Oct 7, 2011

Charles Not in Charge

I think Isaac nails the problem with Charles Isherwood's public offer to stop reviewing Adam Rapp's work: that to admit how one's personal tastes color one's reviews creates a very slippery slope. If you disqualify yourself because of one self-perceived bias, why not others? Why not all?

Indeed, comments like this, from playwright Kristoffer Diaz on Facebook, are exactly the kind of thing that such an admission invites:
"Mr. Isherwood has clearly stated aesthetic tastes that fall at odds with much of the work being created today. It's not that he dislikes a lot of work; it's that he fundamentally believes many kinds of plays are artistically invalid. As one of those writers who whom he fundamentally disagrees, I'd prefer someone else at The Times review my work as well. This reviewer is stating that he is incapable of objective analysis."
For my part, I've long been surprised that Charles keeps dutifully trudging out to see not only Rapp's work but that of Itamar Moses, another playwright he's never cared for; it has often felt to me as if he and Rapp, or he and Moses, were unwillingly handcuffed together, Hannay-and-Pamela-style (minus the clinch at the end). Given that I share much of Isherwood's distaste for, and puzzlement at the success of, Mr. Rapp, I fully understand where he's coming from.

What makes me wince about this is that it's a white flag of surrender. A mere reviewer may be expected only to file an "up" or "down" vote on shows as he sees them go by, as if in factory line. But a critic absolutely has a responsibility to advocate for and against plays and artists and organizations; it's part of the job description, and cheerleading is a role Isherwood has taken up with gusto in the cases of Sarah Ruhl, Will Eno, and Annie Baker. Of course, it's also salutary, in this bloggy age, for critics to take the opportunity to be transparent about their tastes and thought processes, to reexamine or reframe their opinions, in forums like the Times' "Theater Talkback" (which is essentially a fancy blog). Some disparage this as "navel-gazing" but to my mind it's entirely welcome and humanizing self-reflection.

To me, it's obvious that that was the spirit in which Isherwood's column was intended, not as a way to ding Rapp one last time. The problem is, it was on balance not a reflection at all but a capitulation; Charles isn't wrestling messily and transparently with his difficulty, he's just walking away from and washing his hands of it. And I wholeheartedly understand his impulse, but I'm not the second-most important critic in America, and if I were, I would hope I'd realize that my job was, as Isaac puts it, to
[pen] a carefully observed and specific critique of what doesn't work in Rapp's writing and how his success is to some extent representative of several larger problems in art and the American theater respectively, since clearly that's what Isherwood believes.
If theater criticism suffers from anything, it's from too little conviction, not too much, and this—if Charles' editor accedes to it—would be another blow on the wrong side of the ledger.

UPDATE: The Garv takes his usual dump on the conversation, but makes the important point that Ish doesn't assign his own reviews. True enough, which is why the most telling sentence in Isherwood's piece comes at the end:
My editor hasn’t agreed yet. But what do you think?

1 comment:

isaac butler said...

Flailing at a train that's sailed... honestly...