UPDATE: I’ve just heard that the fifth participant in the Sunday discussion will be Randy Gener, editor and critic of CriticalStages.org and in the Theater of One World. Mr. Gener has posted a few worthwhile essays on contemporary American criticism at his own blog here; I especially recommend his 2010 essay “Search of a Criticism without Borders.”
The final entry I’ll post in anticipation of this Sunday’s Culturebot conversation on citizen criticism at the Public Theater is the below essay from August 2009. It arose as a result of the last panel discussion on criticism that I participated in at the 2009 ATHE conference, “Risking Criticism/Criticizing Risk.” The essay also resulted in this little entry for the schimpflexikon from former Boston Globe freelancer Tom Garvey.
I do hope you’ll join Margo Jefferson, Mr. Gener, Tom Sellar, Andy Horwitz and myself this Sunday 15 January at 1.00pm for “Everyone’s A Critic! Exploring the Changing Landscape of Arts Writing.” The event will be held in the Public Theater‘s LuEsther Lounge at 425 Lafayette Street in New York. If you can’t make it, the conversation will be livestreamed at the #newplay TV site here, and I understand it will be available for viewing after the event as well.
Helen Shaw, in her recent post concerning the ATHE panel about criticism on which she and I and several others participated, discusses a comment that co-panelist Bonnie Marranca, the editor and publisher of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, made about the quality of critical writing about theatre in general. Herewith Helen:
Bonnie Marranca pointed out — in her gentle way — that writing about theater hasn’t kept up with innovations in writing in general. She talked about the evolution of the essay over the last decades and marveled that theater writing has stayed surprisingly conservative, even when it grapples with avant-garde theatrical forms. Why can’t theater criticism evolve with the work it covers? She also pointed out that, once upon a time, nontheater types held forth on the theater regardless of disciplinary demarcations. In those golden days, we had Theodor Adorno writing his 1961 essay “Trying to Understand Endgame” or Walter Benjamin explicating Brecht or the emigré theater.
What public intellectual would you like to see leap into the breach? After the death of Susan Sontag, do we even have any public intellectuals? …
Bonnie’s point (and Helen’s) is well-taken, though it should be noted that, outside of the general-interest press, theatre criticism in specialized journals has been trying to keep up with these theatrical innovations, not least in Bonnie’s own writing about theatre and her editorial philosophy for PAJ (for which, in the interest of full disclosure, both Helen and I have written). American Theatre is more of a trade journal for the not-for-profit American theatre and does not carry self-described “critical” work in the sense of reviews, though panelist Randy Gener of the magazine interestingly commented that he visualized his own readers as “critics.” But there are also Theater from Yale University, TDR/The Drama Review from New York University, PAJ itself and Jonathan Kalb’s Hot Review, based at Hunter College – the latter two, at least, aiming at a readership more in the mainstream rather than an academic audience. (You can find all three of the print journals in better bookstores like St. Mark’s Bookshop, so they’re far from mere academic publications; indeed, they all welcome submissions from non-academics and practitioners as well.) In terms of book-length criticism, broad studies like Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre and, more recently, Marc Robinson’s The American Play: 1787-2000 (which I’ll be reviewing for PAJ in an upcoming issue) demonstrate informed multidisciplinary critical approaches to recent theatrical innovation. These are not published, like Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, by New York commercial houses (though neither Routledge nor the Yale University Press can be described as a “small publisher”), but they are attempts to take an expansive view of contemporary work and to find a critical vocabulary for its description and valuation, engaging the general reader as well as the academic or the specialist. This is a somewhat more ambitious project than Ross’s, which aims only to give the general reader an informed overview of twentieth-century “classical” music rather than provide a means of talking about that music: potted aesthetics in a nutshell, though I often wonder how many of Ross’s readers ever listen to the work that he writes about, instead of parroting what Ross has written about it at cocktail parties, for which Ross himself certainly can’t be faulted.
In raising the spectre of Susan Sontag, Helen takes a different tack, one perhaps more germane to the subject at hand, for the issue isn’t necessarily the kind of rather traditional criticism that Lehmann and Robinson produce – broad canonic and anti-canonic studies of a body of theatrical work informed largely by the New Criticism’s close-reading practices of the 1950s, tempered by the New Historicism pioneered by Stephen Greenblatt and the tentative emergence of a vocabulary, influenced primarily by anthropology, to discuss and describe performative gestures both within and without the theatre. What Bonnie and Helen seem to be driving at is the question of the critical essay as creative act, a given play, body of plays or theatre itself as the originary impulse of that creative exploratory writing. This idea of the essay itself as creative instead of/as well as interpretive was not new with Sontag; she herself attempted to Americanize what Adorno, Benjamin, Karl Kraus and Roland Barthes had already done to the form of the essay in Europe (looking back, surprisingly, to Montaigne’s original conception of the genre). And, too, to create a place in postwar American culture for the public intellectual, whom Adorno and Barthes exemplified in postwar Europe.
