The Critic in Extremis

By Kalb, Jonathan | American Theatre, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Critic in Extremis

Kalb, Jonathan, American Theatre


AMERICA IS NO PLACE FOR A THEATRE CRITIC. NOT A GOOD ONE, anyway. It's not just that the theatre here has always resisted serious evaluation more than any other art has. It's also that the ambition to overcome that resistance has never won anyone real literary respectability, regardless of talent, power or insight. Sheer commitment and love of the art have kept many in the game, as we all know, but in this era of media-saturation and fanatical consumerism, when the public's historically thin understanding of critical thinking in general is even more degraded every day, the effort seems especially futile.

Practically all public speech in our trivializing, vulgarizing, celebrity-worshiping age conspires to confuse us about the difference between criticism and public relations. Just as radio jocks are in the pockets of record companies, and the Oscars and Tonys are voted on by insiders protecting their friends and investments, so, too, do ubiquitous scribblers of semi-articulate gossip, crypto-advertisement and snotty, byte-sized consumer reports pass off their uninformed opinion-mongering as continuations of the independent and cultivated tradition of Bernard Shaw, Stark Young, Harold Clurman and Stanley Kauffmann.

The facts on the ground are plainly grim. Most of the journals that once regularly carried theatre essays as broad cultural circumspection have disappeared, and those that remain are edited by men and women who don't think theatre is very interesting or important. Ignoring meditative theatre writing has become an editorial norm in America. The annual ceremony honoring the winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the country's only major prize for a theatre critic, receives no national news coverage, even when the New York Times critic wins it. Analytical surveys posing general questions about contemporary journalistic criticism (such as Maurice Berger's 1998 The Crisis of Criticism) steer clear of theatre entirely. And new critical books about theatre are almost never reviewed in national publications- the one reliable exception being when the author is already a celebrity, preferably in a field other than theatre.

"Twas not ever thus. For a brief period after the post-World War II economic boom conferred middle-class identity on just about everyone, a few lucky critics had real national profiles. Writing in respectable intellectual journals like The Saturday Review, Commonweal and The Atlantic, and occasionally in mass-market magazines like Newsweek, critics such as Kauffmann, Eric Bentley, Robert Brusteimand and Richard Gilman cultivated a broad interest in theatre as an intellectual subject and a platform for cultural debate. But the now super-confident middle-class has, in the meantime, "sidelined" theatre as a minority pastime-between one and two percent of Americans go to the theatre, a steady statistic for many years-and trend-chasing editors anxious about their jobs are not about to buck that judgment. For well over a generation, serious American theatre journalism, no matter how intelligent, artful or insightfully entwined with larger issues, has withered in obscurity, practiced mainly by a dedicated circle of impassioned and utterly impractical Quixotes.

One of the best of these, Gordon Rogoff, has now laid down his lance. In the closing section of his new collection, Vanishing Acts, entitled "Endgames," he bids farewell to dramatic criticism: "Now I'm the public at last: I pay for entrance, and consequently I select the doors I might risk entering." Who can blame him? Rogoff wrote for the major respectable journals during precisely that period when they stopped bothering with theatre. For a time he had a regular forum in the Village Voice (the source for most of his previous collection, published in 1987, Theatre Is Not Safe) and at one point was a regular essayist for American Theatre (from which many of this new book's pieces are drawn). …

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