My Vanishing Act

Nobody Gives Critics a Break, but Even They Need One

This will be my last Voice column for the next three months. Hold your applause, please—I'm not retiring or resigning. And, no, they haven't fired me yet, despite all your pleading. I'm merely taking a leave of absence because I've won a grant, from an organization set up to free arts journalists from the daily or weekly grind so they can immerse themselves in some aspect of their subject without the endless pressure of deadlines. Bernard Shaw used to compare that agony to Don Quixote fighting the windmill: As soon as you pick yourself up from one deadline, the next one is right there to knock you down. Being intelligent, Shaw could stand no more than four years of weekly theater reviewing; I've spent three decades fighting the windmill, with no more than a few weeks' break every so often. I deserve a break.

Many of you may wonder why I need one. People often tell me how much they envy my job—"getting to see all the shows for free" is how they usually put it, as if my work stopped when the curtain came down. But the critic's work starts before the performance, gets grueling when the actors are through, and is literally never done. The next play on the schedule may demand comparison with the last one, and the actor's next role will require amplification of your comments on his previous work. Plays from the past call for knowledge of their different editions; foreign plays mean knowing the range of existing English versions. Then there's subject matter: The play may make it desirable for the critic to know a little about Schumann's Dichterliebe, or the career of Henry Labouchere, or hereditary eye disease, or Renaissance metallurgy. (I'm not kidding; these examples all come from recent productions.)

Still, the thinking and sleuthing and reading-up that go into a review should make the critic's job more, not less, exciting. Nothing, after all, could be better proof that the theater enriches your sense of life—one of those truisms that critics, myself included, always offer to justify the institution's continued existence. Unarguably, the theater at its best makes you think about things—moral, political, and philosophic things as well as matters musical or metallurgic. If writing and thinking about theater becomes a grind that needs relief, the problem may be the extent to which it isn't at its best. That's no surprise. To cite Shaw again, "The theatre is, was, and always will be as bad as it possibly can." His colleague and close friend William Archer, when asked what a drama critic most needed to know, replied promptly, "How to sleep sitting up without getting caught."

illustration by Stan Shaw

Archer never did get caught, either. Instead, late in life, in a seizure of nostalgia for all the trashy commercial kitsch he'd reviewed, he wrote an extremely successful melodrama, which became so popular that somebody named a salad dressing for it. All of which proves that, if you spend enough time watching the theater show off its customary tricks, you can learn them well enough to predict their outcome, or occasionally even turn them to your own profit, since kitsch always makes more money than criticism.

Kitsch, and even predictability, have their reasons for existing in the theater, where public pleasure is the point of the enterprise. "All this we must do," said John Gay, "to comply with the taste of the town." But Gay was also joking—the line comes from a play in which he famously satirizes "the taste of the town"—and the real excitement of theater is in its double task: to please the public, and to fulfill its own sense of obligation. In a solitary art like painting or poetry, artists can devote themselves wholly to their own impulse; in the public space of a theater they have to balance it against the need to hold the audience's interest. There are many audiences and many kinds of public space, but they all have to fit that rubric to some degree to stay alive. A theater that neglects the audience's cravings gets stuffy, private, and academic; a theater that neglects itself to woo the audience gets vapid and tinny.

Both get predictable, which is when the critic starts to practice Archer's trick. The plays repeat the patterns and motifs of other plays, with little variation; the productions ape the last in the same style. In opera, much of which has been poisoned by the deadly triteness of German "postmodern" staging, you at least have the singing and orchestral playing to perk you up, but the theater has only the dramatic action that such staging is designed to kill. At the opposite end of the sedative spectrum are the cosily naturalistic stagings of revivals—or new plays that look likerevivals—in which every detail is made dressy and charming, often at the expense of the play or at the behest of some TV star without whom it would be better acted. Here the script can sometimes snap you awake, since the production tends to dilute it rather than actively destroying it. And there's always the chance that some real acting will break through the polite context—just as the chance always exists of some genuine visionary breaking through the by-the-book conventions of the institutionalized dullness that likes to proclaim itself the cutting edge.

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