08 November 2009

'The Art of Writing Reviews' by Kirk Woodward, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of my commentary on Kirk Woodward’s book,
The Art of Writing Reviews (
http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272). There will be four parts in all.]

When Kirk sets out that the fundamental duties of reviews are to “experience, describe, and, finally, evaluate” what they see, he praises the reviewers who “start out by genuinely participating, through their imaginations, in the works in front of them.” Every theater pro wants spectators, including reviewers, to get into the world of the play, to enter into the performance so that they have a virtual experience in the theater. We don’t want someone to come to a farce, say, and demand logic and reason or to a 19th-century drama and complain because the characters aren’t behaving according to 21st-century codes. But letting their imaginations take over too completely can be a danger, too. I remember reading a play review by Ben Brantley a number of years ago in which he went to great lengths to specify the aromas he imagined wafting about the stage and he connected those scent images to his own associations. I suppose that’s fine for a spectator’s private experience--you make the associations that have meaning for you--but when the spectator writes about that performance for my consumption, I get the impression that the reviewer was experiencing this play entirely inside his own head, not in a seat at the theater where I might join him. I can’t share the experience he’s having in his imagination. The greater implication of this instance, which confirmed for me a suspicion I’d had about Brantley’s reviews--that he wasn’t seeing the same performances I was--is that it has made me skeptical of all Brantley’s descriptions because I wonder if he’s writing about what he actually saw on stage, or just in his imagination. However engaged in the performance we may get--and engagement is a good thing, even for a reviewer--a part of us has to remain in the real world. (That would be the real world of theater, not all that nonsense going on outside. Heavens! Who’d want that?)

After suggesting that the only way to be sure that “reviewers are genuinely experiencing what they describe” (see above) is to see the play before the notices appear, Kirk observes, “Some kind of artistic Heisenberg principle is at work here: being reviewed changes the nature of the piece itself.” This reminds me of something a director whose work I researched, Leonardo Shapiro, told me in an interview:

What changes the audience the most is the review. The New York audience is much blander and much more sophisticated and much less exciting after the reviews. Before the reviews, they’re really a lot like other audiences; they’re much more alive. . . . It’s amazing. I don’t know how they all get to read the reviews, but the change in the audience is so clear. When the reviewer comes and says it’s funny, the next night they laugh. I swear to you. It’s just like a script.

Throughout Writing Reviews, Kirk names some of the reviewers he admires (and some of those of whom he doesn’t think all that much) and these names come up several times. He spotlights Brooks Atkinson, the chief theater reviewer for the New York Times from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, whom Kirk calls “the Walter Cronkite of reviewing.” Kirk also praises music reviewer Whitney Bartlett of the New Yorker for his writing about jazz. I’d like to add a few less-prominent names to Kirk’s list. I’ve already mentioned Elvis Mitchell, a film reviewer for the New York Times from 1998 to 2004, who always had a surprising turn of phrase or an unexpected expression in his writing that made it interesting to read quite aside from his opinion of the film he was covering. I also used to admire Dennis Cunningham, who reviewed both theater and movies for WCBS-TV in New York from 1978 to 2000, because his theater reviews especially were little arguments for his perspective. By argument, I don’t mean that he got contentious over his opinions, but that he always presented evidence from the performance to illustrate or support his remarks. Another reviewer whose work I have liked is Marcia Siegel, a dance writer. I’m not a follower of dance, but Siegel’s reviews are always very clear, descriptive, and communicative, especially for a non-dance person like me. When I write about theater, I try to follow her example by writing for the reader who may see a play, but doesn’t know anything about the art itself--the uninitiated reader. (Full disclosure: Siegel was on the faculty of NYU’s Department of Performance Studies while I was there and I audited a class from her, Writing about Performance. It has had a profound effect on my theater writing.)

