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Supporting the Critic

Gentle Reader, the Tony Award nominations were recently announced.  And while I do not generally approve of anyone giving anyone in the theater any sort of accolade (they might begin to think themselves far too important than they are), I was heartened by Mr. Isherwood’s recent anti-Tony invective.  I had to respond.  Here is my response, freshly submitted to the Grey Lady (who has not yet “approved” it.  Though why she would not, since I clearly approve of her(!), I do not know):

Dear Mr. Isherwood,

I too find those who hold erroneous opinions (that is, opinions with which I disagree) eminently contemptible!  But how refreshing to read your article which so clearly illustrates a Critic’s deepest priorities: the enunciation of his own opinions as representative of Universal Good, and the expression of disdain for those who think otherwise.  What, indeed, is Criticism if not these two things (plus a muscularly smug self-regard)?  Absent is anything but the cold hard pronouncements of critical orthodoxy!  What should we love?  Not the theater, no(!), but what in the theater you tell us to love!

I appreciate, too, your ultimate point: money is the true arbiter of taste and success!  How could the Nominators not recognize their need to bow to Boxoffice, particularly when Boxoffice clearly ratifies our own tastes!  At other times, we may deride Broadway producers and Nominators for bending to economic exigencies, but the same exigencies bloweth us where they listeth, too.  Only we have the advantage: a superior critical hermeneutic in which all apparent duplicity is dissolved by sheer force of will!

That will transports me: Thou Tastemaker!  Thou Career Breaker!  Thou Disdain Giver!  Oh thou Eternal Rebel (don’t think I didn’t see your revolutionary turn in “Gossip Girl”): I prostrate myself in humble obeisance to your critical Majesty!  Hail, Isherwood, Hail!

Sincerely,
Dean Thropwelle

I hope you agree!

Mr. Isherwood recently reviewed Mr. Zayd Dohrn’s new play Outside People.  I wrote a comment.  Here it is:

As you know, Mr. Isherwood, I do not generally favor your favorable reviews. I find them pandering and saccharine–they are abrupt and unsatisfying without feeling achingly true. Your recent love letter to that Sontag piece was disturbing–I understand that we must pay some grudging obeisance at the altar of certain intellectual icons, but I hope that in the future you can better control yourself. The only reason to pay homage to an intellectual is to give others the impression that we are intellectuals too. If we go too far, we risk drawing attention to our enterprise. I know you know this truth already–it’s just a word of caution and reminder.

Happily, though, this particular review had a bright spot: despite giving the impression that the play is about someone lost and searching for his place in the world (yawn! Having no sense of direction at all, my wife is constantly lost. I am chronically misplacing her. So I can tell you from experience that few things are more boring than lostness–it is quite prosaic and hardly a worthy topic for a play), you wind up telling us that the chief subject of the play is Chinese insularity. How gratifying to read a critic who is not afraid to make such authoritative, iron-clad pronouncements! Whether you are right or wrong is beside the point, Mr. Isherwood–what you pronounce is no mere opinion, it is Law! I cannot underestimate the value of such firm declarations–hopefully, the playwright will read this review and understand what his play is truly about! And hopefully, he will thank you for it, as I do now.

Sincerely,
Dean Thropwelle

I hope you agree!

I had wondered where Mr. Isherwood had stored his ire of late, but it looks like he was just saving it for something special: like Ms. Molly Smith Metzler’s play Close Up Space.  Not only does Mr. Isherwood hate the play, but he uses his review to get in a few choice jabs at a completely different play by Ms. Smith Metzler, as well as a final (?) stab at another play he had already savaged by a totally different writer.  What style!  What class!  What a Master!  If any were to need a lesson in the always useful art of kicking someone (or a playwright) when they’re down, they can do no better than to read Mr. Isherwood’s critical oeuvre.  Mr. Isherwood is truly a blackbelt in a jujitsu of critical spite.  Sign me up for that dojo, please!

I responded to Mr. Isherwood’s review in the comments section.  They seem slow to post it.  Could it be that my passion for correct criticism intimidates them?  We shall see.  (UPDATE: It has been posted!  I hope that means that Mr. Isherwood approves!)  But for you, my dear reader, here is the text of my missive.

Title: On On Brief Candle!

Unsurprisingly, I, too, disliked this play. It was far too imaginative and less redolent of cold hard reality than I would have liked. A main character who speaks Russian? Please. Even the Russians speak English–look at any recent production of Chekhov in the city. I’m sure if the character tried a little harder, she could manage better and earlier. And that whole unrealistic incident when Harper removes all the furniture from her father’s office and camps out inCentral Park? Who would do that in real life? No one, that’s who! Our playwrights must learn that they must be bound by rigid rules of reality, that their imaginations or pretensions to metaphor have nothing to do with anything. And what, really, did they have to do with this play in particular? Sure, the foreign language and the references to exile, and the Akhmatova poetry all speak to a general climate of alienation, distance and emotional desolation which is symbolically represented by the empty office that subsequently and poetically morphs into the Siberian wastes–but what does that really mean? Why do we need all of that in a play which plunges into the distance between a father and a daughter? All of that might have made a fine poem: the chief virtue of a poem is that you don’t have to read it to admire it.

