The Playgoer: October 2005

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Monday, October 31, 2005

Pinter postscripts

In case you missed it, the inestimable Feingold did indeed write a Pinter tribute, but the Voice only published it online! But it's a must-read nonetheless.

Unlike those who have forced a "split" between Pinter the playwright and that other "political" guy, Feingold makes the best and clearest case so far about why they are and always have been inseparable. Money quote:

When the news of the Nobel award broke, many reporters mentioned Pinter's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, but this was no surprise to those who have followed Pinter's public outcries, both in his works and in active political statement, against torture, against the suppression of artists and journalists, against ethnic hatred and violence. The gratifying paradox is that his stance on these matters has carried weight globally precisely because of the powerful role that violence, torture, and degradation play in his works, from the time of his very earliest plays, like The Room and The Birthday Party. Pinter, the world can agree, is an artist who fully understands the human heart's potential for cruelty, and one of the rare ones who has been able to express it without exploitation. From the interrogation of Stanley in The Birthday Party and the tormenting of Davies in The Caretaker to the evocation of torture in One for the Road and gulags in Mountain Language, Pinter eschews all possibility of letting his audience revel in violence. It is there because it is in us; disconcertingly, he puts a human face on it so that we can see it in ourselves. At such moments the silences in Pinter test the extremes of human behavior: They are the silence of resistance, of terrified or complacent acquiescence, of outrage.

Feingold also reminds us that Pinter's political work has consisted of much more than just writing derided playlets--he's been an active campaigner for PEN, travelling the world to lobby for writers' free expression. You're telling me that's irrelevant to the Nobel Prize???

Quote of the Day

"Of all the productions I've seen, this is the one that comes closest to Grand Guignol, closest to what I originally wanted to do. I characterize all the major productions I've seen in terms of a single adjective. Hal [Prince]'s was epic. Declan Donnellan's production was exactly the reverse, it was very intimate. John's, for me, is the most intense."

-Stephen Sondheim (in Sunday's Arts & Leisure)lending his blessing John Doyle's Brechtian-Minimalist Sweeney Todd, finally opening this week. Stay tuned for to see if Broadway agrees...
(And kudos to Isherwood for an actually informative A&L feature.)

See below for my own review of the new Sweeney.

Friday, October 28, 2005

"Odd Couple" drubbing

While Washington awaits a 2pm "envelope, please" press conference, New York awakens to its own highly awaited verdict--and no less damaging to the politics of Broadway. Yes, the rumors had been flying for weeks. But I'm not sure anyone logging on late last night was expecting what became clear in Mr. Brantley's first two paragraphs:

Odd is not the word for this couple. How could an adjective suggesting strangeness or surprise apply to a production so calculatedly devoted to the known, the cozy, the conventional?

Consider the basic ingredients of the bland, mechanical new revival of Neil Simon's "Odd Couple," starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater...

In case one hoped for better from the lesser-impact dailies, there was this from veteran Howard Kissel in the Daily News: "Neither of them [Lane and Broderick]- nor director Joe Mantello - appears to have given any consideration to the characters Simon has written."
Those rooting for the show could at least take some solace in Linda Weiner's tepid thumbs-up in Newsday and Clive Barnes flat out (almost bribe-worthy!) rave in the Post. (By process of elimination, then, he must be the very "prominent critic" Michael Riedel tells a very funny, sad story about overheard at Joe Allen's.)

The most revealing comment may be this, from Eric Grode in the Sun: "[it] feels like an event, but the wrong kind of event. The impression is like one of those one-night-only benefit readings, with a few extra weeks of rehearsal thrown at it." Now director Joe Mantello is nothing if not a serious craftsman. If anything, I worried his Odd Couple might come out too "sensitive" and over-rehearsed for Simon's hilarious yet brittle script. But the consensus here seems to be (abetted by the gossip, to be sure) this was a limited rehearsal process with two somewhat miscast stars to begin with. Resorting to their reliable respective schticks, they pull through some laughs. But now people may be wondering why they've been suckered into spending so much money on "the hottest ticket on Broadway."

