Aug 4, 2011

"Posturing Wind and Rubbish"

Years ago, on my first trip to London, I happened to meet the Guardian's eminence grise Michael Billington (is there any living theater critic who's been at it as long as he? Feingold?). We had drinks and I found him unfailingly cordial. In years since, though, he's come to represent for some of my fellow bloggers the quintessence of British snobbery. This recent piece, a low blow, struck me the same way, and prompted Isaac Butler to write memorably, "If Michael Billington didn't exist, Americans would have to invent him so that they could continue to complain about British snobbery towards the U.S. Simply put, Billington's a bigot." I'm sure someone more enterprising than myself could dig through the archives of his reviews to find counter-examples that prove he doesn't hate all things American, but this one about we Yanks couldn't handle the genius of Enron wouldn't be on that list.

A recent piece finds Billington reporting on a visit to the Stratford and Shaw festivals in Canada after a quarter century absence, and pronouncing the lively arts in that Commonwealth nation at last worthy. Over at Jason Zinoman's always lively Facebook page, a link to the piece led to a freewheeling discussion of Shaw, O'Neill, and August Wilson (about whom one unidentified playwright reportedly said "his plays are parking lots for monologues"). But the pearl of the FB exchange came courtesy of Time Out's David Cote, who took the Shaw-loving theme as a pretext to dig up this classic 1977 screed from John Osborne, in response to Billington's naming Shaw "the greatest British dramatist since Shakespeare":
Having recently seen Saint Joan in London and Caesar and Cleopatra in Sydney, it is clearer to me than ever that Shaw is the most fraudulent, inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to gull a timid critic or fool a dull public.

He writes like a Pakistani who had learned English when he was twelve years old in order to become a chartered accountant.
That's ugly stuff, but the send-off is priceless:
By the time I was 25 I had been in (admittedly bad, but no matter) productions of: Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell, Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, Saint Joan, Major Barbara and, perhaps worst of all, Chekhov-for-philistines, Heartbreak House.

Try learning them, Mr Billington; they are posturing wind and rubbish. In fact, just the sort of play you would expect a critic to write. The difference is simply: he did it.
For the record, I love Heartbreak House and Pygmalion and Saint Joan, and find Misalliance underrated. But the drama of a writer lashing a critic? Sometimes that's the best show of all.

UPDATE: On the other hand, this exchange between Zach Braff's TV-producer friend and New York critic Scott Brown over the latter's slam of All New People made me cringe for all concerned.

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