It was Assignment Day, which, despite its sound, is not a Calvinist adumbration of the Last Judgment, but rather a weekly occurrence in the arts sections of The Village Voice. And our esteemed culture editor was, naturally, asking me what I wanted to cover this week. The question is always a challenge for me. Robert Benchley, an old-time New York drama critic now remembered mainly for his buffoonery in ’40s films, once joked that choosing French pastry from a dessert tray was a more challenging game than chess; I often wonder why he never wrote a piece about the difficulty of choosing what to review. And his weekly theater column appeared in the late 1920s, when there were sometimes four or five Broadway openings in a single night.
The scale of that profusion has shrunk in the eight decades since Benchley’s critical heyday, but the profusion itself still persists, in diminished form. Broadway theaters and Broadway productions may be fewer in number, but Off- and Off-Off-Broadway—what folks in the 1920s would have called the “little theater” movement—have vastly expanded. Critics in the 1920s, too, had what might be called a temperature advantage: Few major productions opened in the summer months because the lack of air-conditioning—still a primitive science—made most theaters uninhabitable. Much of Manhattan’s theater community and a large part of its audience, affluent and otherwise, simply left the island during that time, critics included.
No doubt the latter felt entitled, given some of what they’d had to sit through when the season was at its height. The bloggers who mistakenly accuse me of thinking everything was better in the past (a standard charge against anyone with my length of service) should check out some of the clunkers most deeply execrated by Benchley & Co., like 1918’s East Is West or 1922’s Abie’s Irish Rose—and these were both enormous popular successes, the critically unkillable Mamma Mia!s of their day. The era’s disasters were well below even their level of proficiency.
Every age adds its disasters to the centuries-old pile of unrevivable theatrical clutter, and every age has its hollow triumphs, the kind that last a few decades or even a few centuries before collapsing, like a pricked balloon, to land on the trash heap. Aristophanes spent a lot of his onstage time ragging the revered Agathon, none of whose plays are available to us because the scholiasts, five centuries later, simply scraped them off the parchment as not worth saving. The 18th and 19th centuries went bananas over sub- Shakespearean tragedies like John Home’s Douglas (1756) and Sheridan Knowles‘s Virginius (1820), which today would probably beat any sleeping pill on the market. Granted, the past is also ripe with works well worth resuscitating once a generation or so, to weigh present-day taste against our cultural past. And tucked among those are a few gems that deserve more frequent revival: The recent appearance of Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto at BAM, in Jonathan Miller’s production, started me wondering why English and American theaters alike have shied away from its delicious source, Colman and Garrick’s The Clandestine Marriage. But the heap of aesthetic debris on which the gems and the resuscitatables repose is enormous beyond belief.
The detritus of our own time is no different; what’s new is the lack of respite we have for contemplating it. Where critics in the 1920s, having lived through nine months of opening-night hell, could take the summer off for reading, rehab, and perhaps even thinking over the mass of stuff they’d seen, we have zero breathing space. Like a king’s death leading to a cry of “Long live the king!”, one season’s end leads implacably to another’s beginning. This week, by a fluke, I found nothing of immense significance to write about (if one insists on writing, there’s always something of at least modest significance). But next week, the madness starts all over again, both in its normal summer clothes (The Bacchae at Lincoln Center, Damn Yankees at Encores!), and with Off-Broadway institutions trotting out dressy new productions as part of their regular subscription seasons (this week, two major revivals and a new Sam Shepard). A Broadway opening (the revamped [title of show]) looms close behind. And this is July, when the critics of my childhood would have had nothing more demanding to bother about than ZaSu Pitts in a summer-stock package of Everybody Loves Opal.
But the world is the way it is these days, and its demands are unremitting. Lewis Carroll’s remark about having to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place seems more applicable than ever. The life around us is falling apart: Our politics is in chaos, our economy about to lurch further into a deep trough, our globe appears to be crumbling in step with our empire. Not long ago, one of New York’s most eminent actresses confided to me: “These days, I’m afraid to read the weather report.” Irving Berlin’s Prohibition-era jape at a hectic New York where “Buildings go up with wrecking crews waiting/To tear them down again” seems almost to have become reality.
The virtual world—texting and Googling at ever-faster speeds—supplies a technological frenzy to mirror the physical one outside. Immediate reaction is all that’s desired; contemplation, the critic’s most precious tool, increasingly gets laid aside. A former student asked me, last month, to answer some questions about the future of criticism for an article she was preparing; I had to tell her honestly that I couldn’t answer them because I wasn’t sure it had any. As newspapers and magazines shrink in the economic downturn, both their coverage and their arts staffs get increasingly downsized; critic, feature writer, and reporter find their posts compressed into a single job with three hats. And the theater’s lucky, at that; dance and classical music are watching even that single job disappear. The infinite space the Internet offers, meantime, gets filled up with reiterated tidbits of data or the infinite and not always well-informed sprawl of blogging.
Given the increased interest—and increased knowledge—of audiences and practitioners in every art, it’s hard to see why criticism has been such a prominent victim of the crunch: You’d think that such a time would most need it and demand it. But hectic times often generate too much incidental noise to notice what they need most, until the engine driving their frenzy runs out of gas, or crashes. What are critics to do in the meantime? Survive, if they can. And contemplate their life, their art, their world, by seizing any quiet moment they can get. Like this one.