 I had prayed to the Jolly One to bring me a New Year filled with your amusing and cloyingly smug disregard for plays and their writers. When you wrote that piece that indulgently praised a few plays from the past year (some, surprisingly, by women–how could you?), I thought all hope was lost. But my wife insisted that you were just in the “nice” phase of your critical circadian cycle, and that all I had to do was wait for your wit to descend. She was right! And on this, the darkest day of the year, I give thanks for you, Mr. Isherwood, whose brief candle illuminates the inky night of “theater.” 

I hope you agree!

I have come too late to Mr. Isherwood’s review of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mr. Michael (Mike) Daisey.  But the review was concerning to me for a number of reasons.  I treat them below in a comment I submitted to Mr. Isherwood’s attention, but which has subsequently been lost, it seems.  Here it is:

Mr. Isherwood, I find it shocking that corporations, in order to maximize profit, should take such terrible advantage of workers from around the world.  So shocking do I find it, in fact, that I refuse to believe that it’s true.  At some point or another, we must realize that corporate interests are community interests and vice versa, that corporations are our good and benevolent big brothers.  That this play should have caused you to question this fundamental truth makes the play, to me, entirely questionable in turn.

Questionable, too, is that you enjoyed it at all.  Wasn’t there a time when we agreed that direct address should be banned from the theatre?  And here you are, praising a work which consists entirely of direct address!  This Mr. Daisey must be some sort of warlock.  He has bewitched you into believing, against all evidence, that corporations are not oriented toward the good of all, and he has robbed you of your common sense by making you forget your hatred of direct address.  I can only hope that the next woman-playwright to employ the tactic will, as usual, be soundly rebuked!

In the meantime, I will light a thin green candle for you in the hopes that the hex under which you are clearly suffering is broken.

I hope you agree!

I apologize for being away for such a stretch of time.  I had to spay my neighbor’s tortoise, which came as a bit of a surprise to both the tortoise and the neighbor (and the veterinarian seemed a bit concerned as well).  I subsequently felt the need to go into hiding.  But since my neighbor has moved (under what anyone would call decidedly mysterious circumstances and leave it at that), all is right with the world!

Mr. Isherwood, however, has not been in hiding!  Rejoice!  He has recently reviewed the play Milk Like Sugar by Ms. Kirsten Greenidge.   You can find the review here.  In particular he wrote:

“The girls’ instant enthusiasm for their triple pregnancy scheme didn’t quite ring true to me. The play was presumably inspired by a scandal in the Boston area in 2008, in which a spate of teenage pregnancies at a single high school was blamed on a pact among girls; the allegation was later debunked. Teenage pregnancy is a significant problem, but a vast majority of such pregnancies — among black or white women — aren’t the result of careful planning, but its opposite, pure carelessness. The play rests on a premise that renders its characters absurdly blinkered or schematically manipulated into seeming so.”

I could not agree more with the sentiment behind this paragraph!  And I told him so.  In the comments section.  Here’s what I wrote:

Absolutely correct! It is patently WRONG of a playwright to write characters who engage in behavior that cannot be fact-checked! Human behavior is always predictable, like clockwork, and our drama should reflect this. Why do we need to be subjected to characters who, against all odds and against the clear laws of reality, tend to do and desire things that are not in their own best interest? If they, or the playwrights who author them, have a problem determining what their own best interest is, I would be happy to educate them. I’m sure, Mr. Isherwood, that you would too. Here’s a tip to would be artists that I think we can all agree on: if a play does not at least conform to clear journalistic standards, let it be anathema!

A play about teenage pregnancy should aspire to nothing more than being a PSA. No art is required apart from clearly presenting the facts on the clear dangers of sexual intercourse. In addition to being completely and happily sterile, my wife and I have not “enjoyed” each other (or anything or anyone else, really) for several decades. It has saved our marriage. 

But you, Mr. Isherwood, are saving the theater, which is a far more rewarding venture. Ride on ride on in majesty!

Sincerely,
Dean Thropwelle

I hope you agree!

EDITED/UPDATED

I submitted a comment to Mr. Isherwood’s confusing review of Ms. Zoe Kazan’s play We Live Here.  You can find the review here.  Unfortunately, it appears as if my support for the Greytest of the Grey Lady’s Critics may no longer be welcome in the virtual pages of the NYTimes.  No matter!  I shall continue to voice my support from here!

At any rate, here is my comment, slightly revised:

Dear Mr. Isherwood,

I’m confused.  You clearly did not like this play, but barely restrained yourself from completely demolishing it… (Which is to say, you gave the play a nice thrashing, but spared the entire production?) There is almost (thankfully, almost!) an irenic tone to your review of this piece.  It’s (almost) disconcerting!  I have come to expect the majestic, devastating swoop of the Heavy Hand of the Heavy-Handedest of Critics to mercilessly discipline an incorrect playwright’s work.  But this seemed almost tentatively destructive.  Perhaps you did not have a good breakfast this morning, or refrained from a nice night-cap last night?  I suggest a generous helping of cream of wheat and a very dry martini.  That should get the blood pumping!

