In journalism, the number 30 means the end. It’s what you put on your copy, nobody knows why, to tell the typesetters that the story’s finished. No wonder I’ve been dragging my metaphoric feet over the column you’re reading. As of this month, I’ve spent 30 years reviewing theater for the Voice. I’ve hit the magic number; maybe this is the end of my story. To judge by the letters that occasionally trickle in, most of my few readers would prefer it that way. Apparently their automatic reaction, when they disagree with me on any topic whatever, is to e-mail the editor, “You should fire Michael Feingold, he’s a bitter old man who hates the theater.” And all because I happened to mention, meekly, that in my view nobody knows how to sing, dance, act, write, direct, compose, choreograph, design, conduct, produce, or build theaters anymore.
But what else did people expect me to say? To speak the worst is drama criticism, and in the theater, the worst is usually true. It always has been. Writing barely 30 years after The School for Scandal premiered, Hazlitt said there was no one alive who could play it. Henry James said that Henry Irving, Victorian England’s most admired actor, “is second-rate and never will improve.” Woollcott claimed that the art of acting had ended with Mrs. Fiske, and Stark Young wrote that most of the plays he had reviewed were less meaningful than the sight of Pauline Lord coming down a staircase.
Maybe they were all, like me, bitter old men who hated the theater. But an alternate possibility is more likely: that Gresham’s Law—”bad money drives out good”—applies in art as well as in economics; that badness (apathy, inadequacy, irrelevance) is a constant presence in every art form, waiting for its chance to take over. (“The theater,” said Shaw, “is, was, and always will be as bad as it possibly can.”) Genius, if there’s any around, can transform that picture, but genius is an evanescent quality by definition, not to be relied on to come to the rescue. Competence, working hand in hand with tradition, can hold the quality line, but throw out tradition and watch how fast competence crumbles. The result would be—and these days often is—a theater about which any intelligent critic might be understandably bitter. About now, the friends and colleagues who urged me to make this column “positive” may be getting restive, but let me have my negative say. What the hell, it’s my anniversary, I’ll lament if I want to—for a few more clauses at least. If the theater 30 years ago had been, in general, like the theater we have today, I would probably have gone into some better-paying business. There, I’ve said it. Now go e-mail the editor in chief to fire me; he’s a very contrary fellow and it only improves my status here.
But having made the forbidden remark, I ought to offer some explanation for it. So: The theater was better when I began because its old tradition was not yet dead, and the new movement springing up to replace that tradition was brand-new, and seemed inexhaustibly fresh. Today the old tradition is a ghost—or worse, a zombie—and what was once new, not exactly old enough to have become a tradition itself, has instead become a habit, rigid and repetitive, its choices blindly mimicked by youngsters who don’t know that there was once meaning behind them. This is a general, even a theoretical, complaint, and shouldn’t be taken personally by any individual. On a case-by-case basis, the theater is as good as it ever was—even better in some ways. We have extraordinary writers, directors, and designers, including some who’ve sustained their work through my entire time here. I’m certain, too, that we have many more fine actors—a body of devoted and sometimes brilliant men and women whose contribution is incalculable. In the last decade, when I’ve felt like giving up, New York’s actors and the thought of an upcoming Ingmar Bergman production have cured my gloom for weeks at a stretch.
And if the young mimic their immediate predecessors, I don’t propose to knock them for it. The most gifted of them don’t, anyway, though what they lean toward instead often strikes me as even less healthy: an affectless and static deadpan skepticism, immobilized by the impulse to question everything. I can live with that; the worrisome part is where they’ll go when, sooner or later, they break out of that blind alley. You can hardly keep creating art with no purpose and no context. Under those circumstances, the young are hereby cordially encouraged to imitate everything and anything. My only requests are (a) that they learn as much about what they’re mimicking as they possibly can, including what drove its first makers, and (b) that they glance to both sides of it, to see if there isn’t something they might like mimicking even more. (The song of all alternative-paper theater critics, “Aren’t there any German playwrights besides Heiner Müller?”)
