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.

Just now in New York, the weariness level is high on both sides. Uptown specializes in affluent dressing, Downtown in a proudly displayed poverty. Both seem more preoccupied with means than with purpose, or substance, or whatever you care to call it. This may come, in part, from our having been through several decades of artistic turmoil in each realm. The pompous musical has been replaced Uptown by the joking kind, which takes more than one leaf from Downtown's attitude book. Playwrights, in contrast, have mostly migrated to the resident-theater middle ground, which is busily grooming them for potential Broadway transfers. Viewed by some as betrayals, failures, sellouts, or setbacks, these changes are simply changes, which will ultimately tend to make life in the theater more interesting. Like good Americans, we instinctively want to believe that art progresses; in fact, all it does is alter, recycling from the past whatever seems to be most needful at any given moment.

The shifts supply a degree of frustration, as artists try to get with a money-driven or style-driven program that may not be inherent to their nature, and sit even more uncomfortably on the hundreds of new arrivals whose well-meaning college professors have taught them that art consists of imitating whatever was current in New York, London, or Germany last year. These newcomers are the ones I worry about most, and have least contact with. Mainly, I meet them in the form of hopeful, often hand-addressed press releases, begging for recognition. They rush in boldly and unknowingly, as the young always have, and make all the bold mistakes of the young: They address me by nicknames that no one has ever called me; they proudly announce the New York premieres of plays that were staged here two years ago, or the "first major translation" of those I translated five years ago. They plead with me to assign someone to cover their show, never asking whether that's my job (it's not), and they urge me to attend "even if you don't review it," which is just what a critic wants to hear in a week with 17 major openings. And, apparently trying to emulate Cameron Mackintosh's souvenir business, they shower me with alleged goodies: cocktail shakers, pencil cases, coffee mugs stamped with the show's logo or condoms wrapped in it. I usually give these things away, feeling half guilty at the endearing ineptness of the bribe attempt, and half irate at the absence of the really valuable items that would make it worth considering. Every man has his price, but mine is not a pencil case.

I take none of this personally, because the young are young, because I know they do the same to everyone else who covers the theater, and because, improbable as it may seem, their elders and should-know-betters make an amazing number of the same mistakes. And, every so often, I take a risk on the young, and one in every 20 or so risks turns out to be something worth seeing—a new experience, or a new twist on an old one, or one that brings the life around you into sharp focus. In countries where the theater is believed in as more than a commodity and a career launcher, it happens more frequently. We have the misfortune to live, these days, in a city where money rules unchallenged—the other big fact that has changed the theater in the last two decades. Money competed for openly is no better or worse than anything else, but as a hidden motive for "artistic" choices (which it is far too often in New York these days) it's both unreliable and rotten. One problem with being a New York critic in the past few decades is that the true history of our theater has been a secret history of unprovable transactions that requires a Procopius, not a Horace, to set down its ars poetica.

That's not a critic's job. And the critic can get understandably impatient, waiting till the business finaglings get out of the way and the art takes over. So we learn to sleep sitting up as we crawl along, girding ourselves for the next windmill blade to descend and knock us over. And every now and then, because even a critic's life is full of surprises, something comes along to liberate us from the sleep-inducing aisle seat, the blizzard of desperate press releases, the importuning voice-mail messages from "close friends" who only phone when they have a show opening. Sometimes we actually get a break.

See you all in December.

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