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Lloyd Richards

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 1986

New Haven, Conn.

ON one level, Lloyd Richards's concerns about the 21st century are perfectly predictable. He asks the question on the minds of arts administrators everywhere: How do we ensure the prosperity, or even the survival, of the arts in the future? On another level, however, the dean of the Yale School of Drama has a far more profound concern. It hovers over everything he says in his softly modulated and serious voice. It pulses through the playbills covering his walls and the books strewn on his shelves. When it condenses into words -- as it does, more than once, during an hour-long interview in his modest and almost haphazard office -- it takes the form of questions about the fundamental purpose of artistic expression: What is the meaning of modern life, and how do the arts help us understand it?

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For Mr. Richards, the two levels are tightly interwoven. Troubled by the economic difficulties facing many artists, he illustrates his concern by recalling a time when, traveling to various parts of the country, he kept running into one of the nation's finest theatrical set designers at airport after airport.

``Each time,'' says Richards, ``he was carrying a model of a different set -- a major artist who was running around with four sets for four theaters. Why? To try and make a living, because he had a couple of kids that he would like to send to college.''

``Is that what he should have been doing?'' Richards muses. Was humanity ``getting the best out of him''?

And are we, in general, ``getting the best that we can from our artists?'' he asks.

``That's what the 21st century must address,'' he asserts.

Why is that such a pressing issue? Why is it essential that humanity get ``the best'' from its artists?

The answer, for Richards, doesn't lie in some vague art-for-art's-sake notion. Nor is he merely speaking as an insider trying to defend his turf.

For Richards, instead, art is simply integral to humanity. As the items on mankind's agenda become increasingly challenging -- items that, for him, include nuclear warfare, environmental pollution, the possible destruction of the planet, and the colonization of space -- so the role of the arts becomes increasingly important.

``The arts, for me, [have] always been something that brought perspective to events -- that illuminated, not just represented, the moment,'' says Richards. The purpose of the arts, he explains, is not so much to portray reality as to bring ``an insight'' into the significance of events.

That's not a new purpose, he insists, noting that the arts have always had that ``responsibility.'' He observes that whenever society encountered monumental changes -- the human use of fire, the invention of the wheel, the discovery that the world is round -- the role of the arts has been to examine ``how [such developments] changed and really revolutionized a society.'' The threats are new WHAT is new, for Richards, is the nature of the threats now facing mankind -- and, therefore, the nature of the subjects that the arts of the 21st century must confront.

The most serious threat, according to Richards, is the danger of nuclear annihilation -- and the mental consequences of that threat. ``Once you've said to people -- and we have, to a whole generation -- that you live in a world that can end at any moment,'' says Richards, then you make ``the end of the world'' a conscious possibility.

The Bible, too, talks about the end of the world, he concedes. But what is different today, he says, is the recognition that the end ``need not come from some supernatural source. There are people now living who can push the buttons ... and start that chain reaction that can do it.''