By Bill Marx
After four years in the position, Louise Kennedy is leaving her post as theater critic for the Boston Globe to work on a book project. I wish her well: she’s had to persevere as the position becomes the afterthought of a Tweet. Perhaps she sees the handwriting on the printer’s wall. Her departure suggests one more step in the predictable de-evolution of the newspaper’s coverage of the local arts scene.
The problem is not simply a question of the quality of the individual critic—would Kenneth Tynan survive a gig at the Globe?—it is the result of a dumbed-down editorial attitude about the arts that reserves what serious attention it can muster (powered by advertising dollars) for film and classical music. Theater no longer merits much respect culturally and economically so it has become increasingly marginalized, aside from stories about America’s crush on pop musicals. Of course, this means the Globe ‘s cultural coverage means less and less to people who want to think about the arts. The quality of the critic doesn’t matter, only his or her marketing chops.
Case in point: Kennedy’s successor is the amiable Dan Aucoin, who, based on what I have read by him so far, believes theater criticism is about summarizing plots and tossing out adjectives, mostly positive to keep everybody happy. He is a bureaucratic plug-in, a bland place holder who will only give the editorial-powers-that-be more of an excuse to whittle down coverage of the theater further. My prediction: he will ruffle no feathers, not even his own.
Meanwhile, Kennedy’s final column, where she admits she cares more about “glittering scraps” than “great themes,” illustrates her strengths and weaknesses as a critic. Her impressionistic, touchy-feely approach is reflected in her final scrapbook of fond memories, a personable micro-scan of moments that will stick in her mind, sort of like the memorable photos in a family album. She explains her aims as a critic with a quotation from George Jean Nathan:
“To speak of impersonal criticism is as ridiculous as to speak of impersonal drama, impersonal music, impersonal painting, or impersonal reaction to alcoholic liquor. There is no such thing.’’
But by “personal” Nathan didn’t simply mean that criticism was an individual reaction, colored by emotional responses and autobiographical concerns. He was also echoing George Bernard Shaw’s un-therapeutic understanding of the personal in criticism: the reviewer fights for high artistic standards by taking mediocrity personally. The critic should be angered by the bad and enthused by the good—she takes art personally because she takes its power and significance seriously.
Also, for Nathan the personal also includes the intellectual, the reasoned. We are thinking as well as feeling beings. By personalizing her consideration of themes and ideas in the theater (any other approach would no doubt smack of ‘evil’ elitism), Kennedy pushes her evaluations into earnest cubbyholes. Genuine criticism is more than personal because it not just an opinion; it is an articulate judgment backed up by analysis which others can either agree with or not. Expressing how and why a production made you feel the way it did is the goal. How else will criticism contribute to a meaningful conversation about the arts?
Of course, there are those who work to dumb down the other side of the street. While the mainstream media emits vaporous theater criticism, there are theater companies cleansing the stage of pesky things like themes, ideas, conflict, language, etc. There’s more of an argument to be made for this 21st-century embrace of the visceral because the theater in America has always been about entertainment, lights, music, comedy, sex, and excitement. In America, the urge to turn theater into an art has been a fragile undertaking from Eugene O’Neill on.
We may have reached a time when—for the sake of goosing up sagging economics and youthful demographics—that elevating effort among many of our mainstream theaters will be downplayed. (The motto of the Huntington Theatre Company this season is “smart fun.”) Perhaps those who want to experience plays that grapple meaningfully with life-as-we-know-it (sans Lady Gaga, bells, whistles, installation art, disco, etc) will find them produced in smaller theater venues. Please go: they could use the box office.
My feeling is that the hysteria over theatrical mindlessness will pass—audiences will tire of interactive boogieing and move on to something else, probably on their iPads. Or there will be theater crafted for adult sensibilities and stage work for those who just want an agreeable way to pass the time. The success of Blue Man Group showed that it profitable to make modular theater tailored for tourists and the younger set.
Geoff Edgers’s piece in the Boston Globe, published the same day Kennedy announced her decision to leave her reviewing gig, was an amusing dispatch from the battlefield of changing fashion. Face it, American Repertory Theater (ART) honcho Diane Paulus (pictured at left) is apparently succeeding at what she was hired by Harvard University to do—junk the exhausted auteurism of Robert Brustein for a revamped, content-lite auteurism that, at least so far, jettisons the text for the sake of interactive boogieing, hit music, surface pizazz, and inspirational Kumbaya. Her “Stop Making Sense and Dance” aesthetic is bringing in audiences, wired in with Broadway, and creating buzz. For many that is the be-all and end-all of theater. (So much the better if you can also pull in some bucks from selling booze in the Oberon bar.)
My favorite passage in the Globe piece is the horrified reaction of a couple of old guard ART stalwarts to new ART director of development Erica De Rosa’s high excitement over how many Twitter followers Amanda Palmer has. What’s the problem? Think about it—if Twitter was around during the days of Fanny Brice or Kate Smith, those singers would have an army of followers as well.
Of what I have seen so far, the most interesting ART show during Paulus’s reign was the British import Sleep No More—the theatrical content was incoherent, mostly artsy-fartsy choreography, but the visuals were fascinating—a cross between a surreal gallery tour and a tony rummage sale. My least favorite was the sonic assault pounded out during the ersatz Shakespeare in The Donkey Show.
Funny how, despite changing theatrical fashions, pretensions remain the same: the tattered fig leaf of “art” still hangs over the door of the olde carny tent. Paulus is “a serious artist dedicated to achieving artistic results,” insists Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, “what she’s trying to do is break boundaries.”
From what I have seen, she is filling seats with steamy, designer-crazed, visual, You-Tube-ready escapist fare that people want to see —non-challenging and entertaining. Anti-intellectualism is one of America’s oldest show biz traditions. No more calls for a mental workout: this is a vulgar revolt against the comfortably boutique-d “theater of revolt.”
During the bottom-rung productions at the old ART, the highbrow buncombe became depressing—now you may not know or care what is going on, but at least you can dance or hum along to the music. In fact, when the tunes dry up in Paulus’s ART, as during the torpid production of Clifford Odets’s Paradise Lost, shades of the precious flim-flam of the old days arose. We have some provocative selections coming up in the coming season — including some Greek Tragedies. Let’s see if they are aimed at (psychologically) mature audiences.
In his open letter to the ART (mentioned in the Globe article), veteran company actor Will LeBow charges that Paulus’s first season was a “con job.” But, as the plays of David Mamet suggest, in America it isn’t a con until you get caught. Let’s see how long Paulus stays once the music inevitably stops.