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April 05, 2006

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mattj

Yeah. What a statement from him. Not to aim high if you can't hit your target. Whatever.

You make a great point here Isaac, "It's especially absurd for a critic to write that and then simultaneously wonder in a "think piece" why Lincoln Center, MTC and Roundabout can be so timid in their artistic choices."

MTC and Roundabout are constantly lambasted for their flaccid product. But the problem lies in the conservatism exacerbated by high profilers like Isherwood. It's like a race to the bottom.

John Branch

I wonder whether you might invite Mr. Isherwood to some kind of exchange of views on the subject of artistic ambition, the value of dreaming up new worlds, or something of the kind.

One simple thought on aims (whether high or elsewhere): without some practice, some experience, it can be hard to judge your own abilities. You might have to write the play and see it staged before you have any idea whether you can hit that target, whatever it is.

By the way, I was very impressed--maybe I should say astonished--by Bach at Leipzig.

BT

Well, I can't speak to your ire against Isherwood. I haven't read his stuff regularly for a while now.

Having read his Humana piece, though, I think you are being a bit unfair (at least, with what he says here) in conflating his desire for plays that reflect reality (the "psychological and social truths" of human behavior, in its myriad possibilities) with an endorsement of realism (the theatrical style) as his preferred means of how theater reflects (or should reflect) those truths.

This is muddied a bit in his writeup, since Rebeck's play -- his example of how life still gives us "durable material for theater that moves us, makes us laugh and allows us to see even a small frame of experience in a new light" -- also appears to be an exemplar of contemporary theatrical realism (at least, judging from his account, and the pics on the Times slideshow).

Even so, Isherwood heaps a whole lot of scorn on White's "Six Years," which, "sturdily fashioned," with its "much more linear approach" and "simple economy," sure sounds like another entry in the annals of "well-made" theatrical realism.

In fact, not only does Isherwood find the play "remains a frustratingly flat theatrical experience," he chides it for following "a well-trodden microcosmic path. Say hello, once again, to the triple A's of bourgeois American affliction: alcoholism, adultery and anomie." Doesn't that complicate your point about bourgeois conservatism?

Anyway, I wrote up some further thoughts on this; you can check them out over at my blog, Buckeye Road. That is, if I haven't already been too rude or tedious (or bourgeois).

larissa

WORD!!!

Kyle

I've read over BT's and your posts, as well as the comments, since I posted my far less contemplative mini-rant over on my blog. Having thought a little more about it, perhaps it is a little excessive to suggest that Isherwood is deliberately asserting realism's superiority as a means of telling a story on the stage. Still, I think he compromises clarity in these statements in the interest of writing a well-made feature piece.

BT's probably on the money in looking at the way he organizes his arguments. When I do so, I see an attempt to structure the article as an expression of admiration for Theresa Rebeck's maturity as a dramatist, providing her assured new play as a counterpoint to the variety of less successful new works by lesser-known writers. This makes sense for an NYTimes piece; she's the playwright the majority of his readers have most likely heard of, and heck, if he liked the play better than the rest, well, I don't blame him for pointing that out.

The thing that irritates me about the structure of this article is that it sets up a hierarchy (whether he intends it to or not), between veteran playwrights and young playwrights, and it also stratifies the very value of well-made, familiar drama by people we've heard of before over less-than-perfect work by promising newcomers.

This is why I've admired Margo Jefferson's criticism in the past; I recall her instructing her readers on why we go to see work by young playwrights. This was at the end of a decidedly mixed, but also encouraging review of a new play. These are statements made by a person who quite clearly likes theater, a person who wants to see the form flourish and continue to surprise. And if I'm not mistaken, that review was of a play by Will Eno, who went on to write the play Isherwood practically smothered with kisses, Thom Pain (based on nothing), one of last year's Pulitzer finalists.

So yes, I'm starting to think that if Isherwood has done anything, he's written a sloppy piece (it's not the first time) that has a few lines towards the end that could be easily misinterpreted. But in so doing he's managed to advocate for mediocrity and conventionality. Perhaps it's for the best, though. If he didn't do that, there'd be far fewer opportunities for queeny and snide remarks, goofball pieces written using the voices of a feline Ebert and Roeper, or back-handed compliments of young writers in the form of suggestions that they write for The O.C..

Adam

More and more I'm beginning to think there is a (perhaps subconcious) bias against young writers. The idea that you have to go through several flaming hoops before you are taken seriously.

Theresa Rebeck has been writing wonderful plays for a long time and for just as long has been receiving less than stellar reviews.

