place at The Four Seasons through the independent exercise of his understanding, common sense, and artistic sophistication. The Rothko of the play, on the other hand, needs to be forced into confronting the folly of his project through the agency of another character operating via the give-and-take of dramatic dialogue.
What the playwright gives us, then, is not the full biography of a complex, multifaceted individual. Instead—and such is the case with all plays—we get a vividly delineated character—which is to say, a fabrication representing a simplified version of an actual human being, stripped down to just those traits necessary to produce a series of logically related incidents which move the plot from the beginning, through the middle, to the end.
This character “Rothko” reveals himself through his pronouncements on art and life, especially through his insistence on the demanding, transcendent, serious, and even tragic vocation of the artist. The primary objective of this character is his constantly repeated desire to create serious art, and to be taken seriously as an artist. His first line reveals his core intentions: “What do you see?” he asks Ken, tacitly imploring him to perceive and acknowledge the beauty, mystery, and significance of his work. And because of the spiritual intensity of his paintings, he wants to create, as he says, a “temple” for them.
The word “temple” is derived from an Indo-European root that means “to cut,” indicating that the primal function of such a place is to carve out a special space, cut off from the rest of the world, free of any distractions that would interrupt the worshipper’s exclusive focus on the sacred presence. Given this yearning, Rothko seems as much a prophet as an artist—a conduit for the transcendent meaning that flows into the everyday world through the painter’s brush.
Our knowledge of the real-world Rothko amplifies this sense of the painter as religious seer. In the mid-1960s, a Houston oil millionaire commissioned the building of a chapel—initially meant to be Roman Catholic—whose walls were to be covered by Rothko paintings, financed by the same millionaire. The artist eagerly accepted this commission, and created a series of monumental works that finally achieved what he had hoped for from The Four Seasons project: a sacred space entirely occupied by his work.
But the Rothko of the play is also torn by self doubt: will he be weighed in the balance and found wanting? Has he become a mere brand-name, another item on sale in the vast bazaar of the 1950s? And, most tormentingly, he wonders if he has the strength and courage to stave off the power of darkness, the blackness of death that constantly threatens to swallow the red of life?
This conflict emerges with particular vividness in the scene where Rothko is mixing pigments as he stands before his invisible picture, preparing to paint. The basic hue is red, but Rothko is unsatisfied with the specific shade. And his solution? He adds black pigment, not just once, but twice, darkening the bright color of life with the shadow of death. Here he embodies the meaning he finds in The Birth of Tragedy: every man is a patchwork, composed of elements from Apollo and Dionysus, a fabric woven from the threads of reason and passionate despair.
Again, to the character on stage we bring our knowledge of the real Rothko, who, a dozen years after the events portrayed in Red, committed suicide.
Rothko’s self-assessments are one source of information the play supplies about his character. Ken’s observations and comments are another, and they provide a sharply different perspective. As we have seen, Ken sees in Rothko the embodiment of artistic pretentiousness and pathological self-absorbtion. He identifies an egotism that blots out the rest of the world from the artist’s vision, and results in contempt for humanity—which Rothko sees as a collection of creatures who are unworthy even to look at his paintings.
But Ken’s denunciation is itself a kind of dramatic simplification, a work of pruning and shaping that turns Rothko into the kind of person we would call, with a wink or a roll of the eyes, a “real character”—an eccentric, an oddball, a human being reduced to a set of quirks. Of course, given the evidence offered by the Rothko of the play, Ken has a point. But, as the play demonstrates, it is only one angry young man’s opinion at a single moment when his emotions are at a boil. Rothko, true to Nietzsche, is both the man described by Ken and the visionary whose work is enshrined in the temples of art.
Ken, as the playwright says, functions as the “wave” that “billows” around the “prow” of the mighty ship “Rothko.” Their differences are sharp and fashioned by the author to produce the atmosphere of tension and conflict necessary to sustain dramatic interest. Ken is young; Rothko is in late middle age. Ken is an aspiring but unknown artist; Rothko has achieved fame and riches. Ken is attuned to the aesthetics of the new Pop-Art; Rothko despises it.
At the beginning of the play, Ken responds to Rothko with the deference and respect one would expect, given their difference in age and status. His answers to Rothko’s probing questions about art and literature are short, tentative, often monosyllabic. But as their relationship deepens, Ken develops more confidence in addressing his employer, offering an analysis of Nietzsche or an explanation of why Rothko’s paintings need to be seen in order to live as works of art.
He reaches the point, in Scene 2, where he is comfortable enough with Rothko to tell him that he associates the color white with death because of his parents’ death on a snowy day. He even goes so far as to make a suggestion about how Rothko should mix his paint—a step into forbidden territory, as it turns out. Rothko will accept a limited degree of closeness with his assistant, but he will not allow anything as impudent as artustuc advice, and he subjects Ken to withering abuse for daring to offer it.
But Ken is resilient enough to survive this rebuff, and engages with Rothko in an extended exchange on the meaning of “red.” But that back-and-forth is very different from the moment when Ken presumes to advise Rothko on painting: it is an impersonal inventory of red objects. However, it leads back to something deeply personal: Rothko’s obsession with the primal conflict between red and black, life and death. So for Ken, this episode is both a rejection and an embrace. On the one hand Rothko emphatically excludes him from any participation in his work as an artist, while on the other, he reveals to him his most persistent and tormenting anxiety.
By Scene 3, Ken is prepared to cross an important line in his relationship with Rothko. He brings a painting of his own to the studio, intending to seek the master’s opinion of his work. But Rothko returns in wrath from an exhibition of Pop-Art, which leads to a disagreement between them about the nature and purpose of art, which leads Rothko to deride Ken’s ideas as “adolescent stereotypes.” Clearly the moment is wrong for Ken to show Rothko his painting, and so he “unobtrusively” removes it from the room. But this is also the scene in which Ken and Rothko cooperate in the choreographic application of a coat of base paint on a fresh canvas—a physical expression of cooperation and of their shared engagement in the making of art.
