One pattern in human affairs is that proximity punctures idealization and admits realism. Many have had the experience of becoming familiar with someone – perhaps a professor, performer, politician or business leader – and finding that they aren’t quite the rarified demigod we had imagined.
Perhaps this is nothing more than a variation on the universal discovery that our parents, far from being the omnipotent creatures we imagine when we’re very young, have their foibles and fallibilities. (That is before our adolescence paints them as ridiculous or monstrous, usually followed by a grudging recognition that they’re not so bad after all.)
I’ve had this experience lately on the artistic level. I recently began work on a new play about the French painter Paul Cezanne. This is the first time I am building a play around a real person. Prior to this project, I had only met Cezanne in a cursory and reverential way, on the walls of MOMA and the Met in New York, and in books where he is a major star in the great 19th Century French art galaxy.
Last month I made a research trip to Aix en Provence, Cezanne’s home town (and, as it happens, of the novelist Emile Zola; they were childhood friends) and where Cezanne spent most of his years and painted the majority of his work. No slacker, the guy created more than 700 paintings.
I visited his studio, his home, the outdoor site where he liked to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire (often), his cathedral, his grave. As I walked around this charming Provencal town, the brilliant artist slowly descended to earth. I could see him arguing with his wife (when she wasn’t away in Paris), discussing dinner with his housekeeper, going to church, worrying about money, drinking beer, farting, suffering a headache. That is to say, Cezanne’s holy feet turned into clay. And for a playwright whose subject he is, this is a good thing. An idealized character makes for boring drama.