May 15, 2013

Flashback: Als v. August

On this day in 2007, I posted the following review excerpt:
“Radio Golf” is a formulaic work that illustrates why [August] Wilson was not, in the end, a great artist: his approach to examining the lives of black Americans was traditional, often cliché-ridden, and comfortably middlebrow...Barely thirty minutes into the action, we’re already on familiar ground: it’s Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” meets Lifetime TV...Wilson is the worst kind of moralist. He uses black people—which is to say, “real” or poor black people—as the barometer by which all others must be judged; anyone who doesn’t fit the bill is just plain evil...This essentially Puritan strain in Wilson’s thinking makes his characters reductive, simple silhouettes projected onto an even simpler backdrop....For Wilson, all blacks are brothers, whether clad in rags or Armani suits. But life doesn’t work this way—at least no lives spent under the yoke of this country’s astonishing and still prevalent racism. In the nineteen-sixties, academic philosophers and sociologists alike tried to address “the Negro problem”—the economic and racial disadvantages inherent in black life. Wilson came of age in that era, and was clearly influenced by the sanctimonious air of their reasoning. With his own lyrical-sounding agitprop, he, unfortunately, adopted the belief structure of the “concerned” oppressor, while claiming to speak for the oppressed.
The author: the New Yorker's resident crazy person, Hilton Als. I repost this as a reminder, in case anyone wondered, why Als is more scourge than truth-teller. (And to be clear, I don't think Wilson or his work are above criticism, even along some of the lines Als pursues, but what was perhaps most galling about the review was that it evidenced no familiarity with, and certainly did not cite, any other single work by the late playwright.)

1 comment:

isaac butler said...

WHile I'm unsure why you needed reminding here... the other weird thing about this review is that Radio Golf was essentially a first draft. While that gives us a fascinating look into Wilson's writing practice, what we see when we compare it to his other plays is how much work he did in improving them between early drafts and final versions.

It's not that Als is necessarily wrong about Radio Golf, it's just that using that play as a cudgel to beat up on the other plays in the cycle is ridiculous.

(I also agree that it shows a lack of familiarity with Wilson's work. Als doesn't seem to know that one of the characters is the protagonist from Two Trains Running thirty years later, or that the characters are descended from characters in Gem of the Ocean and Joe Turner's Come And Gone. The piece is self-consciously an epilogue, which makes it not work dramatically but makes it very moving and satisfying if you're really invested in the cycle. I have to imagine that, had Wilson had more time, he would've found a way to make the play work on both levels.)