Apr 18, 2006

Power Scream

I'm reporting a story about some of the weirder arcana surrounding playwrights' royalties, and I just got a call from a well-known playwright who didn't want to talk about royalties at all but who said, essentially, that his income in the theater has been "destroyed" by Ben Brantley, Charles Isherwood, and Peter Marks, that he thinks the NY Times' coverage is "shallow and snotty," and that he longs for the days of Frank Rich, when serious plays and writers were taken seriously, and the theater was the place for "civic dialogue, not the place where Harry Connick Jr. takes off his shirt."


It's hard to know how to respond to all this, except to wonder at the disproportionate power that is ascribed to Times critics, both by detractors and admirers (this playwright also claimed, and I'd love to hear if anyone can back this up, that the Pulitzer has never gone to a play that the Times critics have "not done handstands for"). Is there any other field in which critics are perceived to have this much power? Is that a function of critics' scarcity, or of the relative fragility of theater, either aesthetically or commercially? I'm not asking all this rhetorically; this level of vitriol directed at two individuals—peers, as I think of them, in fact—is pretty new to me, except in the form of chatter on various blogs, and I'd like to try to understand it.

I do seem to recall that in his day, Rich was the object of similarly intemperate attacks (to the point that someone wrote a play called Frank Rich Is Dead).


parabasis said...

Hey Rob,

I think that "Is there any other field in which critics are perceived to have this much power? " is actually getting a bit ahead of ourselves in this discussion. Isn't the first question in fact "Do the Times critics have as much power as is ascribed them?"

(clearly you think "no". I'm tending towards a qualified "yes" the qualification being that it depends what they're reviewing)

The major Times critics (Brantly, Isherwood, Zinoman) have quite a bit of power, especially compared with their British counterparts. Since London has four major daily papers, there are many different close-to-equal voices reviewing the theater. That's just not the case here in NYC.

This is especially true in commercial theater and in non-subscriber-based non-profit. Reviews have a major impact on their attendance; negative reviews can easily close a show and lukewarm reviews (Especially the kind that are hard to pull quotes from) can seriously affect audience attendance.

Playwright's Horizons, for example, can weather a bad review (in fact, they've gotten many of them over the past couple of years) because of their subscriber base. Signature cannot (they actually closed at least one show early last year due to negative press) and neither can a major "homeless" theater company like MCC.

Of course, I recently worked on a near-universally critically acclaimed show (NYTimes and TONY particularly) that had trouble finding an audience, so there's no hard and fast rule.

So it's complicated, but I don't think your playwright was barking up the wrong tree entirely, which seems to be your assumption going into the conversation.

Jason Grote said...

I think a lot of it has to do with perception - like many media institutions, the key is less than the NYT's actual power, which is probably not measurable, but its perceived power - producers and the like will drop a play that has been poorly-reviewed by the NYT like it's got SARS, and the same isn't true about any other media outlet.

Regarding the hatred of Frank Rich, he was meanspirited, sure, but he also engaged with what he was watching - I would compare him to Michiko Kakutani in that respect. I pretty much take Kakutani with a grain of salt, because she's so clearly a crank, but it's usually evident that she's read whatever she's eviscerating and has paid attention the whole time. I wouldn't mind if the NYT's 3 lead stage reviewers were just meanspririted - I probably would be too, if I had to see a play every night - but I'm upset that they're careless and shallow. In fact, I don't think Ben Brantley is mean at all, he's usually comparatively benign, I just don't think he's trying that hard. Isherwood in particular seems more interested in a "clever" turn of phrase than in whatever he's just watched.

I've said before that I think much of this has to do with the clout-worship culture at the NYT, and there is probably some truth to that - for example, the paper probably needs ad revenue from Hollywood studios far more than it does from theater producers - but the fact is that there are some very good reviewers there. if my work were to be brutally panned by you, George Hunka, Margo Jefferson, Phoebe Hoban, or Jonathan Kalb, it would sting, and I would likely be angry, but based on my knowledge of your/their work, I could be somewhat assured that I'd been treated fairly and competently. I would also be pleased with a rave from one of the three stooges, but sooner or later it would make me question whether what I was writing was too much like a TV show.

Because it's not only unethical but impossible to cherry-pick reviewers, though, I've said publicly that I'd rather not invite the NYT to review my work at all. Who knows how successful I'd be at convincing of producer of that, though.

As far as the economics of it goes, much has been written on this already. None of the performing arts create a tangible commodity, really, so money can't be recouped later, though unlike the dance world - which I imagine is in terrible financial shape - we're a distant cousin to film and TV. I think that Hollywood subsidy, and maybe college productions, are really the only way to make a living creating theater. Because so much of that industry is based on perception, and the only real artifacts of plays tend to be scripts and reviews, the NYT can decide a play's fate because it's the only national publication left that covers theater with any regularity. That's all fine and good, but as Spider-Man tells us, with great power comes great responsibility - something that the big 3 don't seem to possess.

The Playgoer said...

Re: the claim that Pulitzers only go to Times-annointed plays.

One exception quickly does come to mind: "Anna in the Tropics" a few years ago, which got some grumbling for getting the award without any Times review at all since it hadn't had a major production yet. Then I believe Brantley gave it lukewarm when it finally did open on Broadway.

The same could probably also be said of Kentucky Cycle back in the early 90's(?)

This would be simple enough to check, looking up online the reviews for each play. Simple, but time consuming. A complete Pulitzer list is now up on Playgoer, for whoever would like to take up the challenge...