Thursday, November 17, 2005

A critical crisis ...

Last summer Scott Timberg wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times called "Critical Condition." I linked to it and commented on it here (the link to the LA Times no longer works).
Now, in Prospect, Michael Coveney writes about Critical Clowns. "The long, slow haul of a career as a critic," Coveney laments, "with its period of apprenticeship, dedication and accumulation of wisdom and experience —as exemplified by [Andrew] Porter — is suddenly becoming a thing of the past."
Yet he notes that "the feeling persists that theatre is yesterday's news, though yesterday's news has paradoxically become the stuff of contemporary theatre ... every other play in London seemed (and seems) to be about the war in Iraq, or detainees in Guantánamo bay, or the collapse of the railways, or problems with multiculturalism ..." He also takes The Spectator's Toby Yong to task for leaving "the first night of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh at the interval. [Young]defended his behaviour by saying that he had every right to be as bored as the average punter." Coveney thinks that "McDonagh is trying to push some envelope of extremity in the theatre and the critics have to work out whether or not it should remain sealed."
I haven't seen McDonagh's play, but I've seen enough contemporary drama to know I am tired of seeing the stage taken up with simple-minded editorials about "yesterday's news." A couple of years ago I saw Jesus Hopped the A Train. The production was very fine, the actors extremely good. But the play barely rubbed elbows with reality. The playwright's knowledge of life in prison seemed derived entirely from HBO's Oz and the public defender's grasp of the law was for all practical purposes non-existent.
I think one problem in theater today is that not enough classic plays are staged. If you see something like Ibsen's The Master Builder or Maugham's The Constant Wife, you get an idea of what real theater can do, of how effective well-drawn characters can be. And great drama is rooted in character, not ideology or, worse, policy positions. Even composers and painters nowadays feel they must use art to editorialize. Hasn't anybody noticed that editorials are about the most worthless thing in the newspaper?


  1. Whoa, Frankie boy, I agree with your last sentence, and did all during my 30-plus years as a newspaperman, but I own that I never said so (out loud where editorial writer could hear) during that time of voluntary servitude. Gutless, perhaps, but, for one thing, I counted editorial writers among my friends and wanted to keep them. I also agree that the slow process by which a critic develops and creates himself or herself is less and less valued, unfortunately. But I cannot agree that art and artists -- yea, even performers like Hollywood actors -- should not editorialize, should not be political. It was St. George of Orwell himself who said, in his "Why I Write" essay: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." He also said, at the end of that essay, "And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."
    Willis Wayde

  2. Hi Willis,
    I probably wasn't as clear as I should have been. I don't mind art and artists dealing with politics (Malcolm Arnold's Fourth Symphony makes a splendid, poignant reference to the Notting Hill race riots by employing Jamaican steel drums in the orchestration and writing a tune that underscores the point). But so often the point is thought to be so sufficient as to need no art to accompany it. Maugham's The Constant Wife makes some very interesting points -- about the economic dimension of marriage, for instance -- but it is grounded in and derived from well-observed characters behaving plausibly in relation to each other. Seamus Heaney recently adapted Antigone, turning it into a not-so-subtle comment on, I think, the Bush administration. I saw it in Dublin at the Abbey and was unimpressed -- compared to Anouilh's, it was trivial. Politics is no substitute for art and art is what artists are supposed to do.
    As for editorials, I think that anyone who is waiting around for some ediotrial board to issue its on-the-one-hand-on-the-other foregone conclusions before making up his mind about an issue or a candidate ought to be deprived of the franchise.