It's probably straining to extract "lessons" from this. (Especially when Playgoer has not seen it!) But remember this: this was the ultimate producer-driven "packaged deal." Most non-musical plays on Broadway these days have basically been imported from and "tried out" in the non-profit arena, where they are cast and rehearsed under less commercial driven artistic conditions. The producers of The Odd Couple have taken a shot at the "old" model of putting something up straight on Broadway. They may indeed be very happy financially, since the show is already sold out through April (a neutering effect most of the reviews lament). The recent Glengarry was also produced on this model (also directed by the frequently for-hire Mantello) and also made a killing; it also raked in much better reviews--but one wonders how much that even mattered to the box office.

Where's my point? Perhaps this: that The Odd Couple is still a fine play and deserves a small place in our repertory of national classics. And therefore it probably deserves more careful treatment than the current conditions forced on a commercial-only Broadway product can allow. And to producers--and artists--who set forth on such neatly packaged money-making ventures, don't expect the critics to play along.

UPDATE: Teachout weighs in, as well, today in WSJ, which is pay-only, so check out the excerpts of his "nay" vote on AboutLastNight

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Foreman returns

Remember those rumors of Richard Foreman abandoning the theatre? Well, fear not. Read what he has to say about his latest project at Jonathan Kalb's indispensible Hunter Online Theatre (or HOT). In typical Foreman-manifesto mode, the mastro hints at the new directions he is taking his work in, namely multi-media and the incorporation of film.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Kerouac The Playwright?

You may have noticed recently on bookstore "Drama" shelves (if yours deigns to have one) an actual play by Jack Keruac. It's true--an unpublished unperformed piece called (wouldn't ya know) Beat Generation. The Times today has a short feature on a reading done at the New York Public Library by Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton. Too bad they don't indicate whether it's any good or not!

Anyway, check it out yourselves at your friendly Amazon link above.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Workshop Hell

A little theatre than can, in St Paul, MN, commits itself to actually producing new plays, without workshops. Including Wellstone! The Musical. Read about here in the St. Paul Pioneer Press (free registration req'd)

And just in case you always assume our British counterparts have it so much better, here's a sobering piece from the BBC suggesting that while we may salivate at all state subsidized attention young playwrights there get, theatre in England is just as marginalized in mainstream culture there as in ours, unless it's on the West End (i.e. their Broadway). Unless TV comes to the rescue...

But reality TV show The Play's the Thing could do for budding playwrights what Operatunity did for emerging sopranos. Due to air on Channel 4 next year, the show challenges [producer Sonia] Friedman and her "expert panel" to uncover a new British playwright and open their play in the West End. So far, the panel - with the help of some 40 readers - have whittled down more than 2,000 entries to just 30 plays.

The Brits still have it better even in this regard, though. Perhaps such a show could exist in the US. But it would have to be a musical.

speaking of Nobel "political" playwrights...

Dario Fo is running for mayor--not here in NYC where we need him but in Milan. So have no fear, Mike Bloomberg...

Speaking of which, I supposed it's only fair to reference this glowing tribute to Bloomberg in this Sunday's Arts & Leisure. "His administration has done more to promote and support the arts than any in a generation"??? Personally I would have traded "The Gates" for an extra production slot at five non-profit theatres. Bloomberg's personal "philanthropy" (clearly benefitting the bigger fish more than the little) should not be mistaken for consistent and systemic arts policy. In other words...what's to become of our cultural institutions after Mayor McSchmoozer leaves?

Monday, October 24, 2005

the Pinter backlash

Dramaturg/Professor Rachel Shteir continues what seems to be an actual theatre beat at Slate (perhaps an encouraging internet milestone). But, based on her Pinter and August Wilson pieces, I hope her beat does not exclusively consist on beating up on great playwrights! I suspect there may be some pressure to do so (whether from her or Slate itself) as a kind of shock-jock journalism for eggheads. Let's face it, Slate may be smart, but it's no academic journal. It's a business, and, what's more, it's in the media business. So I can imagine they and Shteir don't mind standing out as the one column sticking it to these lofty giants while everyone else genuflects. Just a theory. (After all, it's working!)

