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The Tether

William Coleman

They said of Daedalus he remade life so well, people chained his statues to the floor, lest they wander, lest, like some inhabitants of another west world, they get ideas of their own making.

The story was probably a way to tether covetousness to value, but then again, it was also said of Daedalus that he was the first to render human forms with their eyes open. So perhaps the fear of art's capacity to assume a life apart from the one that made it is at least as old as the wish for wings (which is to say it is as old as our imagining).

This is the fear that urges us to ban and burn. The art, we say, will lead our weaker souls astray. But what if what we fear, in truth, is that the art will draw us closer to some living center of our earthly lives, where forces we rarely see are seen with (often terrifying) clarity. What if the life that art possesses is our own?

The prospect can be too monstrous to face alone. That's why Dante needed Virgil. That's why we need education: to be led to see reality and not be destroyed. In certain forms of art, such as theatre, this process is an explicitly communal one.

We follow, turn by turn, the plot of Macbeth or Oedipus or Death of a Salesman until we find ourselves face to face with a hybrid of forces (like that centaur of advertising and father-longing that generates the tragic action of Salesman). We suffer with Oedipus or Willy Loman. We grapple with the forces that shape their ends, even as we survive — even as we survive with a whole theatre full of others — strangers, it seemed, only hours before.

“[Tragedy] means an ultimate confrontation with reality, when it's really done right," Arthur Miller tells his daughter in a new HBO documentary. "And that means that the individual in the audience gets a firmer grip on what's really going on in their society at any one time. And that should strengthen them to confront their lives.”

The art itself is the tether, connecting us to what needs to be known, and to each other.