I know I’m late to the party, but recently I’ve been enjoying the writings of Ron Rosenbaum, the writer of “narrative nonfiction and essays,” as he describes them, and current contributor to Slate. Over the past several years, Rosenbaum’s published a fascinating contemporary Divine Comedy of the human individual’s capacity for creation, destruction, and self-destruction (and the self-delusions attached thereto) in The Shakespeare Wars (2006), Explaining Hitler (1998), and How the End Begins: The Road To a Nuclear World War III (2011). These are, as the book publicists like to say, “real page-turners” — one wouldn’t think that any writer could make the current textual controversies over Shakespeare’s plays or the theological justifications (or non-justifications) for the existence of Hitler’s career as fascinating as detective stories, but there they are — fine entertainments in the best sense of the word, and demonstrating considerable insight into our own condition. (Rosenbaum also co-wrote, with Helen Whitney, the PBS Frontline documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.)
No doubt it helps that, like H.L. Mencken, Rosenbaum is an expert journalist and reporter who gets out of the house more often than not to conduct his own research; it also helps that Rosenbaum is a fine student of close reading of not only literature but also the times themselves, a product of his Yale University education (he spent a year in Yale’s graduate program for English literature, only to drop out after one course, a decision he describes in his 2012 essay “Should I Go to Grad School?”). Except for How the End Begins, these are great thonking big books, but the enthusiasm and meditation they inspire are infectious. Perhaps his career and style come closest to that of the late Christopher Hitchens — but Rosenbaum seems somewhat more charmingly self-critical, a doubter rather than a possessor of ultimate certainties.
If, as they should, theatremakers and others want Rosenbaum to start writing about theatre and drama, assisting in the effort to place them somewhere near the center of the cultural discourse again, well, they’ve got an uphill battle. Rosenbaum is already, as his enthusiasm for Shakespeare demonstrates, an ideal audience for good theatre and drama. But in “My Theater Problem — and Ours,” an essay he wrote in the 1990s for the New York Observer and reprinted in his collection The Secret Parts of Fortune, he describes his dissatisfaction (if that’s the word) with contemporary theatre and democratically spreads the blame over theatre practitioners, critics, and audiences alike. He writes:
[In] one way or another, I always seem to find myself at the wrong performance. I always seem to be seeing plays that seem utterly unlike what everyone else claims to have seen. I’m forever going to things that have been raved over by critics, chattered about by the chattering classes, awarded prizes and grants, and finding myself thinking — in those moments when I can keep myself awake from the industrial-strength tedium they induce — that this is the most clichéd, empty, contrived piece of ranting I have ever seen. Afterward, I’d find myself wondering, Is it possible I went to the wrong theater; this second-rate, self-satisfied, soporific contrivance can’t be the same stuff that people are taking seriously, can it? …
But it seems to me that the disparity between what’s lauded as greatness in the theater today and the reality of the product is far greater than in any other art form. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like or haven’t seen good theater. I’ll see any Shakespeare; you learn something even from bad performances. I was blown away by the film of Vanya on 42nd Street; in fact, I think it proves my point. The breathtaking level of intelligence in the acting and staging was so far above almost anything I’ve seen on Broadway or Off-Broadway in memory. I defy you to rent the movie of Vanya and tell me anything that comes close to it on the boards today.
Why is this? One explanation was suggested by Peter Brook, a director I’ve always admired … . In a devastating aside in Looking for Richard, Mr. Brook pointed out that contemporary theater has never solved the technical (and artistic) problem of theatrical ranting: the meretriciousness that infects the attempt to communicate inner life with words and gestures that must resound to distant balconies. It’s particularly a problem for the misconceived naturalism of most “good drama” on Broadway and Off. But I think the larger problem might have to do less with the writing and the acting and the ranting than with the complacency of the audience. With the fact that theatergoing today seems to have less to do with the rituals on stage than the rituals in the seats. With the self-validating function it performs in conferring Culture, like a medal of valor, on the audience: The pain and tedium they suffer through has won them the right to believe they are participating in an important cultural ritual. And it’s rarely felt as pain. It’s felt as resounding waves of self-approbation, a folk mass of self-satisfaction. Who was it that said that religion is really about the sanctification of wealth? New York theater, the secular religion of the city, is really about the sanctification of self. At the close of most performances, I’m convinced the audience is not applauding the play they’ve seen or the actors, but applauding themselves just for being there.