Incidentally, Shteir's blunt Wilson critique--published three days after the playwright's death--has stirred up not a little outrage in academic circles, according to my sources. As I said in my own, somewhat more measured, reaction here, I am all for a lively debate over Wilson's oeuvre. But Shteir's stabs varied from the inaccurate to the downright myopic, and impervious to her own apparent biases. (Talking about "audience" in terms of white audiences only, for instance. And ignoring Wilson's aim for a less realism-bound, less psychological, and more political and poetic dramaturgy.)

With her Pinter piece (with the grabbing headline "Nobel Fool"!), Shteir makes the case for recognizing Pinter's plays, not his politics. This is buttressed by dismissing his later, more explicitly "political" work and claiming his best work was somehow apolitical, or at least extra-political(?). A pretty clichéd view, and quite contestable. What I mind more is the suggestion that politics should not enter into the Nobel:

Would the Nobel committee have recognized Pinter's genius if he hadn't traded his career for sermonizing? The committee has a history of giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to writers, particularly playwrights, who are also political activists, as if it were compensating for the irrelevance of literature with the force of politics. Political writing offers playwrights, especially at a time when the theater is so marginalized, a consoling sense of immediacy. But it rarely produces great theater.
I'll let you pause over that last statement. (Shall we email Shteir a list reminding her of, say, 100 great plays that are in some way "political"?)

Moreover, I think this characterization, reflects an Acentrismirism. In Europe, the artist is still expected to be an homme engagé. They consider taking part in the greater global conversation a good thing, something to be valued in the artist, only adding to the portfolio (not substituting for their art). We--liberals and conservatives alike, it seems--still like our artists above the fray, untainted by politics and call it meddling when they protest. This is what rightists like Laura Inghram like to call "Shut up and sing!" If Pinter's extreme leftism and anti-Americanism bother Shteir personally, fine. But she could say so. Just don't tell me we in the theatre are now cowering to this and turning our backs on an important heritage of activist, engaged political drama.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Life" Lessons

Ok, I cannot deny enjoying catching up on the reviews of In My Life, the vanity B'way musical by the Dr Pepper-jingle-"YouLightUpMyLife"-guy. (You can cut to the chase with Brantley, if you like.)

But I also can't help feeling this is the chicken who came home to roost, as it were. Broadway deserves In My Life. And Lennon. And Suzanne Somers. In fact, I believe such names and such product will be the staple of the Great White Way, no matter how much Times critics may sneer. For somewhere behind that sneer is a tacit endorsement.

Take last Sunday's Arts & Leisure feature article on the Life auteur Joe Brooks. (Free access expires after today, sorry.) Yes, the piece plays up the freakshow aspect and its hook is "nutty billionaire puts on ridiculous vanity show." But, hey there it is in the New York Times! And at 2,000 words, no less, on the front page of the country's most prestigious arts section. I'm sure I need not repeat O.W.'s first rule of celebrity, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

The truth is the Times (and other major media) is so beholden to the Broadway industry--and their press agents--that they have no choice but to run something on any Broadway opening. That they choose to do so with a condescending gently teasing piece like this is their teeny weeny exercise of journalistic freedom. (Like finding an innocuous off-color joke in "Pravda," if you will.) But at the end of the day the publicists were perfectly happy with this piece, I bet. And it certainly lets Brooks speak for himself plenty with no dissenters, so hardly an exposee.

What's there to "expose," you say? Well the real story here, between the lines, is how the economics of Broadway will make this kind of "vanity" show only more likely. With most sane investors realizing what a pitfall commerical theatre has become, only nuts like this will poor the unlimited funds it takes. (A highlight of the article is how thrilled the designers--all top-notch theatre professionals, by the way--were to finally work without budget constraints!) No shame will stop these people. And as long as they can count on glossy cover stories in the NYT immortalizing them, why not?

Which brings me to my modest proposal: that the NY Times not to cover these kinds of shows at all. Every feature they run on an In My Life, or a Lennon or Blonde in the Thunderbird--no matter how "in the know"--demeans both the theatre and themselves. If the show actually turns out to be worthwhile, great. Review it, praise it, go for broke. But why waste such valuable print real estate on something no one is looking forward to. Imagine the choices the arts editors must make with such limited space. And think of all the interesting and important theatre going on just this week not just in New York, but around the country and the world. And they devote 2,000 words to this!?

