I have a friend who’s an artist. He does wonderful abstract drawings and paintings, but also some monumentally brilliant funny stuff. Some years ago, he did a very wise thing: he split his identity. The abstracts are billed under his own name. The nutty-monkey work is the creation of an artist named Unique Fredrique.
The reason is obvious. Like our hamburgers, we need our artists, our singers, or our writers “branded”—i.e. constituting an unique brand. We want to know what we’re getting, and more: we want an image of the artist. If he/she changes, it needs to be in gradual increments or, like a comedian in a serious role, something that recognizes the norm through the contrast.
Certainly artists go through phases: one decade of Picasso isn’t like the last, ditto Dylan, even ditto Andy Warhol. But they tend to be consistent within that phase. If not, they adopt a pseudonym for the “inconsistent” work, e.g. Unique Fredrique.
To our disadvantage, we’ve never done that in our writing or staging. A transparent comedy sketch is followed by opaque myth or kitchen-sink realism. When we ran “subscription seasons” at our theatres in Philadelphia or Lancaster PA, they were perhaps the most unbalanced seasons in American theatre history. It was a standing joke in the office about the guy who was so enamored of a lightweight dance piece we staged that he’d call up regularly for a reservation, inquiring if there were any barefoot women in Waiting for Godot. To his credit, he came anyway.
We’ve added the further complication, since 1982, of claiming dual authorship. That has different forms depending on the piece, but above all it means that we both sign off on the result, acknowledging joint parenthood. But while joint authorship is commonplace with filmscripts or TV comedy, plays and novels (unless pure genre) lose value in the public mind unless we can see them as the unsullied emanations of solo genius.
It struck me as odd, though predictable, that the revelation that John LeCarre’s novels were written in heavy collaboration with his wife was headline news. It contradicts the tradition of the genius working solo, as friends and family offer, at most, a grim patience. Bertolt Brecht at least had the virtue of publishing his plays listing all his collaborators, but the gears grind and we only know his name and certainly not that of Elisabeth Hauptmann. That doesn’t affect the quality of the plays; it only reflects the nature of the fame machine.
We need our heroes, and the corollary is that their fall can be mighty swift. If a politician’s views change over the span of 30 years, he’s labeled either a “waffler” or a hypocrite. If popular novelists’ political views don’t match ours, they’re seen not only as traitors but retroactively as bad writers. The baby and the bathwater are one and the same.
For myself, I don’t feel contaminated by reading Knut Hamsun’s novels despite his Nazi sympathies or by appreciating the virtues of a friend despite his despicable flaws or idiotic moments. I don’t reject Michelangelo’s Pieta or Bach’s music because of the millennia of perverse crimes of the Christianity that inspired them. But that’s just me: your mileage may vary.
What does concern me is the realization that my friend is following the only practical path in separating his “serious artist” name from his Unique Fredrique persona. But personally I see his great value in having those seemingly contradictory dimensions.