The Author: John Logan
How I Found It: I've recently become enamored of the actor Eddie Redmayne, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Ken, Rothko's assistant, in 2010. I was curious about the play's subject manner and his role in it, and decided to give it a look.
The Review: New York City, 1958 and 1959. Ken is the new assistant hired by Mark Rothko, famous painter of the 1930s and onwards. Rothko is abrasive, demanding, and very, very vocal. Ken is young, reserved, and not educated in the way Rothko would like. Still, he takes Ken--who is an artist himself--on as his assistant and lets him help around the studio, letting him do things like picking up takeout or helping with canvas priming (which, and he is adamant about this, is not painting).
As a year or so passes, Ken and Rothko, uneasy around each other at first, grow accustomed to each other's presence. Ken begins to educate himself with the texts Rothko constantly mentions, and takes it upon himself to challenge Rothko's firmly held notions about art and perception, while Rothko begins to draw Ken out and learn about his difficult past. As tensions reach a boiling point, Ken forces Rothko to reconsider his commission to paint wall murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, while Rothko begins to wonder if Ken is not, perhaps, what the future of art might look like.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this play. Was I going to enjoy it? More importantly, was I going to understand it? I don't know very much about art, and I was never particularly good at it. (I make pictures with words, I explain to those who ask if I can draw.) If I didn't understand much of anything about art, would I understand the message of this play? Would I be able to appreciate it?
As it turned out, I could, and so much more than I thought. Like Proof, a play about math that I had equal reservations in approaching, I didn't have to understand the subject matter in order to appreciate the very human, very affecting drama that played out here.
This is a play about two men that sounds all too familiar. It's an old trope, the young assistant who challenges the ideas of the old pro. Too often, the young assistant and the old pro form some sort of bond to compensate for a lack of parental presence on the young assistant's part. In some ways, Logan's play adheres to this trope--Ken's parents were indeed absent, though not of their own choosing, as becomes heartbreakingly clear in one of Ken's biggest moments--but in others, it's brilliantly subverted. Rothko and Ken's bond is never entirely easy; the volatility of Rothko's temper makes this impossible, and who says that Ken wouldn't want to unsettle him, provoke him into deeper thought, in any way he could? The play even sneers at the notion that Rothko is meant to be a father figure for Ken. Their relationship is deeper and more complicated than that trite summation.
Even if I didn't know much about art, I was surprised at how absorbed I became in its concerns. An intensely described scene of canvas priming (35-8) had me longing to have seen the play on stage; it's beautifully choreographed and must be a wonder to see staged in front of your eyes. I don't have much of an eye for color, and yet I was deeply moved by the scenes in which Rothko and Ken meditate on what meanings certain colors hold for them. For Ken, white is linked with the trauma of his past; for Rothko, red is what he clings to.
[on Matisse's "The Red Studio"]That imagery of colors, of what color could do to a person, really moved me--it's the same relationship I have with words, as a writer and a reader. Much as I could understand what math meant to Proof's Catherine by thinking of my own relationship to my work, I could understand how the color white could transport Ken back to a horrible time in his past. I could understand Rothko's fears of no longer seeing the red for the black.
Rothko: ... Such plains of red he made, such energetic blocks of color, such emotion! [Beat.] That was a long time ago.
Ken: It's still there.
Rothko: I can't look at it now.
Rothko: It's too depressing.
Ken: How can all that red be depressing?
Rothko: I don't see the red anymore... Even in that painting, that total and profound emersion in red... it's there. The mantel above a dresser, just over the centerline, set off by yellow of all goddamn things. He wanted it inescapable.
Ken: The color black?
Rothko: The thing black. [Beat.] There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red. (28)
And even if the Ken and Rothko plot could be considered a cliche, I found myself taking the arguments the two men had, the points both of them would raise, and applying them to my own life. To me, this wasn't just some story of a young man pushing an older one's boundaries; it said something. This early speech of Rothko's had me almost embarrassed, as I could realize how true it was almost immediately after reading it:
Rothko: But do you like it?How many times have I run into this problem? How many times have I used the same word to express a multitude of feelings, an opinion that should be expressed in terms of greater variety? Hell, how often do I run into that sort of problem in these reviews? The fictional Rothko's words have stayed with me in the days since I read the play. I've tried to choose my words more carefully since then. I haven't thought this consciously about a work I've read and applied its lessons to my real life in a long time.
Rothko: Speak up.
Rothko: Of course you like it - how can you not like it? Everyone likes everything nowadays. They like the television and the phonograph and the soda pop and the shampoo and the Cracker Jack. Everything becomes everything else and it's all nice and pretty and likable. Everything is fun in the sun! 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. (10)
The tension between Rothko and Ken builds to an intensely emotional final scene, where Rothko's own vulnerabilities finally come to the surface. Ken has seen that Rothko is sometimes unstable, but never before has Rothko so openly admitted his fears about his life and his work. Ken has pushed him to a breaking point and it is all Rothko can do to be honest with him. I was moved to tears in a way I hadn't thought I could be other than by imagery of profound sorrow--mourning, really--or happiness. I closed the book and had to sit for a moment. To think, in the way we leave Rothko, just standing there, studying his paintings.
The play won acclaim in both the West End and Broadway, and even having just read the play, I feel that acclaim is well-deserved. It's beautifully written, thought-provoking, and avoids all those irritating little cliches that tend to turn one off of mentor/mentoree stories. If you're at all curious about this play or its subject matter, give it a shot. It's not that long; you could read it in about an hour. But hopefully, as I have, you'll be thinking about it for a whole lot longer.