The traditional symbol for a ninth anniversary is “pottery,” the modern symbol “leather,” I’ve learned from conducting some not-too-intensive research on the Internet. I’ll expect no black leather coffee mugs from any of you for this coming Monday’s ninth anniversary of Superfluities Redux, which launched in 2003, so no need to shop. In reply to your presumed good wishes, though, I’ll offer a few thoughts on where the past few years have been for this blog and where the next few years, if I last that long, will be going.
As regular readers will note, I don’t get out much these days. Raising two daughters, both under the age of four, takes it out of a man now into his fifties. (My father was only 31 when I was born; what a difference 20 years makes, as my back, muscles, and overall physical condition will tell you.) And I confess too that, as theatre and drama criticism is for me necessarily more of an avocation that a profession, the economic cost of frequent theatre-going is forbidding, as Lyn Gardner recently described it in the Guardian; and often when I am offered free tickets to shows I’d like to see, I must try to squeeze these in between raising a family and keeping a full time job. I can only make well-intentioned promises which circumstance, unfortunately, often compels me to break. To all those I have disappointed in this, my apologies.
I set aside, for the moment, playwriting, which requires even more time and attention than criticism.
As I hope the entries of the last nine years, here and elsewhere, have made clear, I still have a passion for theatre and drama; fatherhood, despite its responsibilities and obligations, hasn’t tamped that out. But to hang out a shingle as a drama or theatre critic when one finds it impossible to get to a theatre is the very definition of quixotic. I am duly chastened by Jonathan Kalb’s warning about the obligations of the theatre critic as compared to those of the armchair reader:
… one cannot write well about the theater without making some provisional assumptions about the universality of one’s responses. The theater is too public a forum, too much of its aesthetics is wrapped up in the responses of large groups of people, for a voice with no pretensions beyond its own singularity ever to be very illuminating. … The theater critic is not in a reading chair, at ease and alone [my emphasis -- GH]; the job involves observing not only a performance text but also a thousand other miniscule signals involving the mood, the receptive spirit, of other spectators. The theater critic describes an experience in a group partly as a surrogate for a group, and any pretension to hermetic, or wholly uncontingent, response is as much a lie as the old Arnoldian claim to speak for everyone. 
And that seems to end it all right there, especially when it comes to “performance” rather than text-based theatre.
But, oddly enough, it doesn’t, for we still have these things called plays, and they still come between covers (presumably because publishers still think that somebody is interested in reading them). And they continue to be important, because most cities do not have the vibrant theatrical culture that one can find in New York, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere. Eric Bentley once stoutly defended the idea that these plays can be profitably read and provide a parallel, if not identical, aesthetic experience:
There are some, I know, who believe that plays are no more suited for silent reading than musical scores. Unlike music, however, drama is conceived and recorded in words. Since every reader of a play is a self-appointed director with a theater in his own mind, I shall assume that the well-equipped reader can experience and appraise the play in his study, and that a play which is altogether bad to read is altogether a bad play. Good literature may be bad drama. That is obvious. But does the converse hold? Can good drama be bad literature? …
Here I shall prepare the ground to the extent of requesting a little skepticism about accepted views and unacknowledged assumptions. Of these none should be more suspect than the idea that great drama need not be great literature. Perhaps when we make such an assumption we are dimly remembering some such argument as Charles Lamb’s, when he contended that Shakespeare was too big — spiritually speaking — for the stage. It would follow that drama of the right size must be something spiritually smaller. From this conclusion it is but a step to the equation of good drama and bad literature, good literature and bad drama. The literary man begins to use the term “theatrical” as a reproach; the man of the theater learns to despise the “literary.” 
For those who wish to pursue this line of reasoning with me further, click here. But I hope that my citation of Bentley here provides somewhat more than mere self-justification for my continued maintenance of Superfluities Redux. For it is not only the common reader to whom the written drama may be addressed: it is also to the theatrical community itself. While they may wrap their curricula in all sorts of provisos, including a warning that written drama itself is no substitute for theatrical experience (something with which I agree), teachers of criticism, theatre, and playwriting still encourage their students to gain as broad a knowledge of the history of their form, as well as the ways in which theatre and drama are practiced around the world today, as they can. This canvas is too broad and deep to fully study in the limited two or three years of an MFA program, not least because critics and students will lack access to live performances of many of the most important plays of the discipline. Büchner’s Woyzeck is frequently revived, and there is a good Werner Herzog film of the play available for viewing; but what of his Danton’s Death, an essential landmark in the history of documentary theatre, last professionally performed here in New York in 1983?  I am certain that even Mr. Kalb does not tell his Hunter College students — even those in his “Theatre Theory and Criticism” class — to wait for its next revival, which they may not see for another 30 years, but assigns it anyway: not because reading it will be an empty experience, but because it will be an instructive and perhaps even inspiring one. Every artist is, in any event, a critic, writing in conscious or unconscious reaction to a culture and its history, an art form and its history. The best ones are aware of this. And if this is true of older plays, it holds true for newer ones as well.
I do keep up, though, with the live theatre; I read reviews when and where I can, and though I take all of these reviews with a grain of salt, I don’t imagine that the picture I gain of what is happening on our stages is particularly inaccurate. A word of pity for these reviewers, by the way, especially those in New York, where from off-off-Broadway to on-Broadway, there might be ten openings a week, and sometimes three or four reviews to file. It’s a tough job. But what they don’t review, what they can’t review, is what is not happening on our stages, of course; and they are not paid to criticize, but to evaluate, entertain, and report, a distinction with a major difference.
My name will continue to crop up not only here but elsewhere, and in several different places, over the next year. My byline will appear over a book review in American Theatre magazine shortly, my first appearance in that publication; I continue to write for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and the Arts; I have written an introduction for a new volume of Richard Foreman plays, which will appear next year; another of my essays on Howard Barker will be included in a new book about that writer from Manchester University Press; and on and on. In the meantime, I shall try to get out more.
These avocations for playwriting and criticism may become vocations yet. Dreams die hard and miracles do happen, even to those well into middle age when their professional visions become clear, as Terry Teachout, one of the first to welcome this journal to the world of theatrical criticism, can attest.
My own passion for theatre, I repeat, has not yet burnt out, and now I’m beginning to see something of the same passion for performance in my two daughters, who have just begun pre-ballet classes. They are learning to play to the crowd; to curtsey; to put on costumes, prance around, and pretend they’re firefighters, superheroes, and what-have-you. I can’t yet say whether this means I’m only the first figure in a theatre dynasty writ small; but you never can tell.
- “The Critic as Humanist,” in Kalb’s Play by Play: Theater Essays and Reviews, 1993-2002, New York: Limelight Editions, 2003, p. 33. [↩]
- The Playwright as Thinker, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987, p. 4. [↩]
- To the best of my knowledge, that is; the lortel.org off-Broadway database has information on only a single Classic Stage Company production. It’s likely that there have been semi-pro or university productions of the play, but in a city like New York, it is hard to find out about them. This is especially true of contemporary European plays other than those which originate in Great Britain. [↩]