“At the end of 2010, Melbourne theatre is in a golden age,” writes Cameron Woodhead, echoing the sentiments of his Melbourne colleague Alison Croggon: “It’s no exaggeration to claim that there has been a revolution in local theatre over the past five years. … For once, vital theatre is where it belongs, in the limelight. Theatre has even become hip.” As Melbourne, so England: “Female British actors of a certain age — oh, let’s not be coy, say, above 50 — really are enjoying a golden era,” said Vanessa Thorpe in the Guardian recently, and indeed why shouldn’t they be, when Lyn Gardner has been asking whether “this is a golden age for theatre”? (Mark Lawson, a few days before Gardner, asked the same question in the same publication; the Guardian‘s Michael Billington, curbing his enthusiasm, would prefer to call it a “silver age.”) And why not America? “Welcome to NYC’s Hidden Golden Age of Theater,” trumpeted the headline on a Michael Feingold essay in October.
In his essay, Feingold provides an interesting quote from Barbara Cook: “They tell me now I was living in a Golden Age. I didn’t know I was living in a Golden Age. … Do you think we’re living in one now?” Which ultimately begs the question as to whether a self-proclaimed “golden age” of theatre is anything of the sort. Most of the critics I mention above are for the most part reviewers rather than critics; although many of them do maintain a broader perspective, one wonders whether or not the sheer number of performances they see in any given year is affecting their critical acumen.
Perhaps one of the characteristics of a Golden Age, as Cook suggests, is that nobody knows that they’re living in one — which would, by definition, undermine any contemporary claims to resembling the qualities of that precious metal. Kenneth Tynan, whom many would consider a great critic, said: “A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.” And there is a good deal indeed that is not happening. While performance is enjoying a renaissance, text-based theatre appears to be in a crisis; indeed, we seem so desperate for “great plays” that we often get ten or a dozen in a row according to the critics, defying the traditional bell curve of criticism — there are a very few excellent plays and a very few terrible plays; most of them fall somewhere in between; good, perhaps, but not great, and certainly not golden. Many fine dramatists continue to go unperformed. (Indeed, many of them have told me personally that, golden age or not, there is no place in today’s theatre for their work — it is a gold that is homogenous in its style and project.) And more broadly, drama that extends the use of heightened, lyrical language in the contemporary theatre is nearly non-existent on the stage.
I go to the theatre very little now, mostly because of circumstance but also because of choice. Unlike the critics above, I am more frequently disappointed than enlivened by what I see, and my appetite is not whetted to see more. There is no way of course that I can see all of the shows they have; perhaps they are right and I am wrong. But I will say that defining a “golden age” of theatre, of drama, of acting, of what have you, implies that this is a golden age of theatre criticism as well — and the critics themselves shine in the golden spotlight, golden for so perspicaciously recognizing the age as such. If I could make myself a golden writer just by saying that I am one, I’d be a lucky man indeed.