Sontag, it is worthwhile recalling, did not limit her creative output to the essay. Though writing about fiction as a critic, she was a short story writer and novelist herself. And though writing about drama and theatre as a critic, she was a dramatist and director herself. The professional and academic demarcations between interpreters and creators of theatrical work were not as yet as clearly drawn as now. In more recent years, theatre practitioners as public intellectuals have perhaps been more visible in Europe than in the U.S.; both Thomas Bernhard and Heiner Müller were regularly consulted by the press on political as well as aethestic issues, even appearing on national television in that role. (Present at Müller’s funeral in 1996 were, notably, former West German President Richard von Weizsäcker, Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen and Cultural Minister Steffan Reiche. Imagine the possibility of Michael Bloomberg and Bill and Hillary Clinton in attendance at the funeral of August Wilson and you may have an idea of the distance of even the mainstream theatre from the official American culture.) Not for Müller the back pages of American Theatre or even the front pages of Yale Theater: it was the front pages of the daily German newspaper where Müller’s discussions found their home. So, too, with Howard Barker in the England of the 1980s and 1990s: many of the essays in Arguments for a Theatre were first published in the Guardian, a highly-regarded daily newspaper. I should also note that Wallace Shawn’s essays occasionally appear in publications like The Nation; a collection of these essays will be published next month.
There’s little question that Müller’s and Barker’s public, essayistic writings about theatre (as well as writings about theatre by critics such as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, two other public intellectuals for whom, since Sontag’s passing, there is no equivalent in the United States) are quite as much as creative and lyrical as their dramatic writings themselves. So indeed – why isn’t this kind of work being more widely distributed in the U.S.? One reason perhaps is that these essays aren’t being written, at least not by the younger generation of writers, be they critics, practitioners or both. After the recent panel discussion, an editor told me that the younger writers from whom she tried to commission this kind of criticism are simply not interested in writing it. Reviews – those 300-to-600 word nuggets of evaluative judgmental prose resulting in a thumbs-up/thumbs-down one-to-five star review – yes, there’s a lot of those about, and people who want to write them (for there is a market, apparently). If these same artists who so frequently observe the lack of this long-form criticism don’t really want to write it, though, it’s unlikely they really want to read it either. Instead, they value what they call wit or cleverness, little realizing that these qualities are quite as cold and heartless as the academic or theoretical prose they disparage, little realizing too that, in trying to discern the features of the work under discussion in this so-called witty or clever discourse, the reader finds that this self-regarding self-interest makes this criticism every bit as opaque. Of course, they claim they want the other kind – this is a badge of their seriousness of interest and intent – but when they so rarely evince any familiarity with the criticism in the existing journals mentioned above, one needs to wonder about the sincerity of this expression.
That said, what little long-form creative criticism about theatre that is being written fails to find outlets in general print publications as well. And electronic media, such as the blogosphere? At the panel, Mac Wellman (no slouch at essayistic meanderings above, beneath and around theatre himself) offered his opinion that the blogosphere too was a disappointment at providing this, and, after seven-plus years of writing and disseminating my writing via Superfluities Redux, I had to agree. This is not the fault of the medium itself, but rather of the assumptions that have become attached to it: that the “ideal” blog post is short, informal, personal, whathaveyou. I’d like to meet the Plato who decided that this was indeed the Ideal. In its often-contentless navelgazing (and subsequent public display of the lint found therein), its 300-to-600 word reviews of everything from Shrek to Long Day’s Journey into Night (whether meaningful discussion of these plays can be contained in such a short space or not), its anxious attention-deficit-disorder jumping from topic to topic and inability to stay focused (not only from post to post but from paragraph to paragraph as well), its frequent expressions of personal venom in lieu of professional or aesthetic dialogue, the theatrical and dramatic blogosphere has quickly become like the print media’s treatment of theatre and drama. Only worse.
There is finally the question of tone and style – both of these intellectual as well as creative qualities. One day I must reread Richard Hofstadter’s pioneering Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, then turn again to this question of what a public intellectual might be in the context and culture of the anti-intellectual prejudice that Hofstadter defines as a quintessential American trait. What he said about the basis of American anti-intellectualism – that it originates in a Puritan refusal to question the tenets of a political theology and in a Protestant emphasis on utility and profitability – remains true of mainstream criticism about theatre as well. Little of this criticism questions the aesthetic and cultural basis and assumptions of mainstream theatre, and the criticism itself is considered too abstract for either instrumental use or profitable marketability. It is suspect, a threat to community values. In its refusal of closure or easy conclusions, it remains a process rather than a product.
