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?
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.''
``When we ask people to live with that [idea],'' he says, ``it affects [their] sense of responsibility.'' One result: By putting ``man in the position of the supernatural,'' he says, you logically raise the question ``What do you need Him [God] for anymore?''
``I think the question one should ask is: Will religion disappear?'' he says. He doesn't believe it will. ``I think that what is challenged,'' he says, ``is current modes of religion, not religion. There's so much about man himself that is still a mystery to man, no matter how much we discover.''
Richards also notes that the change in humanity's ``sense of responsibility'' has ramifications for our attitudes toward the earth.
``If you read, as I read a few weeks ago, [that] we now believe that we can depart this planet and set up existence elsewhere -- what a fabulous thing that is,'' says Richards. But, he adds, ``what a tremendous and horrific thing that is, because it relieves us of a certain responsibility. If we do succeed in destroying the earth, there are some of us who need not be destroyed with it -- and who can depart, observe it from afar, and start something else someplace else.''
``A couple of years ago,'' he says, ``we were worried about destroying the earth -- which meant destroying ourselves and the future. And that responsibility for the future -- that big thing that weighs on us all, which is our responsibility to future generations -- that was an aspect of our concern about the destruction of the earth.''
``But now,'' he says, his actor's voice slipping into tones of muted irony, ``we can even be relieved from that. We can go someplace else. The earth can be discarded like any other product -- disposable rubbish.''
After all, says Richards, ``We now create a lot of rubbish -- and some of it we can't even destroy any longer.''
As with our consumer products, he suggests, so with the earth. ``We are a rubbish-creating society,'' he says, ``and we can make rubbish out of the earth. What does it all mean?''
That last question -- ``What does it all mean?'' -- brings Richards squarely into the domain of the arts.
``The arts,'' he says, ``must in some way retain a position of attempting to find perspective for man in all of this.'' They must, he explains, ``define whatever [the] new society is that we're evolving -- to find what are the values, and hopefully to try and find better methods of human exchange and interchange.''
So while the role of the arts may not be ``going through something that is new, historically,'' he says, it is ``going through something that is new and tremendous to [those of] us who are living it, because our world is at stake.''
And it is precisely because the arts are willing to explore the central questions of the age -- up to and including the survival of the species -- that Richards thinks they will play a central role in the 21st century.
If, that is, we don't put too many constraints on the artists. ``Art,'' he says, ``is created with one basic limitation, and that's the imagination of the artist.'' But society sets up other boundaries as well. ``We put boundaries of time,'' he explains. ``We say, `If you're going to create this piece, you've got so many hours within so many weeks to do it.' We say, `You've got so much money,' which means that you've got a limitation of personnel [and] rehearsal time. And you've got a limitation on the artists you can engage.''
``At what point,'' he asks, ``is it no longer art? I think [in the future] we have to address that.''
What about the threats to the arts from the entertainment media? Will humanity in the 21st century seek amusement rather than enlightenment? Two-edged television BY way of an answer, he turns to a discussion of television. ``The reason that I think that the theater can survive television,'' he says, ``is because of perspective.''
He acknowledges that ``all of the startling events of our time will happen on television.'' Because of television, he says, ``we've [already] seen war, which used to be a mythic thing that people did someplace else. ... We've seen assassinations, we've seen murder, we've seen the starving -- whatever the monumental events of our time are, we've been there, we've seen them.''
He also acknowledges that, in the portrayal of events, television is an invaluable tool. Through television, he says, ``I can instantly be in Reykjavik, right outside the door, waiting to see up close the look on the face of my President. ... I can make my assessment of just what has happened. I didn't get through the door, but I can be the first to see.
``Television has that power. It isn't just the words. Now, as we both look, the reporter and I, at that face, I can have a different interpretation. Without the ability to look at that face, I'm stuck with [the reporter's interpretation].''
But that very power, for Richards, raises a grave concern about television. ``At what point do we become inured,'' he asks, to the problems around us? As he sees television coverage of starving children first in one place and then in another, Richards worries about the ``danger of a reduced effect.''
``Just how are we responding as human beings to being placed in all of these events as they're happening?'' he asks. ``We certainly have to be conscious of [television] as a very potent force, and its use has to be understood. ... We have to be very careful and very smart to deal with it.''
One of the dangers he sees in the future, in fact, lies in television's ability to create celebrities. Richards contrasts the little-known actor doing excellent work in a regional theater with ``someone who has a running part on a soap opera and who is an immediate celebrity and can't get through the supermarket.'' `To exercise you in some way' `CELEBRITY,' he notes, ``has very little to do with the quality of ... artistry.'' Yet it is a subject, he adds, that ``the future has to address'' if the best artists are going to be ``respected and supported.''
At bottom, however, Richards distinguishes between seeing the events and understanding them -- which, for him, is a way of distinguishing television from theater. The former, he suggests, is an attempt to represent reality. He describes the latter, however, as ``a manipulation of reality, a provocation through reality to fantasy, [intended] to provoke, to make you think, or to persuade or to exercise you in some way.''
And that provocation, for Richards, requires the live interaction that only theater can provide. ``I think that nothing that can be devised -- and maybe I'm going way out on a limb to say this -- can displace or replace human interaction,'' he says.
That's why, he says, ``a theater is an exciting place to be. It is [also] a dangerous place to be, because living people are there -- there is communication that is going on in so many different ways. It isn't just from the stage to the audience, it's from each individual audience member to the stage and each individual member to each other.''
``I don't think that [we] have devised anything to replace that [kind of communication],'' says Richards. ``I think as long as that exists, we will have theater. We will have people telling stories and ... having conversations. And the theater is a conversation.''
Next: Norman Cousins, author and editor, Nov. 12.