Thursday, December 18, 2003


On Larry Stark's Theater Mirror website, I wrote a response to an article Bill Marx wrote on criticism.

He responded to me, and the chain is to be found on Larry's site: look under Mere Opinions

The following is a response I drafted to Marx, but didn't send:

Hi Larry,

In response to Mr. Marx:

I appreciate Mr. Marx responding to my post, but I feel I need to clarify a few things in my original statement to Larry. In no way did I mean to indicate that the size of one's readership in anyway increases or decreases the legitimacy of their arguments or the courage of their critical stands. I was alluding to the economical and editorial pressures faced by the critics on the panel. Also, the title of Mr. Brustein's panel was The "Function" of the Critic, not the "future" of the critic. Marx is right that the panel did not have a great amount of pizzaz or fiery debate, and I will admit that I too expected that at least Brustein would provide a little more of his trademark dissent. However, Marx went into the panel wanting it to be a certain something and was disappointed because it didn’t live up to his ideal that he had already formulated. When his pre-conceived expectations were not realized, he attacked the panelists as whimpering and the whole proceeding as a “schmoozefest.”

Mr. Marx wrote in his response to me, (posted on this site,) “Hennessey is hung up on opinion, which is part of the consumer guide mentality that’s increasingly turning criticism into sound bytes.” After his response, I went in eagerness to read Mr. Marx's new review of Snow in June,, expecting to find an erudite and informative cultural criticism, but instead found, to my surprise, a nice, capsulated and “opinionated” review. All it was missing was a little cartoon thumbs down on the top left or right. In fact, I was even more pleased to find that he is kind enough to give the hurried and time strapped masses his "opinion" in the second line. I am being facetious, (and in no way am I endorsing the American Repertory Theatre,) but I am only doing so to illustrate my original point that all of the critics on Mr. Brustein's panel were complaining that in the course of “daily reviewing” they are increasingly being forced into, as Mr. Marx says, a "sound byte" structure.

What I found interesting is how these critics suggested that they are limited not only by editorial policies, but also by the reading public. (Ed Siegel stated that he gets complaints when he tries to infuse too much literature in his reviews.) My original statement about readership was made to defend critics who are writing for everybody from Bill Marx, to Larry Stark, to me, and to the guy out in Methuen who has never heard of half the references in a New Criterion review, but wants to know if he should spring the $150 plus for his wife to see Nathan Lane in Butley. However, I now must revise my statement and say that Mr. Marx appears to suffer from the same type of pressures, even though he has now proven that he knows better.

I think this point was actually best illustrated during the Critics Panel when Linda Winer from Newsday was stating how she had recently seen plays by four playwrights she absolutely loved, but she was disappointed by the plays. She then went on to explain fervently how criticism really shouldn't boil down to opinion. Ed Siegel smartly asked her; "When you reviewed those four productions, in what paragraph did you state that you didn't like the plays?" Winer, caught like a defendant on Law and Order, sheepishly answered that it was not very far into the review that she offered up her opinion.

Mr. Marx, I am on your side. I don’t think this is a good situation.

Marx is right to bring in the political question, and political debate is a healthy addition which reviewers such as Steyn, Brustein, and Heilpren bring to theatre criticism. I believe Robert Brustein might have coined the phrase “The Plays You Are Not Allowed To Hate” when talking about plays which weave politically correct agendas into their fabric so tightly that to bash them, (even though they may be mediocre or bad,) would be...well... politically incorrect. I also recall the phrase “Come See the Safe Pedophilia” which headlined John Heilpren's negative review of Paul Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. It is an interesting double standard that theatre artists so often want to shove political agenda into the audience's lap, but they think it is irrelevant and annoying when critics want to bring up political, (and sometimes legitimate,) responses to the production in their reviews.

However, political argument can be just as dangerous when it is wound into the helix of a reviewer’s DNA. Steyn's review of Trumbo while an intelligent, well-written, and supported argument is also dripping with so much McCarthy-loving, conservative political bent that is smells like Anne Coulter's perfume. I will not believe Mr. Steyn did not come slobbering to that table with his knives sharpened. Oh, and check out Roger Ebert's review of On the Waterfront in his Great Movies column and see how a "pop media" daily "reviewer" can include the same breadth of political commentary in his brief space allotment as Mark Steyn does in his leisurely column in last month's Atlantic regarding Elia Kazan.

I enjoy reading all sorts of theatrical criticism, (Marx included,) and I will confess to the guilty, (stress on guilty,) pleasure of reading a particularly nasty diatribe now and then, but I cannot fully support the side of "spirited" reviewers who pick and choose their targets with preconceived notions. Is Bill Marx, Robert Brustein, or Mark Steyn going be able to have a dialogue with me about that off-off Broadway show that is being done in the small 40 seat theatre?

If theatre critics are going to hold high standards for theatre then they should also expect to be held to high standards as well. By that I mean they need to work for a living. No, I don't mean that they need to get a “real job,” I would only suggest that they have to work at their craft. Not only should they know their field and know cultural contexts, they should also have to hustle their respective rears off to see as much theatre as possible. They don't have to like everything, or a majority of what they see. And I don't expect they will. I don’t like everything I see. If you are a professional theatre "critic" and you are not seeing seven to eight shows every week, then tell me, what are you doing? Philosophizing? Navel-gazing? Pontificating? All right, how about five shows? If your reaction is that you don't need to see all that much theatre because deep in your heart you think most of it is bad then I am not sure you are the right person to be a theatre critic.

