Theater Commentary: Burnt Norton
By Bill Marx
This year’s Elliot Norton Awards ceremony, because of COVID-19 restrictions, was virtual. A hearty congratulations to all the winners.
Back in 2018 I wrote that I would request that the Boston Theater Critics Association do the right thing and withdraw the Elliot Norton Prize from Israel Horovitz, given the November 30, 2017, New York Times report on multiple accusations of sexual harassment, which included references to my 1993 Boston Phoenix articles that contained allegations of the man’s abusive behavior to women. I made good on that promise, but no action has been taken. I figure it is time to stop the request. Israel Horovitz died on November 9, 2020, at the age of 81.
You would think that the rise of #metoo might have changed minds and spurred action. But the BTCA’s politics are as conventional as its taste. Here is the most recent statement on the matter I received from the BTCA’s president, Joyce Kulhawik:
We are not rescinding the ELLIOT NORTON AWARD to Israel Horovitz at this time.
While we condemn the assaults of which he has been accused, we gave the award to honor his body of work and his legacy as co-founder of Gloucester Stage Company. It clearly does not extend to his personal behavior.
I have argued with this weak reasoning in earlier columns. A number of major artistic organizations decided to pull the dramatist’s work following the nine allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Horovitz in the New York Times article. A Google search indicates that Horovitz’s artistic “legacy” is null. (I await the BTCA’s lament for the loss to American theater.) The Gloucester Stage Company, which Horovitz co-founded, is deep-sixing his “legacy.” So what is the BTCA honoring? Aside from its fear of making a statement that suggests it cares about the health and well being of Boston’s theater community?
So I will leave it at this. Years ago I attended a talk in which BTCA members Joyce Kulhawik and Jared Bowen testified to the force of empathy in drama. The oh-so-concerned pair extolled the power of plays to put us into the shoes of others, expanding our sympathies. But it is obvious that this empathy doesn’t venture beyond the four walls of the theater. Horovitz’s “personal behavior” harmed people in Boston theater, many of whom are still active and still hurting. In this case, neatly separating the work from the behavior of the artist is an exercise in hypocrisy.
It is also, I believe, a sign of the indifference of the BTCA to issues of pressing concern to the future of Boston theater. The Elliot Norton Awards will continue, of course. But they are moldy the second they begin to gather dust in the résumés of performers and institutions. Many Tony Awards are given out to shows that are still running, but the Norton Awards are strictly past tense. By the way, does anyone under 40 know who Elliot Norton was? Are they even familiar with the members of the BTCA, given how the arts sections in our mainstream media are shrinking? Do the Elliot Norton Awards have any heft, except for the over-60 set?
How could the BTCA make itself more relevant, or at least die gracefully? How about dealing with contemporary issues? Many of the committee members are geriatric, but so am I, and I keep my aging eyes and ears open to what’s happening — and how it matters to theater. The best American stage critics in the past were much more than consumer guides, barfing out blurbs. An observation: the latter task is becoming problematic for the BTCA membership. I am worried about the state of the Syndicate (the Tweedledum and Tweedledee critics at the Boston Globe, WGBH, and WBUR). A recent publicity blast from the Lyric Stage praising its show A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder contained two blurbs from critic Terry Byrne, one from the Boston Globe, the other from WBUR. Can’t the Syndicate find more than one reviewer to burble the same thing? It is usually good at that kind of thing.
Besides issuing praise (and occasional blame), critics have a responsibility to contribute to the cultural debate, to raise issues of concern to artists and society. The BTCA could wade into, rather than evade, controversial topics. Hold debates, online or off, or issue commentaries that invite responses from the Boston arts community.
Here are a couple of suggestions:
1) In recent Substack commentary, Ted Gioia noted that “the most taboo subject in the arts is how people pay the bills.” He went on to detail what is “the real bottom line: Creative pursuits are increasingly turning into playgrounds for those with family money — typically from parents or a partner/spouse who works. That’s not very glamorous, so it’s usually left unmentioned. And journalists won’t ask about it either. They prefer to focus on success stories, not life in the trenches for the everyday working artist.”
Some evidence to back up his contention:
A survey of more than one thousand visual artists found that the median income was below $30,000 — that’s roughly half the typical household earnings in the United States. I note that 63 percent of respondents had art degrees, but on a scale of 1 to 10, they rated their education at only a 5 in preparing them for a financially stable career.
And they have good reason to complain. Only 19% made more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to put them below the poverty line than in the middle class.
Let’s hope they didn’t take out a lot of student loans.
In the post-Covid era we are seeing a frightening amount of consolidation. As Boston’s big theaters (i.e., the Huntington and A.R.T.) become more powerful they are growing increasingly predictable. Meanwhile, small troupes are either vanishing or being absorbed into other companies. This is unhealthy for the theater: we desperately need the independent voices of artists that don’t meet the “content” demands of elite donors and funders. How can theater artists on the bottom rung sustain themselves in the face of such hostile economic conditions? How can alternative stage work be encouraged? Perhaps, given what Gioia says about the importance of marriage, philanthropic foundations (such as the Boston and Barr Foundations) that want to assist artists should set up some sort of marital agency that arranges for hook-ups between creatives and the well-heeled.
Boston’s critics should comment on how more and more stage artists on the margins “can’t pay the bills,” and demand solutions. If not, theater will continue down its homogenizing path.
2) In my recent review of Sea Sick, I asked if “climate change is as catastrophic as predicted, will earth’s survivors have the luxury to preserve literature, music, and theater? They will have a lot of other things on their minds, such as finding water, food, and a cool place to live.” What role should the critics play given that the climate crisis is extinguishing life on the planet faster than scientists have predicted? Business as usual will not cut it. This catastrophe will have an impact on the arts, on theater — why aren’t our stage critics discussing this obvious state of affairs? Why is there so little on when, or if, our theaters will go green?
Perhaps the reluctance to deal with the issue is because some of the sources that fund the arts, particularly the mega banks, are doing their best, through their investment in fossil fuel companies (and making empty pledges to the contrary) to diminish mankind’s chances. Discussions such as “Success Through Building a Diverse Community” are indispensable, but this is a time of political, environmental, and social emergency. Put simply, should artists and cultural organizations accept support from climate wreckers? America’s wealthy professionals, argues Catherine Liu in Virtue Hoarders, are much too comfortable talking “about bias rather than inequality, racism rather than capitalism, visibility rather than exploitation.” We need to broaden the conversations and expand the range of productions. Theater critics should sound the alarm. They should do more than judge the merit of individual productions, but ask why some vital topics and dramatists are being excluded. And why they shouldn’t be. The Arts Fuse has its clout — but we all need to join in on helping to shape what appears on our stages, including NPR and the Boston Globe.
What will guarantee obsolescence? If members of the BTCA continue to embrace a “whatever is, is right” attitude to Boston’s stage scene. Why be content to thumb up and down a well-worn path? Take a chance, comment on the challenges around us — including contradicting some of the points I have made here. Dismiss me as an “alarmist.” What do you have to lose — except irrelevance?
Note: My headline “Burnt Norton” is swiped from theater critic Arthur Friedman’s headline — swiped from T.S. Eliot — for his critique of Elliot Norton in the Cambridge Express in the 1980s.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.