Oh, and that reminds me, speaking of Brooks Atkinson: He was the most important theater writer of his day, and he also had the most unique name among New York newspaper reviewers. (This was, of course, before Manohla Dargis joined the film department of the Times. Or Joe Dziemianowicz came to the Daily News.) Some of you may know the story of the famous 1962 fake-quote ad for Subways Are for Sleeping. For those who missed this wonderful bit of New York theater trivia, Press Agent Harvey Sabinson and Producer David Merrick hired ordinary New Yorkers with the same names as Walter Kerr; Howard Taubman; Richard Watts, Jr.; and the other major New York newspaper reviewers, treated them to the new musical--which had gotten poor notices after opening--and then wined and dined them. Getting the group to say great things about the show, the producer and his press agent wrote a display ad for the papers with appropriate laudatory quotations. Because the ad included photos of the ringers, only the Herald Tribune didn’t spot the gag and ran the ad. The pair had planned such a stunt for years, but could never pull it off because they knew "in all this world there is no other man with [the] name" Brooks Atkinson. They had to wait until Atkinson retired to pull the hoax. (This anecdote has nothing whatsoever to do with the art of writing reviews, but it has something to do with Brooks Atkinson! It was just one of those things the book made me think about when I read it. See what I mean?)

Kirk returns to the problem of reviewers who settle into a “comfort zone” and aren’t receptive to innovations that “may break new ground.” I’ve already noted the objections raised by Michael Kirby, Richard Kostelanetz, and Ross Wetzsteon. To return to Kostelanetz’s analysis, he saw that “the more imposing artists [of the experimental theater] have rejected traditional notions of beauty as too sentimental and quaint, and, in contrast, audiences and critics would sooner acknowledge the familiar than explore works of art they cannot immediately comprehend.” Kostelanetz, a poet who was also a champion of avant-garde art, attributes this inhospitable stance to the fact that the reviewer “feels more comfortable in reading from the past into the present.” One of the harshest critics of establishment reviewers in New York is Elinor Fuchs, herself a genuine theater critic (and sometime reviewer), scholar, teacher, dramaturg, and writer. In a 1989 essay in American Theatre, she remarked, “New York’s critical establishment seems ever more deeply establishmentarian,” privileging the traditional aesthetics of Western culture to the exclusion of anything non-Western or pioneering. Fuchs continued: “But the establishment critics are no laughing matter, for . . . they are literally driving innovative, daring theatre out of New York.” In conclusion, she wrote:

The lack of curiosity, the disrespect, the indifference--all go to show that the critics don’t seem to know whom to cultivate. . . . . Even in its own venues where it has a devoted following, the avant-garde, experimental or progressive wing (as some now call it) of the New York theatre world continues to be attacked by the press with a vigor one would think familiarity must have dulled by now.

“Reviewers sometimes worry that they’ll say that something accidental is important . . . ,” warns Kirk. Actually, I stopped worrying too much about this after I made note of just such an occurrence in a college show I reviewed for that theater criticism class at Rutgers. The production was Godspell and I described how felicitously the “splashing water from [a] spinning sponge echoed the painted spirals of the backdrop” in front of which the actor was singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Now I had said this was “perhaps a happy accident,” but the teacher of the class, Betty Comtois, told me that even if it had been an accident, it was still legitimate grist for the reviewers mill. So I always remember that feedback whenever I see something that I suspect might not have been intended by any of the artists. Kirk advises us, “You can only review what’s there,” but the opposite is also true: You get to review anything that’s there. If it happens on stage, it counts! (Reviewers have “prosecutorial discretion,” of course. We don’t have to mention everything that went on.)

Of course, nothing indemnifies us from writing something that’s just plain dumb. We’re all subject to that. I once wrote in a review of a play about Tennessee Williams that the actor playing “Bird,” as the playwright was called, didn’t have a very authentic New Orleans accent. Well, as I realized later (after the pesky review went to press) that Williams wasn’t from New Orleans; he was born in Mississippi and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He lived in the Big Easy, whose natives have very distinctive speech, but talked just like the Mississippian he was. Now that mistake is on the record for all to read, if they happen upon the review. (And, no, I’m not going to help you by naming the play or the periodical.)

