by 99 Seats
This morning I read this at the Onion A.V. Club, and then I read this at Flavorwire. Both pieces look at work that was terribly reviewed in its time, but has since gone on to not only long life, but great importance and critical acclaim. It started me thinking: why doesn't this seem to happen in theatre?
I'd thought about it a few weeks back, when I caught the Signature's production of The Lady From Dubuque by Edward Albee. As is well known, the play was a massive flop in 1980, part of Albee's "lost" period of failure and alcoholism. The new production has faired far, far better. Personally, I enjoyed it greatly as a play and a production, and it felt like something that would be perfectly at home on Broadway (and still might make it back there).
But I can't really think of any other work that received terrible reviews in its first run and has gone on to become a major work. Can you? It often seems like the original critical response is either treated as gospel or gets lost down the memory hole entirely. And I'm not talking about plays that received bad reviews and have gone on to commercial success. Look at the movies on the Flavorwire list: there are bona fide film classics on there. Same goes for Devo (and there's always that rumor about Rolling Stone's first review of Nirvana's Nevermind). These are considered cultural touchstones now.
Why doesn't this happen in theatre? A bad play is considered a bad play, seemingly forever. Do we simply allow our critics more power? Does the rare chance of a remount of a failure feed into it? Or are our critics somehow better, able to critique a work in its bones? Or are the bad reviews disappeared by future success? I heard this story once: when Albee had his play The Zoo Story read at the Actors Studio for the first time, the initial audience response was pretty negative. (If you know the Actors Studio, that's not necessarily surprising.) After a few minutes of people giving pointed criticism to Albee, Norman Mailer, who'd championed the play, spoke up. He said, "I think this is the best one-act play I've ever heard." At that point, the tenor in the room changed and everyone fell over themselves to praise the play. Sometimes I wonder if this dynamic works on a larger scale in theatre. When one person, deemed important enough by the community, makes a pronouncement, it has the weight of fact. And we all hop in line (with a few contrarians taking the opposite position just because). And once it's a fact, that's it: this play is good. This play is bad. There's no argument, no rediscovery.
Or maybe I'm wrong and missing a whole chunk of theatre history. What say you all?