11 November 2009

'The Art of Writing Reviews' by Kirk Woodward, Part 3

[This is Part 3 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.]

On a less heated topic than reviewers' personal prejudices, Kirk notes that it’s almost impossible for a spectator to tell who’s responsible for what in a production. That’s true in general--though you can make a pretty good stab at who designed the sets and costumes. Because the program usually tells us. To be serious, though, a wise reviewer will know that the director probably had a great deal to say about the production design--and in some cases, so will the producer. Earlier I mentioned the formation of the American Directors Institute to try to help explain the work of stage directors to the public and even other theater professionals because so few people outside the rehearsals really know what the director does. I was only half joking when I said you could easily tell who designed the sets and so on, but the same is true of the acting. The actors are ultimately responsible for what they do on stage, but they worked with the director (and sometimes even the playwright) while they were developing the work that we end up seeing in performance. Theater is called a “collaborative art.” Nothing happens on the stage during the performance of a play, not even those monodramas I mentioned earlier, that hasn’t been shaped by many hands. I wonder how many people realize, for instance, that the character’s costume can have a tremendous effect on the actor’s work, both physically and psychologically. So can the set design and construction. Lines have been changed because of an actor (especially in TV); whole songs have been added or cut because of an actor’s work. Acting decisions can change because lines have been changed earlier or later in the script. We discuss a play as if the actors made all their own choices in a vacuum, that the designers all worked alone in their studios, and that the director . . . well, who knows what the director did. But it’s not true--it never was and it never will be. That’s precisely why no two productions of the same play are ever the same. (No two performances of the same production are the same, either, but that’s a different phenomenon.) That’s what makes theater such an exciting art form--at least for me. (It’s also why I used to love rehearsing. Performing was a reward, but rehearsing was where all the creativity happened and everyone you worked with was part of it. It was exhilarating.)

Aaron Frankel, the acting teacher whom I’ve mentioned a few times (because he had all these neat little aphorisms that have stuck with me) used to quote Martha Graham: "Don't come on stage to give; come on stage to take!" It sounds selfish and egotistical, but what I understand it to mean, for an actor, is that you take in what the other actors are sending you, you let it inform your performance, and you respond to it. Then the other actors respond to what you send out in turn. The most difficult actors with whom I worked were the ones who came to the theater with their performances all canned and ready. They were all closed off. I couldn’t change their performance no matter what I did on stage with them--they just barreled through with their plan. I’d have no choice but to do the same thing, and then we no longer had a live play but a kind of live-action video game. If we did it well, maybe no one in the audience would notice, but it wasn’t any fun to do.

Even if, as Kirk points out, you see two performances of a production with the same director and different actors, you can’t be sure whose contribution you’re witnessing. Sensitive directors will reconceive a character based on the contributions of an actor and rework the part even as the overall production concept remains essentially the same. Sometimes, the kit-and-kaboodle gets shifted because of the presence of new actors. If you read the re-reviews of continuing shows written when there’s been a cast change, you can sometimes see that old shows can learn new tricks. When Eileen Atkins replaced Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, reviewers noted how different the play had become as a result of the new approach to the role. No one said that Atkins’s interpretation was better than Jones’s, but the difference was marked. It’s not really part of the same point, but now and then those changes can improve the production. Not too long ago, when the revival of Annie Get Your Gun was running on Broadway, Bernadette Peters (whom I saw do the role pre-Broadway in Washington a few months earlier) actually didn’t get such good notices. (Truth be told, she was a tad old for the part.) But when Reba McEntire replaced Peters, reviewers felt that McEntire suited the part better and the show was better for the change.

Writing Reviews also addresses the issue of “inside information.” Kirk warns that reviewers who put forth that they know things we outsiders don’t are often wrong, to begin with, and even if they’re not, the inside dope doesn’t really have anything to do with the experience at hand, namely the performance. In one example, Kirk writes, “Reviewers often claim to know why an artist did something, when even the artist may have no idea,” and he relates a story about John Lennon playing bass on a Paul McCartney song. Lennon played badly and one reviewer claimed it had been sabotage even though, as Kirk notes, Lennon was “simply a lousy bass player.” This all reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, whose plot centers on research a scholar is doing about Lord Byron. Using the family archives at a country house where Byron had stayed in 1809, the researcher puts together the evidence about what Byron was doing at the house and interprets it to determine a plausible scenario. But Arcadia is divided into two interwoven narratives, the other one being the same house in 1809 and we get to see what actually went on then. It turns out, despite the parallels between the facts in 1809 and the ones revealed in “the present day,” that the researcher has interpreted the evidence completely wrong.

One of Stoppard’s favorite themes is How do we know what we think we know? It is the central theme of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and part of the point of Jumpers and even Travesties. His characters almost always get the facts right but the conclusions wrong. One of his most fun arguments in Jumpers, in a speech about the existence of God that I used to use for auditions, goes this way:

Cantor’s proof that there is no greatest number ensures that there is no smallest fraction. There is no beginning. But it was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, . . . that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright. Furthermore, by a similar argument he showed that before reaching the half-way point, the arrow had to reach the quarter-mark, and before that the eighth, and before that the sixteenth, and so on, with the result, remembering Cantor’s proof, that the arrow could not move at all!

