Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How Bad Is It? Ask Mr. Brustein

Recently, Robert Brustein posted to the Open University blog on the New Republic. His post, about the power of the Times and the paper's declining theatre coverage, centers on the inside story how the producers of Oliver Twist (the same production seen here locally at the ART,) were nearly completely snubbed by the Times.

Playgoer posted about this when it appeared, and I received an e-mail yesterday from a friend about it.

When I read it again, I found a deeper sadness at the state of theatre coverage in the mainstream periodicals.

I consider Bob Brustein one of our country's great critics. I began buying and subscribing to the New Republic in order to read his essays and to support TNR for continuing serious theatre criticism.

This post of his, in the Open University Blog on the New Republic Website, makes me hope that he will start blogging. It would be valuable to have a critic of his erudition and style regularly attacking from the wings.

HOWEVER...always contextualize his occasional attacks on the Times with his entire written and artistic career.

The Times and Robert Brustein have a long standing feud. For an understanding of both sides, read Brustein's collections of essays, (Dumbocracy in America, etc.) and then read Frank Rich's essay "Exit the Critic."

One might use the same terms Brustein uses, "condescending," etc, to describe his dismissals of August Wilson's work. And remember, Brustein notes that he does not have any more than a marginal association with the ART, and he obviously feels no need to pull punches in this essay on the Times. But he didn't write any type of review of this production in his own periodical.

Upon re-reading the post, I found myself drawn to this statement:

Now I love gossip and popular entertainment as well as the next guy, but isn't there a place for serious theatre in this Sunday section any more? References to plays have been relegated to a column or two on page five, unlessthere is a big numbing commercial musical or some media-soaked British import like The Coast of Utopia lumbering towards Broadway.

The ubiquitous coverage of Tom Stoppards's trilogy has been angering theatre folk for months, and Brustein may be right about this. However, it is important to note that Brustein's first New Rebublic review in over a year was a massive essay on....wait for it...The Coast of Utopia! Maybe he felt it hadn't received enough coverage?

As I said, one of the reasons I began subscribing to the New Republic and why I try to buy The New Criterion was to support publications that are continuing to hold a place for serious dramatic criticism.

Brustein's observation about the Times is a point well taken, but also a point well observed for many years. My observation is: Never mind the Times, if The New Republic is no longer the place for serious theatre criticism...then what is left?

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