Sunday at the Park with George: An Ode to the Trade-offs We Make from the Eyes of a Painter
“There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours: children and art.”
― Dot from Sunday in the Park with George” by Steven Soundheim
Watch the full original play below.
George freezing a scene for his painting in time, Sunday in the Park with George Broadway Remake
Anyone who has ever got to know an artist personally may find solidarity in the impression that is repeatedly sung in the musical, Sunday in the Park with George that “Artists are bizarre”. A short introduction at the beginning of the video tells us that this work of historical fiction tells us of “what little we know” about George Seurat. Yet just as his painting requires people to look closer, we see through the eyes of his lover along with other characters that George is much more complex than that.
Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Soundheim and James Lapine is a Pulitzer Prize winner, nominated for ten Tony Awards, starring Tony Award winners, Best Actor and Actress, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. It opened at the Booth Theater on May 2, 1985 with 35 previews and 604 performances before closing on October 13. It was later remade by Broadway with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.
The story follows George in the months he pours into finishing a painting he called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which eventually became the work he was most known for. In his stubborn preoccupation to “finish the hat” (“there never was a hat”) and perfect a new style he would later on introduce as pointillism, George “alienates the French bourgeoisie, spurns his fellow artists, and neglects his lover, not realizing that his actions will reverberate over the next 100 years” (Vine, 2019).
George painted people from all walks of life, even when they didn’t understand what he was doing to the point of gossiping about him. Even when the scene was chaotic, he found something worth painting about what he saw. “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother. Pretty is what changes. What the eye arranges — is what is beautiful.” The standard for what is pretty changes over time. Beauty, however, isn’t always obvious, but one can decide to see what is beautiful.
Early on in the play, one of the first things we learn about George is of his strict work ethic and discipline marked by his understanding of the fundamentals of art. He may seem like nothing more than a passive observer to just about every character in the play, yet his encounter with his adversary in the art world tells us that not for one moment did he mind that no one understood him or his vision.
“Work is what I do for others. Art is what I do for myself.” — George
In one scene, he patiently describes pointillism to another artist through his discovery in color theory. Instead of mixing colors, he dots the canvas with colors placed in very close proximity to each other. From the viewer’s perspective, the colors blend at a certain distance. One is only able to distinguish the colors from each other up close. When the other artist feigned jaded uninterest to mask his envy, George was unfazed. His reaction? “Anything you do. Let it come from you. Then it will be new.” This tells us that he wasn’t just painting to showcase his innovation or to prove himself to the people around him. His true concern wasn’t so much about originality, but authenticity.
Finally, his lover, endearingly nicknamed Dot, is the one who suffers most throughout the play. After having enough of his neglect, deciding she can no longer beg for his time and attention, she ends up with Louis, the baker whom everyone loves. George however is far from forgotten.
“We lose things, and then we choose things”; “I chose and my world was shaken, so what? The choice may have been mistaken; the choosing was not.” ― Dot
The decision has been made for George who confesses his feelings for Dot when it was already too late: “I cannot divide my feelings up as neatly as you, and I am not hiding behind my canvas — I am living in it! I am what I do. Which you knew. Which you always knew. What I thought you were a part of!”
Sunday in the Park with George is a poignant musical about the trade-offs we must make in life, and how we won’t always know where our choices will take us. Nevertheless, we must move on and believe in the sincerity of our vision. As Dot’s daughter Marie said, “There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours — children and art”.
Soundheim, S. (1986). [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUdfHcfjsPM