Drive-By Criticism. (Letters to the Editor)

American Theatre, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Drive-By Criticism. (Letters to the Editor)


Recently a friend gave me your Sept. '01 issue, and I'd like to thank you for your special section "Understanding Critics." In January 1995 my first play, The Sugar Bean Sisters, premiered Off-Broadway at the WPA Theatre in New York City. Vincent Canby, theatre critic for the New York Times, wrote in his review of the production, "Mr. Sanders has a long way to go before he learns how to write himself a play." The line, an obvious mockery of the play's uneducated southern characters would continue to haunt me for years to come. The review left me feeling wounded and confused. Perhaps Mr. Canby could have offered some suggestions, as opposed to simply making fun of the novice playwright and his southern characters. Where was the constructive criticism that I was prepared for and willing to accept, but that never came? Why does the critic seem to hold all the theatrical cards?

What should have been a serious review of my first play felt like the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting. There were other reviews of the play, some positive, yet none of the other reviews seemed to matter all that much in the grand theatrical scheme of things. As a result of Canby's review, no publisher wanted to publish even an acting edition of the script; the producer dropped her option on my next two plays; regional theatres all across the country rescinded their offers to produce the work; and my literary agent lost all faith in my ability to write good plays. Even a rave review in New York Newsday and a resulting Oppenheimer nomination for the "most impressive debut of a new American playwright" were not enough to erase the effects of Canby's review from the minds of all those who had once believed in the play's great promise.

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