An ideal example of perfect logic leading to an impossible conclusion. As reviewers and consumers of reviews, we need to be skeptical of such reasoning and the information on which it’s founded.

As a sort of addendum to this discussion, Kirk makes the point that his admonition about inside information also holds true for determining that “a work of art is a direct reflection of the artist’s life . . . .” Almost all artists use elements of their biography to inform their work, though that doesn’t make every artist’s work “autobiographical.” Some is, to one degree or another: Arthur Miller’s After the Fall is clearly a reflection of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe--though it isn’t an account of that marriage; most of Horton Foote’s characters are based on his family and neighbors from the Texas town where he grew up, but the plays don’t tell the history of his family. Kirk invoked Tennessee Williams as an example, and though Williams used aspects of his life in almost all his writing, especially early in his career, his plays aren’t autobiographies. (Knowing something about Williams’s life can help some in understanding some things about the plays, but enjoying them doesn’t depend on being a Williams expert.) At the end of that discussion, Kirk cautions us not to treat Williams’s plays “as chapters in Williams’ memoirs.” Of course, he’s absolutely correct. The plays (and poems and short stories) are self-contained works of art, no more accounts of the playwright’s life than The Lord of the Rings was an account of Tolkien’s life. But I want to add one remark, only slightly relevant (and perhaps not even that): Williams’s actual Memoirs, his published autobiography, is largely regarded as heavily fictionalized. Williams told so many tales about his background, starting with his name (actually Tom) and the year of his birth (actually 1911, not 1914 as he put out for many years), that I suspect he began to forget what was a yarn and what was true. My point? Not only can’t Williams’s fiction be taken as fact, but even his fact can’t be taken as fact! (I’m just sayin’.)

Kirk also addresses the issue of reviewers asserting that they can somehow glean how other people (including the artists themselves as well as other viewers) feel and what they think. Just recently, for example, in his review of the Brighton Beach Memoirs revival, Ben Brantley committed this fault when he said of one actor that “her performance is so subdued and inward-looking that when [she] finally erupts, you don’t believe it” (I added the italics). How does Brantley know what I will believe if and when I see the play? How does he know what anyone else, even his fellow spectators that night, believes? He can’t. He can only know what he himself believes. He has no business speaking for anyone else!

I took this problem up on ROT as well. What I proposed is that reviewers write in first person so that they are less tempted to make universal statements and maintain the perception that they are writing about themselves and their own impressions. (Brantley could have written, “. . . I don’t believe it.”) The problem is, of course, that editors and publishers seldom allow writers like reviewers to write in first person. Opinion columnists, and I maintain that that’s really what reviewers are, are perfectly free to write that way, but reviewers rarely are. It’s harder to do when you can’t use the grammatical first person, but the alternative approach has to be to make sure the “first-personness” of the review is rhetorically clear. (In which case, Brantley could have written, “. . . it’s hard to believe.”)

In a section about clever remarks, put-downs, and personal insults in reviews, Kirk invokes a famous reviewer “who most consistently writes in terms of insults”; he doesn’t name the writer, but most of us probably know who he is, and since ROT isn’t as vulnerable to retribution, legal or otherwise, I will name him: John Simon. I had a bit of a contretemps in print with Simon back in 1989, precipitated by his review of The Winter’s Tale at the New York Shakespeare Festival. I won’t repeat Simon’s revolting remarks about the actress Alfre Woodard, who played Paulina in the production, but I will characterize them as racist and mean, referring to her hair (which was a wig) and her vocal performance. Simon invoked the vilest racial images to make his points. (Simon also said some very insulting things about Mandy Patinkin, who played Leontes opposite Christopher Reeve’s Polixenes, making reference to some scurrilous Nazi caricatures of Jews.) Almost the entire theater community rose up in protest, with several columnists writing rebukes and well-known theater figures like Colleen Dewhurst, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson writing letters. I also wrote a long letter to all the press outlets in New York; it was published in a substantial excerpt in the New York Post (12 April) and in its entirety in the New York Native (22 May), where I published my reviews at the time. I wrote: “Invoking negative racial and ethnic stereotypes to make small points about coiffure or vocal technique . . . is completely outrageous in this supposedly enlightened time. Cruelty of this kind, regardless of the point Mr. Simon may have been trying to make, is inexcusable in our society.”