Your last paragraph, however, did give me hope!  I, too, long for a moratorium on plays about weddings!  Indeed, I would prefer a moratorium on weddings.  Contrary to what one sees so often in the theatre, unless the wedding is one’s own (and even then…), they are inevitably boring affairs: two ostensible lovers plighting their troths (?) in front of a small, dreary cadre of over-dressed “friends” and “family” all full of the tritest of sentiments regarding happy “futures” and “good wishes.”  Blech.  It’s a wonder anyone has been able to wring any drama from such a belabored enterprise–what possible drama can there be in two relative strangers who think they know each other (because they “know” each other) embarking together on an unknown and perilous future?  When I recall my own wedding, the words “special,” “happy,” “dramatic”or “joyous” do not as readily spring to mind as the word “vicodin.”  My wife was on loads of it.  She has never looked more dreamy.  Literally, never.  I think that throughout the entire ordeal, we were both thinking of very different far away places we would rather be.

(I’m not sure plays about elopement are the solution, however.  Like you, I prefer stress-free drama so there is nothing to get in the way of a well-earned nap!  But I’m thinking of that old chestnut by Mr. Shakespeare about that eloping couple from the two different families.  Although even then, there are times when…yawn!)

Sincerely,
Dean Thropwelle

I hope you agree!

There may have been a time, now lost in the mists, when the critic’s job was akin to that of a philosopher aesthete, when their work was intended to expand upon, refresh and continue an ages-old (but supposedly ever-fresh!) conversation regarding the contours and the purposes of art.  The names Aristotle, Arnold, Pater, Wilde, even maybe Schopenhauer, Breton come to mind.

Thankfully, though, those people are all dead and need trouble us with their incomprehensible thoughts no more!  They are buried with their pretensions and their ostentatious and lice-ridden powdered wigs (if they didn’t wear them, I’m sure they wanted to, and may have simply collected them for sport.  I prefer the more subtle and noble toupee).  Their work sits, happily neglected, in the ever-shrinking, dimly lit “Literary Criticism” aisle of a defunct Borders warehouse somewhere in New Jersey or Bosnia.  These days, a critic is no longer a dandy-prat aesthete, but a firm, hardened, no-nonsense, well-muscled, tightly (though tastefully) uniformed, mirrored-glasses-wearing police patrolman of culture and thought (who shaves frequently, but whose manliness is such that he has a perpetual five o’clock shadow which is both strangely alluring and decidedly intimidating).  It is this patrolman’s job to clearly and forcefully articulate what is right and what is wrong.  That is all!  But what a job!

Which is why the conversation in the comments section here between Messrs. Thielman and Zinoman (critics both), confused me greatly.  It prompted me to respond.  Here was my response:

Dear Messrs. Thielman and Zinoman,

Some of what you write makes the business of being a critic out to be part of a larger cultural dialogue, which is very confusing to me. Surely this is incorrect! Surely the business of the critic is about the power to shape culture? Surely it is the critic’s job not to engage in conversation, not to offer an opinion, but to state, without reservation or remorse (and with the imprimatur of a major cultural resource, such as a newspaper, so much the better…) whether or not something is worthy or unworthy, good or bad, and to do so in the starkest terms possible? All evidence, gentlemen, suggests this is indeed the case!

A critic who voices dissent from an otherwise clear consensus is surely not creating or participating in a dialogue, but is using whatever leverage he has (such as that of the institution he represents) in order to better establish the true way to perceive a work of art…and the more leverage/power, the better, as the more seriously will the dissent be taken! After all, everyone has an opinion–it is a tragedy of our age that so many feel entitled to express them. But a critic is an opinion with power! Whose pen is a sword! Whose computer is a weapons depot, full of zingers! A critic without power offers an opinion, is one voice among many. A critic with power is a taste-maker, a career destroyer, a living breathing canon of cultural rightness. (And let us not forget that it is far more entertaining to see something eviscerated before our eyes than it is to see it praised. It is even less entertaining to see something, particularly something detestable, become the object of a respectful dissent. And less entertaining still when a critic feels it necessary to enumerate the causes of that dissent. Yawn yawn yawn. The critic’s cry should always be: “Now could I drink hot blood!”)

Surely the critic who loves the art and wishes to see it thrive will never be content to “suffer in silence,” but will naturally strike out with wit and verve and brutal media force (if necessary, and when is it not?) against the cause of their suffering…all for the good of the art! Whose art is it, anyway? The creators or the critics? I will tell you: the critics!! When the artist offers his or her bleeding heart on a plate to be devoured whole, surely the critic’s job is to zing it, not attempt a conversation with it (hearts are, after all, messy and difficult conversation partners). He is certainly under no obligation to “understand” it, let alone “engage” with it! (Let it be known that I detest organ meat.)

Perhaps one or both of you may be kind enough to express what you believe the/a critic’s job actually is? I would much appreciate it as I like very much to know where people stand: it puts me in a much better position to judge them. (Though to be honest, I form my judgments very quickly and am loath to alter them as it requires far too much cognitive effort.)

Sincerely,
Dean Thropwelle

I hope you agree!