Once again, estrangement and intimacy alternate between them in the same scene, always flowing, paradoxically, out of what they share: their identities as artists. In one way, this brings them close to one another, since they both love painting and revel in discussing and creating pictures. But, conversely, as artists they are also rivals. Rothko, the older man who hates the new school of painting is pitted against Ken, the young man who “gets” Warhol and his contemporaries and is excited by their new ideas. Rothko, rich and famous, is rapidly becoming a figure from the past; Ken, unknown but full of energy, threatens to become the future that will replace him. And so they constantly lurch from the fervent sharing of ideas to the exchange of bitter invective.
Ken’s biggest moment on stage is his tirade in Scene 4 denouncing Rothko as a pretentious egotist. Here we see the explosion of the built-up resentments of a young man who feels he has been wounded in exactly the spot where he is most sensitive: his aspirations as an artist. Not only has Rothko never made the slightest friendly gesture toward Ken, but most hurtfully, he has never asked to see any of his work, and he even taunts him about his failure to explore the murder of his parents as a theme of his paintings. “Your neediness bores me,” Rothko tells Ken, the spark that sets off his verbal explosion.
At one level, what Ken is doing in this speech is getting even with Rothko for the senior artist’s failure to take him seriously, which after all is Rothko’s own deepest personal need. And so he tries to knock Rothko off his pedestal, to make him view himself as a contemptible poseur, even, in a way, as a comic figure: the compulsive windbag who’ll talk your ear off if you let him. Forcing Rothko see himself as a character in a farce would be the sweetest and cruelest form of vengeance that Ken could inflict on this relentlessly serious man.
But as it turns out, ironically, Ken’s attack results in the one of the most important choices Rothko makes in the play: his decision to take a hard look at The Four Seasons, to scrutinize his intended temple without the comfort of self-deception. And that, in turn, leads to his rejection of the commission and his rehabilitation as a serious artist rather than an article of commerce.
So, by the end of the play, Ken has turned the tables on Rothko. No longer the meek assistant, he has become the teacher’s teacher. And to show his respect for this transformation and his confidence in this audacious rival, Rothko pays him his first and only compliment: he fires him.
The play’s major themes are all latent in its title, Red, and in its first line: “What do you see?” In a sense, the title is one possible answer to that opening question. What is it we see when we look a work of art? Do we experience profound spiritual enrichment? Do we encounter a living embodiment of the life-force itself, of the vitality so powerfully expressed in the paean to the color red in Scene 2? Or do we see something of much lesser significance: a mere decorative object, or an artifact offering an ironic wink and smirk at the intoxicating vulgarity of popular culture?
The question becomes all the more challenging because the character on stage asks it about what is, in fact, an empty space standing between him and the audience, an imaginary painting of which we can see literally nothing. In many ways, this is the inevitable question for an abstract expressionist like Rothko. Paintings such as his offer the viewer no identifiable images drawn from the natural world: no human figures, no landscapes, no bowls of apples, no haystacks, no vases overflowing with sunflowers. Instead, they present inscrutable surfaces whose meanings must be created by the viewer’s ability to see. In one sense, like the empty space Rothko gazes at throughout the play, an abstract painting is a kind of void; in another, its content is a mirror of the person looking at it.
The play explores the irony of Rothko, the exemplar of artistic seriousness—of “redness”— passionately devoting himself to a body of paintings which will be displayed in The Four Seasons restaurant, an environment of high bourgeois consumerism. They will hang in that space as cultural trophies, objects signifying the prestige of the location and validating the social status of the diners, who themselves will actually “see” nothing in the works except a decorative background to their foie gras.
In other words, Rothko will be betraying his vocation as an artist, and will be subjecting his numinous paintings to the endless insult of being ignored. When Ken tells him that he is deluding himself with this project, and that Warhol “gets the joke,” he is suggesting that the pop-artists who are in the process of supplanting Rothko and the New York School would most likely be amused to have their work enshrined in such ironic circumstances: paintings playing at being art while functioning merely as prestigious adornments in a lush cultural spectacle, conspicuous and yet “unseen.”
The vision of Rothko toiling and agonizing over these works, which are destined to become mere background for expensive eating, raises another disturbing question: what’s the point of it all? As audience members what do we see when we watch Rothko so seriously at work on paintings that will be treated frivolously? After all, the imaginary frame around the imaginary painting is also a frame around the action on stage, so that in our own minds we too are confronting the question, “What do you see?”
Do we see Rothko as Ken does in his rant: a pretentious solipsist, an intolerable windbag, a snob? Is he just a bully who has let himself be talked into a ridiculous commission out of vanity and the lust for fame? Or do we see Rothko as he sees himself, the last defender of seriousness, a modern Prometheus who has brought the flame of art down from Olympus and who suffers for his daring? Is he black or red? Or, like Nietzschean man, an ever-unhappy synthesis of irreconcilable forces?
Fortunately for Rothko, Ken is there to save him from himself. Rothko, the high priest of the religion of art, feels besieged by the ironic generation yapping at his heels. But Ken represents a third generation. He is too young to belong either to Rothko’s cohort, or to the rising establishment of Warhol and his fellow ironists. Rothko is not so much Ken’s artistic father as his grandfather: sometimes amiable, more often distant, living at arm’s length with a kid who can be very annoying. As Rothko’s grandson, Ken can mediate between the Pop-Artists, soon to be the new fathers, and Rothko, the arrogant genius belonging to another era, old but still kicking. Ken is the whippersnapper who helps Rothko save his dignity.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.