Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mama, don't let your baby grow up to be drama critics!

Yesterday, I went to a roundtable at the Philoctetes Center featuring three important drama critics of the 20th Century, Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley, and Stanley Kauffmann on the state of dramatic criticism in the United States. For anyone who doesn't know these 3 gentleman, Eric Bentley is the author of Playwright as Thinker which was published in 1946, Robert Brustein as well as being a critic was also the head of the Yale School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater, before moving on to Harvard to found the American Repertory Theater and the MFA program. Stanley Kauffmann was the drama critic at the New York Times in the 1960's as well as for The New Republic. Combined these men have about 200 years of dramatic criticism behind them.

It was interesting to hear these men speak because they were around with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were premiering their first plays, back in the days when Broadway was mainly filled with either drawing room comedies like Philip Barry's or the melodrama's of Eugene O'Neill. The general consensus of the panel was that dramatic criticism is on the wane at the moment. Oh people still write reviews either for web-sites like theatermania or for the newspapers but the kind of critical thinking that these men brought to their reviews no longer exists, at least in this country, where most cities have one major newspaper.

New York still has 5 if you count The New York Sun and Newsday, but what the newspapers and most magazines do now are just simple reviews, so historical context for the most part. Entertainment Weekly, when they do review theater, operate on the A through F critique. I can't imagine a critic like Kenneth Tynan or Robert Brustein ever resorting to a letter grade in a review. Brustein mentioned that when they initiated the dramatic criticism major at Yale, there were no jobs for the graduates once they were done, so the program shifted to dramaturgy.

There was a time when everyone knew the name of the big drama critics in New York, even if you didn't live in New York. People like Brooks Atkinson or Walter Kerr. The last person to have that kind of name recognition was Frank Rich aka The Butcher of Broadway. Or maybe Clive Barnes, who I once saw sleep (not just sleep, snore) through a production of Joe Orton's Loot, which he then gave a rave review to.

I was fortunate enough to have Michael Billington, the chief drama critic of the Guardian, as my dramatic criticism instructor when I studied at The British American Drama Academy twenty years ago in London. Each week we would go to see a show, and then we would get to dicuss it with him in class. We were encouraged to keep a theater journal of the other plays and musicals that we saw, and later on we had a tutorial with him, where we went to his house in Chiswick to drink tea and read aloud from our journals.

He was the first critic that I ever read where I had to keep the dictionary handy to read his reviews. What was fantastic about the class was that we were allowed to argue our views with him. My friend Joanna actually managed to convince him to reconsider his review of Sam Shepherd's play A Lie of the Mind by arguing that the play had been damaged by an inferior staging and bad casting.

Keeping that journal allowed me to see theater in a new way. When I did my semester abroad in college, we also had to keep a theater journal which I still have. I actually took it down when I got home last night to read over what I had wrote. Most of it was of the variety that "Ian McKellan is a god and I worship him,' and 'Antony Sher is the most exciting actor ever to appear on the English stage, and I want to have his baby.'

Of course little did I know at the time that I wasn't going to be having either of their babies since they don't play for my team! But there were reviews where I ripped apart a production that the RSC did of Romeo & Juliet for using excess props on stage (Tybalt drove on in a red Porsche, Mercutio did a frantic disco dance, played the electric guitar and jumped into a swimming pool during the ball scene, and Juliet was listening to her walkman and reading Vogue before launching into her speech about wanting night to come so that Romeo would arrive), and not paying enough attention to the text.

The point was made that besides most newspapers shrinking their theater coverage or dropping it all together, there is a distinct lack of critical thinking about much of anything in this country, which I tend to agree with. When I was in high school, we were forced constantly to think critically in history and in English class, but I think that most public schools gloss over it, or the kids just don't get it. Their thinking is reserved for getting to the next level in whatever X-Box game they are playing.

Which is a shame. One of the reasons that I love Vanity Fair magazine is that you get such a great mix of fluff and serious pieces (Oh and James Wolcott who writes a monthly column for the magazine spilled his wine on me yesterday).

The best dramatic criticism (and I've read most of Robert Brustein's work) opens up your mind and makes you really think about your response to a play or to a movie. It involves all of your senses. I've learned about plays and playwrights that I never would have known existed if it hadn't been for reading men like Brustein and Kenneth Tynan.

It's funny because on the other hand, literary criticism just ruins reading for me. I don't want to read about F.Scott Fitzgerald's use of imagery, or what the green light means at the end of The Great Gatsby. I don't really care.

Thanks for reading,


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