Bad shows like this happen (yes, sometimes to good people) precisely because of the understood agreement that the Times is obliged to cover anything (anything) that opens on Broadway. (If Anna Nicole did a one-woman show of Shakespeare soliloquies, you could expect similar ink, believe me.) To those who continue to urge us to look to Broadway for the future of the American Theatre because that's where the focus is, I say-- isn't this just a circular logic, a self-fulfilling prophecy? Doesn't the Times have the power to say, Enough! The focus will be where we put the focus! I can already hear the charges of elitism. But answer me this: do you really think the "average" playgoer will enjoy In My Life more than something from either the more highbrow or downtown ends of the spectrum?

You have the power, Times folk. The next time an obvious turkey calls, please learn to just say no. Lord knows you know how to say it to those theatres without the nutty billionaires and insistent press agents.

Endnote: the article does credit Joe Brooks with one oddly redeeming virtue in his tatse:

he already has his next two Broadway projects lined up: [including...] a new production of a musicalized "Metropolis" that flopped in London in 1989 (to be directed, if his plan works out, by the avant-garde pioneer Richard Foreman)

Anyone gotten a comment from Foreman on this???

Friday, October 21, 2005

"Sweeney" sells out?

Speaking of chat rooms, here's one documenting some fascinating developments over at Sweeney Todd during the extended previews. As this page predicted, forces from above are indeed "normalizing" the show. Typical excerpt from one poster: "The show curtain is now being brought in at the end of each act. Gone are the 'Brechtian exits'..."

Who knows. Cerveris and LuPone may have hats & canes by opening night.

What's happening with "The Odd Couple"?

A common question in B'way circles these days, as scuttlebut intensifies to deflate what was supposed to be the season's juggernaut. Michael Riedel has the goods, including Matthew Broderick and (director) Joe Mantello on the record! (acknowledging problems, no less).

Gossip can be evil in these cases, with fanatics going online reviewing previews. (Imagine that!) But--never the censor--Playgoer is happy to link you to the mill o' rumors.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

10/20/2005: "Free Night of Theatre"

As part of a coordinated effort through Theatre Communications Group, tonight, October 20, there will be tons of free theatre in three metropolitan areas: Philadelphia, Austin, TX, and the Bay Area in California. The idea is to attract first time playgoers to several smaller professional theatres in those regions by basically giving away free tickets for one night's shows. TCG honcho Ben Cameron spells out the mission in his recent editorial for American Theatre magazine.

Don't worry. I will not argue against free theatre. Let me state the obvious in saying bravo, and I hope many take advantage of the offer. (If any readers are out there in these cities, please comment on how it went!) But this does at some point beg the question--is this what it takes? and how often can we afford to do this??? It's a success if people come in the door who never go to the theatre. But otherwise, I'm not sure what problems this giveaway fixes.

I once heard Ben Cameron himself pose an interesting counterargument to the assumption that theatre's problem is ticket prices. He rightly reminded us how much (like, lots!) people spend on other live entertainment like concerts. There's one argument to be made about theatre being too expensive for its "base" of starving artists. But as for the well-educated artsy yuppies who support most other culture industries... a $75 theatre ticket is not necessarily an obstacle....No, Cameron suggested we take a page from business and start thinking about not just price, but value. People pay more money when they believe the value is high.

So until we persuade the culture at large about the value of the theatre... we may be lucky if they even show up for free.

Inside NAJP

A compelling post-mortem from the New York Observer on Columbia's abandonment of its Arts Journalism program, and the loss of an important de facto culture think tank. Not to mention a crucial advocate for the coverage of the arts nationwide.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

REVIEW: Sweeney Todd

After a long absence, Playgoer returns to the theatre. And it's a bigee...