Simon’s review came out on 3 April. I had also written a review of the play which appeared on the same date but since the Native was a weekly, my deadline was long before I ever saw Simon’s notice. I had liked the production. On 19 June, however, my review of another NYSF production, Cymbeline (part of NYSF’s then-ongoing marathon of all Shakespeare’s plays over about a decade), came out in the Native and unbeknownst to me, the editors had put a banner headline on the front page of the edition saying, “Hey, John Simon: We Loved Cymbeline.” Simon had obviously panned Cymbeline (12 June)--it was a controversial production under the direction of JoAnne Akalaitis--but the banner was clearly more directed at my difference of opinion with Simon over Winter’s Tale. In any case, New York didn’t run my letter and I never heard from Simon in any way. I’m sure I was beneath his notice. (That’s all right. He’s beneath my contempt. One of his earlier reviews soon after I moved to New York City--I forget now which one--so incensed me that I cancelled my subscription to New York and have never gone back to it.)

By the way, in a later section on “The newspaper’s mistakes,” Kirk points out that “reviewers often are not responsible for headlines” and other accompaniments to their columns. That’s true not only of reviewers but almost all journalistic writers; there are editors whose job it is to oversee the composition of headlines and such. (Most of my reviews did appear under headlines of my own devising, however.) I not only had no hand in writing that banner about Cymbeline that baited John Simon, but I didn’t even know about it until the issue came out. Since my deadline was often 10 days before the issue date, I’d written my copy before Simon’s negative review of Cymbeline hit the stands. (As I said, I no longer subscribed to New York magazine and didn’t seek out Simon’s reviews anyway; I wouldn’t have known about his response to the play until someone told me about it.)

Following this discussion in Writing Reviews, Kirk also raises the issue of “color-blind casting,” another problem John Simon has. I raised an objection to his shortsightedness and benighted attitude in the same letter, but a few years later, in 1991, the magazine The World & I, published by the Washington Times (owned by the Moonies), ran an article, “Nontraditional Casting” by David H. Ehrlich, which took the same viewpoint as Simon--that roles should only be cast with actors of the same race specified for the character. (If no race is specified, the role is presumed to have been written for a white actor.) I wrote another long letter to the editor of The World & I, and though they never published it, the author of the article called me. I didn’t want to get into a debate with him, so I just suggested that his editors run my letter and we could have our conversation in print. What the arch-conservative publication didn’t print included this statement:

[W]hat Mr. Ehrlich’s essay, reduced to its most basic terms, really says is that African-American actors (and Hispanic, Asian, disabled and women actors, by extension) are fine, as long as they keep to their places. Let them do August Wilson and Spike Lee, and the occasional Othello (but not Iago); however, they had better stay away from White Plays. If that sounds like saying black people are OK as long as they do not move next door to me and marry my sister, you get full marks.

(The comment above about Othello and Iago was in reference to a production of the Shakespeare tragedy by the Folger Theatre Group, the forerunner of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which cast Avery Brooks as the Moor and André Braugher as his ancient. Ehrlich had trouble with this pairing.)

In a related section, Kirk inveighs against reviewers who have an obsession with something and “drag it into review after review.” Kirk’s talking about general idées fixes, like Clive Barnes’s reputed preference for anything British, but sometimes they’re more transitory. As I wrote recently in an August posting on ROT:

I remember back in ’98 when Footloose opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley panned the show and ever thereafter, at every opportunity he had in subsequent columns, Brantley ran the play down in the most derogatory terms he could get away with. He seemed obsessed with this play and the low opinion he had of it.

I don’t know what was going through Brantley’s mind at the time, of course, but I kept thinking that he was actually trying to close the show. Despite Brantley’s efforts, however, Footloose (which I didn’t like much myself, though it never offended me) ran for a year-and-a-half and 709 performances. It was nominated for four Tonys and didn’t win any of them, so maybe Brantley could take some pride in that dubious accomplishment.

And speaking about closing shows because of reviews, in a section called “Worrying about effect,” Kirk addresses the matter of how reviewers cope with the sense that they may be influencing people’s futures. I just want to point out that this very question was the subject of my essay "The Power of the Reviewer," which I mentioned above. My conclusion, by the way, was that the power of reviews to close productions was largely an untested assumption and that there were many viable strategies that producers could use to combat mediocre press. (I related one earlier: the hoax David Merrick pulled--he liked to put things over on the press--that may have helped extend the run of the poorly-reviewed Subways Are for Sleeping. But there are more legitimate tactics as well.) And Kirk is right when he reports that some reviewers “deny that they have any economic effect at all.” In a 1969 survey (the last time I looked, there weren’t any newer ones), only two-thirds of reviewers (of all arts, not just theater), said they had an economic impact. On the other hand, another survey found that 60% of spectators questioned said that reviews were of minimal importance to their choices. A 1977 study by More magazine (now defunct) attempted to find a correlation between the quality of the reviews and the length of a play’s run. The results weren’t conclusive, but they found, “When the critics expressed a strong negative [i.e., a pan] or positive [a rave] opinion about a play, there was a marked correlation with the length of run.” (I had some reservations about this study, which I expressed in the essay.)

[Come back in a few days for Part 4 of my commentary on Writing Reviews. There’s still more to say.]

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