A Critics' Summit

By Marx, Robert | American Theatre, May-June 1999 | Go to article overview

A Critics' Summit


Marx, Robert, American Theatre


ROBERT BRUSTEIN AND FRANK RICH TALK ABOUT CRITICISM PAST AND PRESENT, IDEAS AND IDEOLOGY, THE DANGERS OF CORPORATE ART - AND WHAT THEY'D DO DIFFERENTLY, GIVEN THE CHANCE

Back when new broadway plays and musical were rushed into print, collected drama criticism also took up prime space on bookstore shelves - until the business changed two decades ago. Major companies like Random House stopped publishing drama, the work of older critics like George Jean Nathan and Stark Young disappeared from the catalogs, and most contemporary critics were relegated to academic or alternative presses, if their work was anthologized at all.

The simultaneous publication last winter of collected theatre writings by both Robert Brustein and Frank Rich helped restore theatre criticism to the prestige of hardcover sales and front-line history. Brustein's Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics and Theatre (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago), like so many of his earlier books, consists largely of vital material that appeared originally in the New Republic. Leaving aside Brustein's volumes of literary criticism and autobiography, this new book is his ninth rigorous collection of theatre reviews and related essays an extraordinary sequence that began with Seasons of Discontent in the early 1960s. With the possible exception of Walter Kerr, no American critic of Brustein's time has had the persistence and good fortune to see so many articles from a prolific career republished in such controversial volumes that chronicle a theatregoing lifetime.

Frank Rich's Hot Seat: Theatre Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 is, astonishingly, the first-ever collection of reviews by the critic who loomed over American theatre for 13-plus seasons. This weighty and generous 1,000-page enterprise has been published by Random House as if the firm had never left the theatre business. It is an essential book, documenting not only the major and minor New York plays of a generation, but the arc of a pre-eminent theatre critic's influential taste, leadership and commitment.

In Hot Seat's final pages, we learn that after years of mutual antagonism Brustein recently offered to "bury the hatchet," and that Rich gladly agreed. Taking advantage of the truce, American Theatre invited both writers to meet in New York to discuss their careers, drama criticism and current issues in the theatre. An edited transcript of their wide-ranging conversation follows. - R.M.

ROBERT MARX: Bob, when you started writing criticism in the 1960s, you were part of a prominent community - Eric Bentley, Harold Clurman, Kenneth Tynan, Walter Kerr, Richard Gilman, Stanley Kauffmann. It was an amazing group.

ROBERT BRUSTEIN: And Susan Sontag. Everybody wanted to write theatre criticism in those days. Eric Bentley had a profound influence on me when I was a young, evolving intellectual. He was one of the few in our time who took theatre seriously as a genuine art form and not simply entertainment (although it must be that, too, of course). I read his books religiously and scoured the New Republic for his reviews. He was my idol, as it were, and he stimulated me through his work to go into theatre criticism.

When I eventually became drama critic for the New Republic, it was his example that led me to make really stringent demands on the editorial staff there before I took the job. He claimed that he'd been treated very badly by the New Republic - that they dropped a lot of his articles and edited others. So I demanded that every word be published as written, and any changes had to be checked with me. As a result, my editor would call me every week and read to me from Washington my copy over the phone. It was a great time for criticism, for me personally, anyway.

FRANK RICH: Fascinating generational changes. When I was at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1970 and '71 and working for the Crimson, I wanted to write drama criticism, and people thought it was a joke. …

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