ND prof featured in new play
Robert Singer | Monday, November 24, 2008
A life of scholarship rarely translates into the drama of the stage, except in the case of Notre Dame professor and leading Schubert scholar, Susan Youens.
New York playwright-actress Anna Deavere Smith has written a portion of her latest play “Let Me Down Easy” about Youens.
According to Youens, Smith selected her for her work on the 19th century Austrian composer Franz Schubert.
“I regard it as a testament to Schubert more than to me,” she said. “She contacted me because my mission in life is to convert as many people as I can to a greater love and understanding of Schubert’s music.”
In a life cut short by death at age 31, Schubert composed almost 1,000 works, including many later works in which he contemplated human mortality – the same idea that Smith wanted to explore in her play.
Smith is famous for her unconventional approach to theater. The only cast member in the play, in scene after scene, she portrays the lives of many real people who all have some connection to an over-arching theme of human frailty. In a montage of worldviews and life stories based on interviews with her subjects, Smith explores this universal theme through various topics like spirituality, genocide, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina.
“I imagine that her interest arose from the Schubertian combination of immense creativity and a death sentence with an indeterminate span of remaining life,” she said. “Schubert’s illness was one in which you could not know or predict how much time you had left.”
Although she is confident that she was chosen as a subject by Smith for her musical scholarship, Youens is unsure of how she was discovered.
“I don’t know how she came to know me. That’s a mystery. I really don’t know how this happened.”
Youens focused on the dedication Schubert showed toward his musical calling, the “absolute devotion to the creation of beauty in sound” and “a kind of responsibility to his art and craft that I find a completely admirable model for how to live.”
When audiences leave the theatre, Youens hopes that people will have a specific goal in mind.
“My hope is that people will leave the play, go to Amazon.com or the nearest record store and buy copies of Schubert and listen to them,” she said. “That’s the purpose of my scholarship, to send people to the music.”
After Schubert was diagnosed with a fatal disease at age 25, he knew that he had an unknown and possibly limited time in which to accomplish his musical aims.
“Schubert in the last six years of his life knew he had a death sentence handing over his life,” she said. “He made a conscious decision … that both his life and his music would tell about what constitutes and good death and a good life.”
According to Youens, her work on Schubert is also relevant to another theme Smith wanted to explore in her play, “grace under pressure.”
“It’s as if he said to himself: failure is not an option,” she said.
“Music is so intrinsically valuable that it deserves every effort that I can put into it,” she said.
Youens does not necessarily see her selection as an affirmation of her career as a scholar.
“Scholarship is about taking part in an ongoing conversation. New generations and new pairs of eyes examine these works and they see different things in them,” she said. “It’s Schubert who is going to endure.”
When asked if she plans to return the favor by writing a scholarly interpretation of Smith’s plays, Youens laughed.
“No, I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about the theatre arts, though I’d love to be able to return the favor,” she said. “I think I’ll leave that to theatre critics who know what they’re talking about.”
Youens’ character will join many others impersonated by Smith during “Let Me Down Easy,” including a Harvard philosopher, a former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, jazz musician James Andrews, human rights activist Samantha Power, and opera singer Jessye Norman.