“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” sounds just about as good as it gets— and not surprisingly, the play is born of the genius of Steve Martin. Once upon a time we saw it performed at the Ford’s Theater here in Washington, DC, bringing smiles to a place better known for sadness.
Most of the story is a simple conversation between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in the early days of the 20th-century, sitting at a table in a cafe wonderfully named the Lapin Agile, on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris. For most of the play they debate who will become more important to the century, each arguing his virtues, the one explaining why the great work of an artist will matter more than the contribution of a scientist— and then the reverse too, the other why scientific insight will shape the century in ways that the arts never could.
But the last part of the play adds another character, Elvis Presley, who saunters onto the stage, swaggering his way into the conversation. He doesn’t know them, and they don’t know him. With brilliant repartee that only someone as gifted as Martin could imagine, the three go back-and-forth. At one point Einstein and Picasso look up into the stars, imagining the importance they each will have, and surprise of surprises see their names written across the sky. “Look! There I am! Look! There I am too!”
And with obvious disdain, they ask Elvis, “Where’s your name?” He lets the question hang for a delicious moment, then says, “It’s above both of your’s, and it’s three times as big. Get used to it.”
This last week I have been in Nashville, living into the meaning of Martin’s insight. The 20th-century was Elvis’ in a way that no one could have imagined one hundred years earlier. And while it is true that the two great men and their work had profound affect on the century, when all was said and done, it was neither the sophisticated art of Picasso nor the complex science of Einstein— Elvis and pop culture won, overwhelmingly. And as the 20th-becomes-the 21st century, it is not cotton or computers which we sell as our major national product to the world— in a word, it is culture. That reality had me in Music City for a week, entering into the world and work of the Wedgwood Circle, a vision that grew out of a group of friends— Mako Fujimura, David Kiersznowski, Charlie Peacock, Mark Rodgers and me —committed to the same hopes for our life and times, the culture that is us and is ours.
Our circle has expanded, and over the years hundreds have entered in a thousand different ways. For a few days we talked, and listened, and ate, and talked some more, pressing ever more deeply into the work that is Wedgwood’s. Believing that “making culture,” especially the popular expressions we know as music, film, television, literature, and more, is a responsibility of those who care about the common good, for ten years we have worked to bring into being songs and stories that tell the truth of the human condition, artfully acknowledging both our glories and our shames as human beings.
As moderns we consume “culture” all day long, but often we do so uncritically, taking what is given as “what is” and therefore “what must be”— and we all languish, we all suffer. What marks Wedgwood’s hope is its determination to “sing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe in language the whole world can understand.” Some of those involved are household names, whose songs and stories everyone knows and loves; most are not there yet, but labor in love, longing to take their place in the world that Steve Martin saw into so clearly, the one where “pop culture” shapes and forms the way we see and hear, the very way we make sense of what it means to be human.