Sweeney Todd
by Stephen Sondheim & Hugh Wheeler
starring Michael Cerveris & Patti LuPone
on Broadway, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre (in previews)

I've always felt that what's wrong with Sweeney Todd is that it fits just a bit too comfortably into the New York City Opera repertoire, where it has been given the ultimate stamp of prestige for a musical. But what's Stephen Sondheim doing writing a grand opera in Victorian garb? And what's a piece supposedly telling us "we all deserve to die" and we are victims of post-industrial alienation doing entertaining the Lincoln Center set in a huge glitzy opera house? (Yeah, what about Wozzeck, you'll say. Fine.) And while Sweeney always delivers some chills and some of Sondheim's grimmest music and lyrics, all the dress-up of it has struck me as not a little pretentious and disingenuous.

Well British director John Doyle has rectified many of these problems. His new production--originally for his own Watermill company in the UK, now restaged on Broadway with an American cast--certainly ain't your father's Sweeney Todd. Or Hal Prince's, at least. Performed by a cast of ten on a claustrophobic stage platform of wooden planks, under harsh white lights, there's nothing lavish about it. And, except for what seems to be the setting of an old apothecary shop, nothing Victorian. Nostalgic for Angela Lansbury's cute red pigtails? Well, gone are the traditional costumes, too, in favor of a wash of generically modern 20th century blacks-and-whites. Sweeney, in his mid-size black leather coat and black skinny tie here resembles a classic gangster or Gestapo agent more than George Hearn's vintage sideburn-twirling villain in a barber's apron. By stripping away the (automatically) comforting and familiar Victorian trappings, Doyle lets us see Sweeney for the 20th century--I dare say modernist--piece it is.

To call Doyle production "Brechtian" might be too facile. There is indeed a "frame" which provides layers of mediation and distance between us and the proceedings. (Basically, it's presented as the vision of the boy, Tobias, supervised by actors in white lab coats. Sweeney himself appears almost as the boogeyman of the boy's fantasies.) Doyle is actually reclaiming the show's roots in Brecht, believe it or not. I was always under the general impression Sweeney was based on an authentic melodrama by this "Christopher Bond," some forgotten 19th century hack, I assumed. But not so fast. Look at what his program bio reveals:
CHRISTOPHER BOND (Adaptor), an actor/director/writer, wrote Sweeney Todd for the Stoke-on-Trent experimental Theatre. [So, presumably not in the 19th century.] He took Brecht's Man Is Man, renamed it Man Eats Man and applied it to the public domain one-act folk play of Sweeney Todd by George Dibdin Pitt who stole the story from a short story "The String of Pearls: A Romance" in the Victorian gossip magazine Penny Dreadful.

To Sondheim aficionados, this must be old news, and now I'm fascinated to read more about how he happened on adapting this adaptation. (It certainly gives gives new resonance to lines like "The history of the world, my sweet/ Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.") In reverting to this germ, Doyle opens up the whole show and shows it to us anew--that is, closer to how it was originally conceived.

So while the chatrooms and gossip columns have been full of Patti LuPone Tuba jokes (yes, let your imagination run wild), what we actually see on stage is a good old "ensemble" staging. The actors don't just double as musicians for convenience or cost-saving. (Though obviously this was a financial plus for the producers who imported the show.) It is integral to the aesthetic of the production--where the playing of music becomes as important form of human expression (i.e. acting) as singing. Sometimes the effect is uncertain, or even bordering on silly (as when Johanna and Anthony sing their love duets astride matching cellos). But when, in the famous "Quartet", the Beadle the Judge loom over the lovers, plotting their schemes as they intone quiet menacing muted trumpets, a dark, subtle visual poetry is achieved the likes of which
you won't find in an average Broadway musical.

And because the music is seen not just heard, we pay attention to it in totally new ways. Even if traditionalists balk at the new scaled down "orchestrations" and perhaps more relaxed standard of musicianship--the payoff is that this production ends up really showcasing the dazzling score. And the experimental staging allows for even more dissonance and jarring shifts in that music to be brought out than you may be used to. Seeing how the individual instrument/actors play together in continual disharmony is, to say the least, relevant to the content of the play.

