A Facebook post brought forth comments about the achievements or absurdities of the Sixties. I wrote this in response (with a few edits and additions):
True in part, everything that’s said, as is true for any blanket judgment on any span in history, especially any span when “revolution” was in the air: the 1790’s in France, much of Europe in 1848, the teens and early Twenties in Russia, 1989 in Eastern Europe, etc. Always, huge expectations, massive failures, and radically different judgments from those who survived the slam-dances of those times.
For myself, I’d have signed onto any negative estimates of the Sixties more in the Sixties than I do now. The media darlings—the civil rights struggles, Yippies, the Summer of Love, the peace movement (though we were part of it), etc.—were not a significant part of my world. On the other hand, the period changed the course of my life.
In my world, theatre, the time saw an enormous impulse toward the creation of socially-engaged “ensembles,” and our own versions of that, Theatre X and then The Independent Eye, pulled us out of an academic career into the next 50 years—writing, touring in 38 states, performing for every kind of group, from Off-Broadway to church basements and prisons, and many collaborations. Did we change the world? Not noticeably, but perhaps for specific people.
As with communes, some of those ensembles went belly-up quickly, some lasted for decades, some “matured” into the Establishment, some few still exist with unchanged essentials. Some centered around a guru, others were founded (and often foundered) on a consensus process—a little-understood dynamic, too often devolving into lowest-common-denominator or loudest-voice-wins. But the impulse toward connection, collaboration, and personal stake in the work was profound.
Amazingly, our processes worked well when the issues were creative, less well in business meetings. When we left our first ensemble five years later, we were only two, but we’d learned something about collaboration. Forty-plus years later, we haven’t changed the world, but we fancy we’ve left our campsite cleaner than we found it.
I’ve seen the struggle of groups to hold it together in the face of changing times that come from age or mortality or economics or popular taste. I see my own gropings for an audience for what I write, and I’m seeing the death, one by one, of my colleagues and friends.
But for me, the lessons emerging from the Sixties are (a) work as if you’ll succeed, (b) know that you probably won’t, (c) celebrate the tiny triumphs, and (d) always question the impulse to romanticize yourself.
I suspect that early tribal hunting parties didn’t always come back with their quarry. They went out again and again, learning from their mistakes, and knowing that “Well, fuck, some day we’re all gonna die.” They finally came back the makings of mammoth stew and celebrated all night. Next morning came the realization: “Goddamn, next week we’ll have to go out again. Quick, woman, learn to raise turnips.”