Though I am glad that Helen holds up Adorno’s essay on Beckett as an exemplar of the “golden days” of the kind of criticism she’s discussing, I’m not sure where it would find a home in contemporary America, not least because of the uncompromising integrity and dedication of his prose to the expression of abstruse ideas. A sample, from only the second page of the essay: “And so culture begins to flouresce. In this Beckett is carrying to its conclusion a tendency present in the modern novel. Reflection, which the cultural criterion of aesthetic immanence proscribed as abstract, is juxtaposed with pure presentation; the Flaubertian principle of a completely self-contained subject matter is undermined. The less events can be presumed to be inherently meaningful, the more the idea of aesthetic substance as the unity of what appears and what was intended becomes an illusion.” Even Beckett found this daunting.
Adorno’s prose, like those of the public intellectuals that Helen references, is however needfully complex. After beginning to read the essay, one turns again to its title to find that indeed the prose of the essay – the essay itself – is precisely what its title describes: not an interpretation but a process of coming to terms – and those terms far from final – with a work of art (after all, Adorno is trying to understand Beckett’s play, recalling the derivation of the English word “essay” from the French essai: to try or attempt). The complex sentences – long or short, they wrap around each other, circling over and through the uni- and multi-syllabic nouns, verbs and modifiers that comprise them, hesitating, making a sudden stab at significance, then withdrawing again – are the necessary complement of the complex and creative thoughts that Adorno seeks to elicit from his reader. This is not merely interpretive writing as an art – it is interpretive reading as an art, precisely as innovative for the essay form as Schoenberg’s and Webern’s compositions were for music and Beckett’s novels and plays were for fiction and drama. Adorno’s invitation to his audience is to follow those paths that his sentences insinuate through the aesthetic experience. For some thoughts there are no simple words or sentences. And when it comes to some works of art, there is no straightforward path through the dark.
Adorno represents the reader, thinking, and the spectator, watching; and far from a pipe-and-slippers aesthete he also represents a particularly insistent if ambivalent strain of contemporary Marxism. Even so, it would be his severe discipline and defense of the autonomous life of the individual mind and his distaste for popular culture that would get the better of him and likely keep him out of the culture pages of The New York Times, let alone the theatre pages of Time Out New York. In any event, it would be ridiculous to recommend Adorno as a formal model for theatre criticism by public intellectuals (just as it would be ridiculous, however laudable, to recommend the sui generis Sontag). Except, perhaps, as an example of an open-ended model for criticism: a criticism that foregoes making up a Procrustean bed for the objects of its examination. The path of interpretation need not have an ultimate destination, only waystations at which one pauses to examine the effects of the theatre on the self. And, of course, one must recommend the absolute refusal to compromise for any reason the critical vision of what art and theatre have been, can and should be, instead of what they are.
It would be uncharacteristic of me to say that there is hope, more characteristic perhaps to say that there remain possibilities. David Ian Rabey recently completed the second volume of his study of Howard Barker’s work: together with the first, its 500 pages represent twenty-five years of a critical, academic and theatrical close engagement with, arguably, the greatest living playwright of the English-language stage. I will review the two volumes here soon. Suffice it to say for now that Rabey’s approach extends far beyond a traditional survey of a single dramatist’s work. “Those who want a critical work to collate and pre-digest a range of secondary opinion were, and will be, disappointed by [these books], in which I have more ambitious and exciting things to do than document (even to identify critically) the timidity of much British cultural discourse,” Rabey writes in a new foreword; the first chapter of his first volume begins, “This book does not prescribe, it offers a structure for perceptions, centered on the plays and poems of Howard Barker …” Rabey’s criticism in these books offers a meditation, a critical and lyrical vision, not merely of Barker’s theatre but of theatre’s place in a 21st-century culture. Indeed, perhaps this is the best definition of a new criticism for a new theatre: that it “offers” a singular perspective on an art form which welcomes the reader to examine and create his or her own. Given the unavailability of many of the texts that Rabey examines, the criticism becomes even more insistently a creative work of reading, writing and performance itself. That it was published by Palgrave Macmillan is indicative that there is still, at least, this one outlet for this creative criticism.
Recently a gentleman of my acquaintance described the thought he had when he first saw me: “There,” he said to himself, “you have an intellectual.” This was not the first time I heard this; perhaps it’s the glasses or the furrowed brow. And it may have been the American distrust of the intellectual that Hofstadter describes in his book that led me to distrust this part of my self. As the years go on, though, we learn to recognize and integrate those aspects of ourselves that we once sought to keep separate from us (or, at least, to define too narrowly): it is a means of acceptance, and each acceptance opens new possibilities for the self. As an intellectual theatre – or criticism – opens new possibilities for the art. Blooded thought is not cold, clever or witty: it is warm, erotic sensuousness itself. So bring on the intellectuals. It may be time for me and those who have been similarly ambivalent toward the term to embrace this characterization which we so warily circled in the past. The more intellectual the theatre and its criticism, public or private, the better. It couldn’t get much worse.