Friday, May 13, 2005

Parabis Adds To Fray

If you follow my site, other theatre blogs, Larry Stark's Theatremirror or articles linked through Artsjournal, you can't escape the overwhelming amount of column and inkspace being devoted to the idea of just how theatre criticism contributes to theatre, how it could be better, and how it is bad.

Arts and Politics blogger Isaac Butler, a director from NYC, has a post on theatre reviewing that is good read. Butler takes on "snark" which was the subject of a very small back and forth between me and Bill Marx , the critic for WBUR, last year.

From what I can tell, Marx insists that snark is really a passionate, intelligent and entertaining critical argument. Butler disagrees as he states here:

The first problem is, of course, snark as embodied by John Simon, the Dale Peck of theater writing. Terry once wrote something along the lines of how easy it is to write a cruel review and say witty things that are mean and degrade people’s work. And it is very, very easy. Any blogger who writes with passion can tell you how simple it is to say something smart and insulting. This practice, however, does nothing to engage the issues at hand, nothing to expand the conversation, nothing (in other words) to improve the form of drama. All it does is show off the writer’s pithiness. It is not designed to help the audience with further understanding of anything, it is designed to make the reader think the writer is smart. .

My own analogy would present John Simon and Dale Peck as the Arts And Letters answer to Conservative Talk Radio. The last few sentences in Butler's passage above make the illustration for me.

John Simon, recently fired by New York magazine, has an incredible reputation as a snarky critic. By coincidence, as I was looking in the remainders section of my local bookstore the other night I found and old book of theatre reviews and essays by John Simon. Having just read of Simon's dismissal from New York that day, I was interested to page through the collection of his theatre writings from the 60's and 70's. The first thing that struck me was how in the 1960's the same concerns we have about the death of theatre was gripping critics and pundits over 40 years ago.

The second thing that interested, or should I say disinterested me, was the overall Negative tone of the volume. He did have a very good essay about The Wild Duck which displayed his obvious acuity. However, most of it did seem a little too,.. just, ...well...snarky towards theatre in general. Surprisingly though, I found his essay about the aesthetics of the attractiveness of actors and actresses, (something he is notorious for pointing out,) kind of fair.

I didn't buy the book, I actually bought Doubt; A Parable, which my wife and I read last night. All the hype it has been getting finally made me cave on my usual practice of waiting to see a local production before reading the script of the latest hits.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Anglophiles, John Heilpern's got your number!

I think all drama critics and drama practitioners go through periodic Anglophilia bouts throughout their lives. Depression, exasperation, anger, and jealously are all symptoms of the disease.Heilpren, a former Englishman, has always been an antidote to the particular mental maladies one suffers when fighting a case of American theatrical inferiority.

He has an excellent essay about it in his book, How Good is David Mamet Anyway?, and his most recent column in the Observer explains that, somehow, when British theatre artists miss the mark, the American critics don't seem to relate it to their Britishness.

Heilpern points out that three British Directors are helming three of the American Revivals right now on Broadway. Streetcar, the Glass Menagerie and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf are all being helmed by British directors. He also goes on to point out how the productions are by no means succesful.

Heilpern on this phenomenon:

If the situation were reversed—if today three Americans were directing British classics in the West End—I’ve little doubt there would be an uproar. After all, they’ve been saying "Yanks go home" since World War II. But they take pride in their theater culture. They have confidence in it. They connect to the past—to the power of language and the great classical tradition. In a sense, they’ve been weaned on the past.

The continuing tragedy of American theater is that it doesn’t have confidence in its own culture. It doesn’t reveal security in its own glorious past. If it did, there would be no need to ask British directors to stage American classics. There would be no need for Anglophilia.

It is an interesting read and you should check it out. I am a huge fan of those three plays, (I think I have seen 9 different productions of Glass Menagerie, including the interesting one at the Lyric this past season.) so I have been following the critical response in New York very closely.

The New York Review of Books has a lengthy article on the particular reasons for the Menagerie failure. If you don't read it soon it will be archived. He is going to have a follow up in the next issue which will discuss Streetcar Named Desire.