The art of love

Love in the performing arts When it comes to the performing arts, the exploration of love provides ample material for plays, musicals and dance.

“Our main stock in trade is human emotion and experience and love is central to that,” says Fred Rubeck, chair of the department of performing arts. “It’s something we can never totally figure out. There is an endless endeavor to explore it, talk about it, write about it, experience it.”

Graphic by John David Parsons

Citing “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” as classic examples of plays involving feelings of romantic love, Rubeck says the examination of the emotion does not end there.

“There is love of what you do and also love of being famous,” he says. “It’s constantly in almost every play or musical.”

So why is it that humans seem practically obsessed with this theme? For Rubeck, love represents a core emotion.
“It’s the first thing we feel for our parents and vice versa,” he says. “The reason any of us are here at this institution is because we love learning.”

For students, the search for love is especially significant, according to Rubeck, who says people of college age spend time discovering not only who they are but also who they eventually will marry.

“It’s a natural human desire to find someone to spend your life with,” he says. “What you see in [performing arts] are the things we experience in a compressed way. We empathize with characters going through things we’re familiar with.”


Poetic love
William Shakespeare. John Donne. Walt Whitman. It’s practically impossible to find a popular poet who has not explored the theme of love in some way or another.

Kevin Boyle, professor of English, says there are numerous ways to portray love in poetry.
“John Donne might talk about his love for God by comparing himself to a town under siege, or Shakespeare might compare his love to a summer’s day, or he might talk about his aging and his need for love,” Boyle says. “Usually poets shy away from abstractions, so love is usually talked about by using the body, imagery or metaphor that is grounded in the physical world.”

Boyle says because love is powerful and confusing it is a particularly popular theme for writers.

“Whether it’s a sexual love that remains unrequited or uneven, or a love between a parent and children that is sad because it usually ends in the child feeling less love as time goes by,” he says, “or the love people feel for God, who doesn’t write poems back.”

Boyle says love is one of the two strongest driving forces of poems, the other being death.

“A great love poem probably affects readers at the deepest level,” he says. At the same time, “a lousy poem can turn people’s heads away from the page really fast.”


Love in the fine arts
When Associate Professor Shawn Tucker taught a course on love and fine arts at Elon, he presented an interesting perspective to his students on the origination of art: current ideas about love come from Baghdad.

“In Ancient Persia, you got a lot of Persian love poetry about falling in love and the experience of the beloved, which got a cultural boost in Baghdad,” he says. “This ended up entering Europe through the Muslims in Spain and was sung about by French and German minstrels, and eventually made its way into Western culture.”

Often, Tucker says, the theme of love is more popular in songs than in paintings or sculptures. In fact, the topic was not common in novels until brought about by social changes. For example, the works of author Jane Austen showed the negotiation of romantic affairs.

In some cases, romantic love in the arts is treated as something dangerous that needs to be controlled. In a society with arranged marriages, love is a threat that should be contained. However, Tucker says, the experience of falling in love is universal and widespread, though not often portrayed accurately.

“Therapists would say it’s portrayed in unhealthy ways,” Tucker says. “The idea that once you fall in love, you’ll feel that way forever is not a mature idea about love.”


By Caitlin O’Donnell ’13