Feb 11, 2009

Both Sides Now

John Lahr conducts a fascinating Q&A with New Yorker readers--fascinating, contentious, and just a little self-serving. He begins by acknowledging his father, vaudevillean legend Bert Lahr (he taught Lahr fils "the importance of corrupting an audience with pleasure"). Then he throws down the gauntlet:
Most of the people dishing out judgment have no working experience of the theatre, have not written a professional play, a sketch, or even a joke; have never worked in a theatre, taken an acting class, or published any extended piece of work. They are creative virgins; everything they know about theatre is book-learned and second-hand.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But the reader's sycophantic questions allow Lahr to expand on this theme past the point of reason:
There is almost no drama criticism in America—there is theatre reviewing. Part of the problem is that newspapers managed in their fantasy of objectivity—a philosophical impossibility—have institutionalized this theatrical ignorance. They insist on a sort of glass wall between the critic and the theatre world, so there can be no claim to vested interest. Therefore the critic must not fraternize, befriend, associate, collaborate or involve himself in any way with the beat he reports. This not only insults the notion of intellectual integrity, it dooms the drama critic to ignorance. His opinion may be right, he just doesn’t know why it is right.

This approach of critic-as-objective amateur also flies in the face of historical fact. On either side of the Atlantic, the important critics have been people who have working knowledge of the theatre. For instance, in the U.K., Shaw, Granville Barker, Tynan; in the U.S.: Bentley, Young Brustein, Clurman. Their criticism was always theatre-wise because it was written from inside the theatre community. The New Yorker’s drama critics have always had a comparable authority because, for the most part, the magazine made it a practice to employ critics who moonlighted in the arts. They worked both sides of the street, so to speak. Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote “Citizen Kane”; Charles Brackett wrote “Sunset Boulevard” and “Lost Weekend”; Robert Benchley acted; Dorothy Parker wrote lyrics; Tynan was the Literary Manager of London’s National Theatre and produced the theatre’s most successful revue, “Oh, Calcutta.” I was the first critic ever to win a Tony—for co-authoring “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Criticism is a life without risk; the critic is risking his opinion, the maker is risking his life. It’s a humbling thought but important for the critic to keep it in mind—a thought he can only know if he’s made something himself.

As a sometime theater practitioner and critic myself, I can say it's a lot more complicated than Lahr presents here (with just a touch of defensiveness). I agree with the thrust of his last thought--that a critic must keep in mind the relative lack of risk, not to mention the huge gap in effort, between his work and that of the artists he covers--but I'm not sure such a position need be the exclusive property of one who's "made something himself." Nor is a critic/practitioner guaranteed to "know why he's right" just because he's logged some time on the other side of the footlights. As in any field of endeavor, there are smart people who understand things and can explain them well, and then there are some on whom even the most life-changing experiences are useless to anyone but themselves.

I do agree that the fantasy of objectivity enforced at newspapers' theater desks (which mysteriously does not extend to their inevitably incestuous book review sections, for instance) is somewhat ludicrous. But I think Lahr is selling short the role of the aficionado, the super-informed fan who's compulsively in love with the medium--Pauline Kael is a fine example from his own magazine. I know one theater critic colleague, for example, who makes a pilgrimage to London a few times a year and has never set foot in the Tate Modern because he spends every spare afternoon and evening seeing every show he can. That kind of obsession may not automatically make a good theater critic, by any means, but there is a certain authority acquired by the critic who has trained herself to become a seasoned, and disinterested, viewer--one who sits clearly and squarely on her side of the footlights and renders her response, reckons with her feelings and with the play's meaning and context, without a personal investment colored by associations with those onstage or behind the scenes. For those who dedicate themselves to this role (and I have to admit, I've never wholeheartedly done so myself), this is a "beat" that can strike a lot deeper than Lahr is willing to admit.

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