And maybe it's not fair to make any generalizations--after all each one of these is a specific performance of a specific play a specific person is responding to.

But it does seem like I disagree with the Times more than I agree with them. There also doesn't seem to be a reviewer there who gets comedy which worries me (personally) more than a little.

If Isherwood's paragraph about not creating new worlds is to be taken as a belief about what theatre can and should be however, I am very very worried.

Col

I agree with Adam's assessment. But I have to disagree with Kyle's appreciation of Margo Jefferson. aside from her constant employment of "A paragraph structure. Of three short sentences. For dramatic impact."... her understanding of dramaturgy is limited at best. In a review of a show I was in, SUITCASE by Melissa Gibson, Jefferson wrote of the men's performances that "their body language matched their speech." WTF?!!? and in a review of INTIMATE APPAREL by Lynn Nottage, she criticized Dan Sullivan's direction for being invisible. Again -- WTF?!!?

An acquaintance of mine who is in Mabou Mines told me she begged Margo to give THE RED BEADS a favorable review even though it was an incoherent mess at opening, and Margo complied (look up the rave for proof).

Kyle

Col, you obviously know more about her criticism than I do, so I'll defer to you on the big points (and yeah, those examples are unsettling), but I still appreciate her for the way she supports young writers. I've yet to read another critic make such direct statements articulating the importance of valuing promising writers who may still have a little work to do before they can be called the next Theresa Rebeck.

BT

Good points, Kyle! I think you're probably right about the structure of the article. The only thing I might add is that it was as much a hierarchy of veteran playwrights and young playwrights as one of plays Isherwood liked (Rebeck's) to the others (more or less, in order of increasingly diminishing returns).

That would explain why the play by Charles Mee (certainly a veteran with countless tours of duty at Humana) is accounted for right after Rebeck's, and so mixedly. And then gradually down to the Coble piece.

To those of you who read the review as an endorsement of conventionality: I'm wondering what you make of Isherwood's take on "Six Years," which sounds like the most realistic, well-made entry next to Rebeck's. Seems to me like Isherwood disdains the piece for its trite themes and for remaining "a frustratingly flat theatrical experience." Isn't he praising Rebeck for something more than stylistic conventionality?

isaac

He's praising her for being good at stylistic conventionality.

I think you can say (and think): "Wow nothing beats a really great night of realism!" and also think "this piece of realism is a piece of shit" at the same time.

Honestly, BT, as I tried (and probably failed) to get across... I really don't think that Isherwood meant this when he wrote it. But he still wrote it, and made it his concluding paragraph, and those of us who have taken enough argumentative writing classes (including obviously, you from your excellent follow up comment on your site!) know what that means. Are there possible other meanings to the piece? Of course. Could we get all Talmudic on it? yes! At the same time, it's sloppy declarative writing, which is... well... embarassing.

There's no way he could possibly actually think that ambition is bad and writer's shouldn't indulge their fantastical leanings. That's absurd. But he wrote a piece that seems that way.

I think of the time that he wrote that article about "which is better, Doubt or the Pillowman" and determined that although they are of equal quality, Doubt is better because it is (A) "about something" and (B) rooted in clear issues of the here and now while Pillowman is just a great yarn (whether this is an accurate assessment of the plays I will leave to someone who has seen Pillowman, which I haven't). What I can tell you is that Doubt is incredibly conventional... it's a really really great old fashioned issue play. And there's nothing wrong with that.

The question is whether or not it exposed a leanding or prejudice within his reviews. And to that, I don't really know, but I have suspicions. To whit: Despite all of his bluster about how we need new writers, works and forms, his reviews show a shocking lack of respect for them. People always hold up his review of "Thom Pain" as a counter-example, but Thom Pain arrived here covered in awards and glory from the UK. It already had institutional approval.

BT

I did and do get you, Isaac. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

As I said before, I think he's praising Rebeck and holding her up for the ways she draws from the realities of human experience, as well as for doing so through the theatrical style of realism.

Now, what I didn't get from your original post, and what baffles me a bit here, is the idea that Isherwood didn't really mean what he said in the last paragraph; that it's just sloppy writing.

As I said in my Talmudic analysis, I think Isherwood was anything but sloppy in how he wrote that last paragraph; I certainly think he meant what he said. I had assumed most of us were taking him at his word -- though, if I'm wrong on that, I apologize.

However, I'm still a little confused about the prejudice you raise in the last paragraph. I think you're saying that he's prejudiced (or may be so) against plays and playwrights that don't already have institutional approval? And that by "institutional approval" you mean positive reviews from major papers and awards (which tend to come only to plays that get good reviews)?