Kirk also affirms that “a work of art has the right to the presumption that it’s coherent and meaningful.” Yes, it does. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put the proposition in his essay, “Art”: “And so every genuine work of art has as much reason for being as the earth and the sun.” When reviewers pan a particular work of art, that’s their right--in fact, it’s even their duty as reviewers to call it as they see it. (I once heard a TV film reviewer in Washington revise upwards his estimation of a movie he had previously given a poor notice because it proved to be popular. I lost all respect for him after that.) But when they disparage a whole genre or question the very right of the artist to do the work at all, then they are stepping over a line, I think. A mediocre piece of art is not painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa: no one’s destroyed anything. Poor art isn’t a crime against humanity. (See remarks later from art philosopher Susanne Langer.) The reviewers have lost a little time, but they get paid for that. And let’s not forget, too, that even an experiment that fails has value. Just move on.

When it comes to acting, Kirk tells us, “it’s meaningless to talk about a ‘good’ performance” because the term’s so vague. We should judge performances on their appropriateness to the production (not just the play, mind you) because a “’great’ characterization in one production . . . would likely be hopelessly out of place [in] another . . . .” Now, I’m sure Kirk is talking about different productions of the same play--where Miss Smith’s interpretation of Nora in one production of A Doll House is marvelous but if transferred to another Doll House would be unsuitable. But the same comparison is true of the same actor playing different parts in two plays, say in rep. I went to the Shaw Festival a few years ago and saw eight performances over a week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. All of the members of the company perform in at least two plays so I saw many actors do two roles in plays that were often quite different in style and genre. Most of the performers were marvelously flexible and handled the shifts with aplomb. (Generally, the acting at the festival was excellent.) One actor, however, had a distinctive stage style that suited one role much better than the other. I won’t report his name here, but he appeared in The Heiress and then in Arms and the Man. I saw The Heiress first and the actor’s mannerisms and behavioral choices (especially his vocal patterns) seemed entirely fake. When I saw him in Arms, he displayed the same traits, but they worked for his character and the Shaw comedy where they hadn’t worked in the melodrama.

Kirk draws attention to the responsibility of the director, an artist whose work is hard to analyze for many spectators who have never acted or directed themselves. (That difficulty was the rationale for the founding of the American Directors Institute, a professional association whose newsletter I edited. ADI, sadly, disbanded after only a few years, but its stated purpose was, in part, to try to elucidate the work of the stage director not only to the theater-going public but also other theater artists.) Anyway, Kirk remarks that there are some directors “who seem to feel that their work is the part and the whole of a production.” I presume he’s referring to the so-called auteur director. (Film is full of that kind of director.) I guess that the models for this kind of director would be Vsevolod Meyerhold and, more recently, Jerzy Grotowski. In fact, Meyerhold, who often called himself the “author of the production,” said that “the art of the director is the art not of an executant, but of an author--so long as one has earned the right.”

When he makes a point about artists making choices, Kirk uses The Glass Menagerie as an example. It’s not strictly relevant to the author’s point, but it’s interesting to note two things about GM. First, Williams originally wrote the script as a screenplay (for Lana Turner) when he worked briefly at MGM. (When the play came out and was a success, MGM tried to claim the rights under the argument that Williams had written it while he was the studio’s employee. Williams’s stalwart, and sometimes quite fierce, agent, Audrey Wood, defeated the effort.) Second, Williams’s original concept for the play was quite Brechtian, with scene titles and other distancing techniques. The director, Joe Dowling, removed all that from the première production in 1947, in the belief that Broadway audiences wouldn’t accept the innovations. (Some recent productions of the play have restored the Brechtian elements, with some success, I believe.) Choices, as we see, are not made in a vacuum, and sometimes they’re made for reasons far from artistic.

And speaking of Tennessee Williams, he made a poignant statement that supports something else Kirk writes in Writing Reviews. Kirk cautions reviewers to resist comparing an artist’s work with what the artist had done earlier. In 1951, after his great successes with Menagerie and Streetcar, Williams had begun to try new things. But the reviewers wouldn’t tolerate the shift, insisting that the playwright stick with what he’d done so successfully in the beginning. Angry over the reviews of The Rose Tattoo, which had just opened, Williams wrote a letter to columnist Max Lerner, complaining about “the most demoralizing problem that the American playwright has to face.” The dramatist continued: “Painters have it better. They are allowed to evolve new methods, new styles, by a reasonable gradual process. They are not abused for turning out creative variations of themes already stated.”