Choices are what all theater work is built on, each choice leading to another till the work is complete. What dulls the theater for me too often, these days, is a seeming paucity of choices. Here the fault is less with the young than with their elders and non-betters, too many of whom are busy providing examples of what to avoid. I know that when I began reviewing for the Voice, I had the sense that anything might happen on a stage. I did not expect, as I frequently do these days, one of a few obvious categories of script, staged with one of a few predictable directorial gimmicks, with the actors moving toward behavior type A or type Z with a minimum of justification. Call it postmodernism or whatever you like; surely no convention in theater history has worn out its welcome so fast. Lately, a device that’s different—like the mobile 18th-century stage in David Herskovits’s Dido, Queen of Carthage—comes as a relief to me even if I find it obtrusive and irrelevant; it beats sitting through, say, yet another Baroque opera staged with wheelchairs, trench coats, and Lucite revolving doors. Eighteenth-century stages are fun to look at; trench coats are just a gray day on Madison Avenue.
Against this, I remember that, when I was a theatergoing New York college student, you could venture Off-Broadway and see, for instance, a play in which a priest and a nun, at a kitchen table, had a roach-catching contest, conducted in mock Gregorian chant. I suppose nowadays Giuliani would close it down, although the priest was played by an ordained minister, who also composed the score. And this, mind you, was a commercial production; the braver might trek down into the wilds of Soho and see, at the Performing Garage, Ludlam’s company playing Bluebeard. I won’t forget my thrill when the twin trapdoors sprang open to reveal that Dr. von Bluebeard had acquired Faustus’s good and evil angels, speaking hashed Marlowe, played by two very tall drag queens on cothurni. That was theatrical because it was completely new and completely traditional at once. It spoke to contemporary concerns (the upheaval going on in American sexual mores) and to a changing aesthetic (the love for genre junk). At the same time, it conveyed a faith in the theater as something that had long predated us, and presumably would long continue.
Ludlam’s work is among the memories I cherish most from these three decades, though that list is longer than Leporello’s: You can see a lot of plays in three decades, especially if you don’t own a TV. But it’s too early to start litanizing: I don’t think the glory days of my theatergoing are over yet. I recently had to scan through my past year’s reviews, and a lot of unexpectedly joyous memories came flooding back. Roach-catching contest? Not 30 blocks from my apartment, Mary Beth Hurt was just seen cavorting in a lobster costume. Nor have I forgotten Kate Valk’s routine with the viper puppet in House/Lights, the grief suffusing Charlayne Woodard’s face in the last scene of In the Blood, Rinde Eckert roaring out Father Mapple’s sermon, Larry Bryggman’s drift from coherence in Proof. And wasn’t it just last week I saw two plays I liked? In the ’70s, I hardly ever saw two plays I liked in the same week, though I think in general, back then, I liked more plays in any given year.
Maybe I was just less discriminating, and the bitterness my epistolary readers complain of is my increasing wisdom. So I think I shall not hang up my critical hat today. There’s always the chance that tomorrow somebody, probably Marian Seldes, will do something extraordinary. There will be a new text that speaks with Kia Corthron’s boldness, and a new production that has Joseph Chaikin’s piercing clarity. Somebody will stage a fabulous revival of one of the 200 plays I’d like to see again, or a dream production of one of the 200 never done here that I wish I could see. Or we may get the usual dysfunctional family play, and Molière on a gray set with trench coats, and a solo mime of the life of William Jennings Bryan. (I’ll only cover the last if it’s Marian Seldes.) Either way, I’ll bear with it if the theater can hold my interest; I didn’t come here to be bored. And I’m willing to bet that nobody else did either. If our theatrical system is turning out a higher percentage of boring productions than it used to, chances are that I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Which means that it’s time for the system to change, not for me to write “-30-.”
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