If I have you right on that, then here's where I'm confused. Isherwood is one of the leading theater critics at the Times, isn't he? And, as such, his is the voice of institutional approval. He can grant it or deny it as he sees fit, and institutional approval follows (or doesn't). That may not be fair, but then life isn't fair, and it's been that way in New York theater for nearly 100 years now (though in earlier times there were more papers with critics with comparable weight to those at the Times).

Now, I haven't done a statistical analysis of his reviews of new plays/writers, and whether there are patterns of approval or lack of it to back up suspicions of prejudice. However, I'll concede that he tends, on the whole, to be more negative than positive when it comes to new plays and new playwrights.

Does that mean he's prejudiced against new plays, or new playwrights? Perhaps. It's just as likely (if not more so) those plays and playwrights that get the negative reviews were in some way not up to snuff.

Now, you could certainly argue in this case, or in that case, that Isherwood was wrong, that the play was in fact up to snuff -- but that takes us right back to the questions of theatrical style and dramatic content that I thought Isherwood was dealing with rather deliberately in the last paragraph of the Humana review.

So perhaps this is just another place we agree to disagree.

isaac

you knwowhat? i should never try to write during tech week, what comes out is an incoherent mish-mash, BT. What I was trying to say was that I think, in the final analysis, that you are right in terms of what he was trying to say (or at least, that your reading of it has incredible merit). The fact that of the people who have read the article whom I know, very very few got your reading of the text out of the text itself (one established director friend said to me when I asked if he had read the article: "you mean the one where he tells theater people not to be creative or try things?") leads me to believe that the article was written sloppily, more interested in being declarative than in being clear.

does that make sense, or is the fact that I'm running out the door to a 12 hour rehearsal making my brain all numbnuts again?

BT

Hey Isaac --

That makes a lot of sense! And I should really apologize for being such a nit-picker, I didn't realize you were on tech week. I usually just avoid my blog completely when I'm hot and heavy on a draft, and even then I'm subject mainly to my own vicissitudes -- without a theater full of talents to deal with -- so I have to really give you credit for taking this on this week!

Like I think I said at some point before, I've hardly done an exegesis on Isherwood's oeuvre (as I have nearly done with some earlier critics in my other job as a theater historian). And since I am myself very much a fledgling playwright (if that), I'm nowhere near the point where he would have an effect on me. (Though I thought he was too harsh on my friend's Off-Broadway debut last fall, comparing it somewhat negatively to Wit.)

As I've probably made clear, I think there's a real danger in being imprecise with language, particularly when it comes to using the words of others against them. I also realize that apparently a lot of people (a lot more than I realized) in the NYC theater community see a set of biases in Isherwood's body of reviews (as evidenced by your views, those of others you mention, and of course Todd London's letter which you've so considerately posted for us to take in).

I'm reminded of an incident that happened when I was an undergrad at Tulane, and our class had a chat with a visiting writer, Octavia Butler (who recently passed). Ms. Butler was very adamant that she had intended a certain action by a certain character in one of her books (I don't recall the exact details) to be interpreted a certain way. However, many of us (as many of her wider readership) had interpreted the detail differently. Ms. Butler asserted that her view was correct. After she left, we asked our professor about this, and she said, "Octavia Butler can say it means one thing. But if 50,000 people say it means something else, then it means something else."

I never thought this was very fair to Octavia Butler, but then that's life, isn't it.

And I'd say that's the case with the Humana review. Because of their phrasing, I'd say Isherwood's comments on ambition and the necessity of dreaming up new worlds don't make very good ammunition.

Perhaps there'd be a better shot at showing bias with a look at his accounts of the individual plays, but perhaps, once again, that's just me.

Col

Well, Kyle, I do think Jefferson holds more respect for certain kinds of experimentation (in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration) than perhaps Isherwood or Brantley do. However, she certainly slaughtered SUITCASE, which (as anyone can guess) as written by the playwright who wrote [sic], was highly experimental in terms of form and content. I don't think her understanding of these language-based playwrighterly issues is on par with her desire to appreciate multimedia collaborations.

Margaret Lottenger

I'm responding to BT, third response from the top - I believe our host's thesis about Isherwood's conservatism is further proved by your quote regarding Isherwood's response to the three A's. A bourgeois conservative doesn't want to see bourgeois affliction on stage. He longs for the enactment of the drama of the bourgeois conservative intellectual, interpreted by a bourgeois conservative intellectual, for the bourgeois conservative intellectual. No AAA showing, please.

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