I don't know Marx personally, but his vocabulary, ("dumbing down," "knee-jerk liberalism,") and his admiration for conservative voices seems to betray more artistic ideology than it does true "thinking." In fact, his comment "if one believes that Boston is in a perpetual Golden Age of Theatre, then one's mind has been made up," seems to closely echo Dale Peck's wildly brazen polemic, “if you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are part of the problem.” It reminds me of the boss who once elaborated on his freshly trumpeted idea saying, “I mean, you would have to be an absolute idiot to think anything else!” He then turns to his cowering employees and asks, “What do you think?” Although I will readily admit that liberals have a hard time getting over the fact that they don’t corner the market on thinking, I’d rather be “hung up on opinion,” than content to march in such lockstep pandering.

Loud and invigorating does not equal right and unassailable, (snarky or not,) if it did then Michael Savage would be Sainted by now. The Dale Peck school of reviewing is the talk radio of the arts and literature world, and is no more a shot in the arm to the true function of the critic than Def Poetry Jam is a catalyst for a theatrical revolution. Both are all one-sided, cliched, ideological bluster, but both are fun and hip for the crowds to which they are pandering. Marx speaks of “taking on the ever growing army of emperors with no clothes, which includes critics as well as artists.” Whose mind is already made up?

But what do I know? The world is an up and down place. I mean, after all, Brustein raged for years against Arthur Miller, kitchen sink, family dramas, but then he wrote a play in just that mold called Nobody Dies on Friday, (and it wasn’t a parody.) Oh, and Strom Thurmond has an interracial child. Will wonders never cease?

Friday, December 12, 2003

Just My Opinion:

Def Poetry Jam

Right at the beginning of Def Poetry Jam I knew that something was wrong.  The DJ walked onstage and immediately tried to fire up the crowd with a very sensible decibel level and carefully chosen, non offensive mixes of old school and new school hip-hop peppered with the obligatory record scratches.   The crowd needed quite a bit of warming up, and though some people "got into the groove," others were remaining very composed.

The show had been lauded in its New York run as the second coming of theatre.  "Exciting,"  "electric,"  and, "energetic."   Its hip  and young cast were praised as wordsmiths and the critics couldn't say enough about how dextrous they were with the language.  And while the performers are congenial and sometimes commanding presences, aside from a few brief glimpses of true creativity, I am sorry to say that the poetry is pretty standard, cliched, and very one-sided.    I have heard better at local poetry slams.  But the poets there are not the attractive, MTV Real World types that Def Poetry Jam can exploit for Broadway ticket prices. This is a fact that is unconsciously underscored when one attractive poet, Suheir Hammad, recites, "I am not your exotic," in a poem which chastises people for seeing her as some exotic pornographic creation. But she does so without displaying even a winking acknowledgement that her "look" is part of the marketing apparatus of the show.

The best of the bunch is Poetri, a self deprecating and very funny comedian who tells simple stories of his life views that really bloom into larger creations right before your eyes in ways that are truly magical. However, I couldn't help thinking that he would be more at home on the Def Comedy Jam.  The other standout is an Asian poet, Beau Sai, from Oklahoma who is amazingly confrontational in his delivery. ( "I am so extreme...I crank call myself!")   In fact, by watching his performance I realized what was missing in the rest of the evening and why this is not really theatre, but just a poetry slam in a much bigger venue. What was missing? Another viewpoint!   The reason for the success of such poems as Sai's "Asian Invasion" rant about how he is seeing America as a place where the "hair is getting a little bit darker and the eyes a little bit smaller,"  is that he is shouting it at us as if he knows that we might be disagreeing with him, or at least that we are uncomfortable with what he is saying.  

Other poets on stage make statements about cops killing blacks indiscriminately, and it is stated with a finality and a nobility, and with shouts of agreement from the audience.  However, poetry such as this doesn't examine anything deeper or beyond itself.   It borders on preaching to the choir.  For this to approach the level of real theatre Russel Simmons should seek out a talented New York City Police Officer and have him write a poem about being called night after night into tense and possibly violent situations in decrepit neighborhoods. In theatre it is fine to let your point of view win, but it is criminal to not let the other side have a good shot at making its case.   The play A Few Good Men, ultimately condemns the actions of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, but I'll bet that more people in this country can recite the Colonel's eleventh hour, "You can't handle the truth," speech, or at least a portion of it, than can recite "Tommorrow and Tomorrow," from Macbeth.   Why?  Playwright Aaron Sorkin was not scared to give the best points, the best lines, and a lucid argument to his villain.

Another thing missing was a distinct lack of poetry regarding the War in Iraq, aside from a poem which appeared to have been written shortly after September 11th.  In the text, the poet realizes to her growing horror that by the nature of her genetic makeup she is finding herself and her brothers, (both of whom are dark, arabic looking men,) on the wrong side of President Bush's With-Us-Or-Against-Us policy.

Pockets of the audience were having a great time during the whole evening, other pockets were really silent.   It makes me think that the critics in New York have never seen a Chris Rock standup act, or listened to a hip-hop record.  Eminem regulary belts out deeper and more dextrous verse than anything I saw on stage last night, and he uses bigger words too.

Consider a line from Eminem's first popular single:

My brain's dead weight
I'm tryin' to get
My head straight
But I can't figure out
Which Spice Girl
I want to impregnate.

That line speaks so much of a culture of young people who may be smart, gifted, or talented, but are increasingly facing an all out assault by commercialism that is successfully scrambling their brains.

Being a dramatist by nature I envisioned a grizzled and cantankerous old man shuffling onto the stage and delivering the words of Robert Frost:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it ploughed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.