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Play Paints Colorful Image of Businessman Artist William Hogarth

July 25, 1993|TOM JACOBS | Tom Jacobs is a regular contributor to The Times

In Nick Deer's play "The Art of Success," William Hogarth refers to himself as "an artist who likes to eat." Dedicated to his work but lacking wealthy patrons, the 18th-Century painter faced the prospect of spending his life starving in a garret somewhere when he came up with a creative solution to his dilemma.

In Deer's words, he became "the first artist in our culture to make his living as a businessman--to market his art."

In these days of prints, posters and postcards, Hogarth stands as a pioneer. The continuing impact of his decision will be noted by those who succumb to the Odyssey Theatre's marketing techniques and see the play's local premiere this weekend.

"I don't know of a successful artist in America today who doesn't have good business acumen," said Robert Thaler, who portrays Hogarth in the Odyssey production. "Hogarth, set down in this age, would be 'doing' a lot of lunches."

In his own age, Hogarth was not above flattering the powerful (much to the dismay of his good friend Henry Fielding, who felt art should always challenge society's status quo). The play suggests the artist avoided trampling on the sensibilities of certain authority figures, and as a result got the government to extend the copyright act to include not only words but also images. It was that change in the law that allowed Hogarth to control all copies of his works--and become a very rich man.

According to Deer, the basic facts of the play are accurate, and the portrayal of Hogarth is true to the man's nature. "Every book about him says he was very pugnacious and difficult," he said. "My inference is he was a foul-mouthed son of the streets who clawed his way into polite society."

However, Deer emphasized he did not write a conventional history play. The often-raunchy language is contemporary--in part to suggest the parallels between Hogarth's world and our own.

"You light upon a subject and you find, with glee, that you can say something about the contemporary world through the mirror of history," Deer said. "I felt the big debate between Hogarth and Fielding about whether an artist must face political reality reflects a debate that was going on in my head at the time."

Deer's first exposure to the artist came at an early age: "I grew up with a dark Hogarth print at the top of the stairs that I never looked at." He never seriously examined Hogarth's work until he started researching the artist's era for a separate project. He found himself fascinated.

"In so many of Hogarth's pictures, there's somebody urinating in the corner," he noted. "I thought there was a great psychological clue to the man in that."

The play had its premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. It opened in New York in 1989 while actor/director Al Rossi was in that city working on a miniseries. Bill Bushnell, artistic director of the then-thriving Los Angeles Theatre Company, asked Rossi to see the play and determine whether it would be appropriate for LATC.

Rossi's reply was a resounding yes. "I was excited by the theatricality of the piece and the vital use of language," he recalled. "All of the characters are multidimensional, and they're all aware of their personal failings."

The show never made it to a Theatre Center stage before the company's collapse. Looking around for an alternative venue, Rossi--who initially wanted to play Hogarth, but ultimately decided he would rather direct the piece--persuaded Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey, to put it on the schedule.

Thaler, who starred in the Odyssey's recent production of "The Bacchae," was planning to travel to Tibet for three months for some meditation when Sossi asked him to look at the play. "I told him I'm not acting right now," he recalled. "The script literally sat on my desk for two weeks. Then one night, I sat down with a glass of wine and read the first couple of scenes."

He was quickly on the phone to Sossi, asking if he had cast the lead role.

"It's the best thing I've read in a good number of years," Thaler said. "It's an almost gas-permeable play. It really breathes in and out.

"In an almost Shakespearean way, it constantly shifts back and forth from light to darkness," he added. "This keeps the play enormously buoyant, if the actors are up to it. It requires tremendous muscular energy."

That same energy can be found in Hogarth's paintings and engravings, which the actors have been studying before and after rehearsals. The designers also looked at them closely, but Rossi said they are not slavishly duplicating the artist's style.

"The costumes are based on the period," he said. "But since the play has a feeling of contemporaneity, we have made a conscious attempt to use aspects of modernity in various pieces of costuming." The set will be stylized, but it will feature "some Hogarthian touches," he added.

Rossi and Thaler both said they can relate to the issues the play raises--particularly the questions of to what extent an artist can make accommodations with the powers that be before he has effectively sold out.

"Hogarth could be described as 'out for himself,' " Thaler noted. "But he also fits the mold of the extremely spontaneous, creative artist who does not want to be bothered with notions of social responsibility. His energy is focused on 'How do I get my work out? How do I get it seen? How can I continue to do it?' That's an honest motivation for any artist."

"The Art of Success" opens at 7 p.m. today at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 29, with 2 p.m. matinees on Aug. 15 and 22. Tickets are $17.50 to $21.50; for reservations, call (310) 477-2055.

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