Then Kirk continues by admonishing us, “An artist has no responsibility to improve.” That’s right, of course. Artists aren’t obligated to us or anyone to get better or move up or anything. (In fact, they’re not even obligated to continue. Remember Wit? Margaret Edson wrote this one terrific play, it won a Pulitzer in 1999--and a passel of other awards--and then she went back to teaching kindergarten in Atlanta. She said she had one play she wanted to write, she wrote it, now she’s done.) But this point raises a question. Actually, it begs the question, How do we measure improvement? How do we recognize improvement? Who gets to define improvement? What if Tennessee Williams had gotten to try out his new ideas--as he did eventually with Camino Real? Was his absurdist play an “improvement” on Streetcar or even Rose Tattoo? I don’t know. It’s different, I know that. I think it’s harder to perform successfully. But those aren’t issues of improvement, just of difference. The reviews of Camino Real ranged from confusion to dismissal, and the play languished for years until the rest of the theater in this country caught up with it. (It opened in New York a few years before Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which had its own problems with audiences and reviewers.) Aside from the question of whether any of that marks “improvement,” there’s also the fact that any artist must often stumble and fall a few times before moving on to new accomplishments. Improvement, even if we could measure it, wouldn’t come in a straight line anyway. (By the way, my answers to those questions above? We can’t. We don’t. No one.)

In this same discussion, Kirk states, “I hate to see the increasing number of competitions--literally--in the arts . . . .” Back in August I posted a piece about the Tony committee’s removal of the press from the Tony voter list. At the top of that column, I wrote, “I reject the whole idea of turning art into a competition . . . .” I’m less upset with the marketing awards and titles like best-sellers, Gold Records, and the Nielson ratings because, first, they’re based on concrete evidence and, second, they don’t pretend to be based on a judgment of excellence but only popularity. (As we all recognize, popularity doesn’t always equate with excellence. Just look at the evidence offered by some TV shows and movies.) But it offends me to see artists and their work placed in competition with one another. Art isn’t a sports contest. Obviously Kirk and I must be in a minority in this opinion because the contests and awards seem to be proliferating. (Especially in the music business--there seems to an award for every perspective or category anyone can devise.)

Writing Reviews also addresses prejudices among reviewers and its author warns that pet peeves are dangerous for a reviewer. He doesn’t say so, but the same is true of prejudices for a kind of work. I love the old-time musicals--Oklahoma!, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and even some less well-known ones like Donnybrook! and Little Mary Sunshine. See, the problem is that I have no objectivity, no distance from these shows. I started out with them when I was little--my first show on Broadway was Fiorello! when I was 10 (having already seen pre- and post-Broadway tours at the old National Theatre in Washington from an earlier age), and I can’t judge them at all fairly, even in a mediocre production. (A really bad one, I might notice.) Take me to Damn Yankees or Camelot, and I’m just gonna gush, almost no matter what. (On the other hand, I have attention problems with 19th-century melodramas, and I don’t much enjoy monodramas, with exceptions for extraordinary performances like Henry Fonda in Clarence Darrow or Pat Carroll as Gertrude Stein.) The thing is, when I’ve had to review shows with which I know I’ll have trouble, if I couldn’t get out of the assignment, I’ve always tried to admit right up front that I probably wasn’t the best person to assess the performance. Then I tried to confine myself to describing the experience more than evaluating it so I could let the readers make up their own minds about seeing the play.

There’s one subject for any performance--movie, TV show, or play--about which I have so much private baggage that I just stay away: the Holocaust. Kirk confesses to an “antipathy” for violent movies; I can’t watch any Holocaust story (or even look at a collection of Holocaust-related photographs) without getting so angry that I come close to losing control. (On a trip to Israel years ago, I had to leave Yad Vashem because I was beginning to shake with anger.) I don’t like feeling that way--it actually scares me--so I seldom watch that kind of stuff anymore. I certainly could never review a play or movie on the topic because my objectivity about the artwork would be nonexistent. (Interestingly, I didn’t have the same kind of problem with My Name Is Rachel Corrie. I didn’t like that piece because it was bad theater, inherently untheatrical and undramatic.)

[Come back in a few days for Part 3 of my commentary on Writing Reviews. There’s still more to say.]

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