The chief problem of the production, though, is exactly what Broadway considers the chief lure. Put another way: how do you create an ensemble show, with stars! I take nothing away from the pure presence and magnetism of Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris. And they're clearly "good sports," about the whole thing. Cerveris, in particular, gave a very brave performance in the early preview I saw--wandering about the stage in quiet dementia, never charming. In short, total Wozzeck. His "Epiphany" (that crowd pleaser with the rousing chorus "We all deserve to die!") was almost out of control in its mania, but it chilled the audience into stunned silence. (Doyle's ability to generally discourage applause--even for Broadway royalty like LuPone--is admirable.)

With LuPone, though, I don't doubt her commitment to the concept, only whether she is capable of giving a Brechtian performance. She can't not charm us. When it's time for Mrs. Lovett's comic numbers "Wait" and "By the Sea" alienation has left the building. Despite all Doyle's efforts to de-Broadwayize the material, LuPone is a Broadway animal, and so are Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler; in LuPone's hands their jokes come with rim-shots intact. "A Little Priest" was a telling example of the obstacles to Doyle's project. I can imagine playing up the "music hall" aspect, and Doyle might have employed his actor/musicians as onstage audience to highlight Lovett and Sweeney's self-conscious performativity of the number, making it a grotesque entertainment. Instead, LuPone and Cerveris are given their (no doubt contractual) downstage center special to wow us, unencumbered, while the rest simply accompany from behind. Unfortunately the mic-ing was so thick in the theatre they still couldn't effectively put over Sondheim's famously baroque rhymes here. And so the producers get the boffo Act One finale they were counting on. Too bad it no longer fits the show.
There are other times, too, when the avant garde concept doesn't mesh what is still at heart a Broadway piece. It even doubles back on itself at the conclusion, leading to at least two false endings to my count. Perhaps that's been addressed in previews. Perhaps they are the result of compromises between an adventurous director and "seasoned" Broadway producers (or Sondheim himself!). Sam Mendes reportedly had to submit to much correction by Arthur Laurents & co. when he tried to reimagine Gypsy, remember. (Leading to a weird hybrid of a production.) One wonders how much of what we're seeing on stage here resembles what Doyle was able to get away with in the London fringe when no one was looking.

I suspect there will be great disagreement about this show when it opens in a couple of weeks, not only from Broadway and Sondheim junkies, but also critics. Sweeney is a classic and here--in its first Broadway revival, no less--it is being quite markedly reinvented. It will be an interesting test of how far an experimental aesthetic can go in a purely commercial presentation. (Another British import of a decade ago comes to mind, An Inspector Calls, which was surprisingly successful!) But even if Broadway tradtionalists balk, I hope their opposite--the downtowners, anyone who thinks they hate musicals--will get hold of some affordable tickets and check out this intriguingly dark chamber opera that just happens to be under a fancy marquee with a glitzy showbiz pedigree.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Broadway Dreamers

The NY Times has on their Op-Ed page today a piece by William Goldstein, a composer and songwriter, with yet another appeal to "save Broadway." Mr. Goldstein doesn't seem to be a particularly influential theatre artist, so I'm not sure how seriously we would normally take his suggestions--except now they're published by the New York Times!

His presecriptions? Would you believe... tax breaks for Broadway producers!

For starters, the city could help. New York gives tax breaks to large employers to keep them in the city. Why not offer similar tax breaks to Broadway?
The city could set aside part of property tax revenue from theaters, and start a fund available to Broadway productions during their run. The fund could aid shows struggling to find an audience by kicking in when low box office revenues lead to the waiving of royalty payments (that percentage of weekly gross paid to the show's creators).

Since Goldstein only equates theatre with Broadway (and never references the existence of any activity south of Times Sq), he probably doesn't realize that any state moneys or tax-breaks going to Broadway's benefit would inevitably be taken out of the non-profit sector. My fear is that the State and the City (not to mention the Bush administration) would be perfectly happy with that shift. (Why waste tax money on shows that don't even attract tourism!) Goldstein--and the many who echo his appeals--are advocating for Broadway as an endangered industry (like manufacturing jobs). That may be. But let's, as theatre people, not let the commercial crowd speak for our agenda.

And get a load of this:
The challenge, of course, is to lower costs, stimulate more productions, put more performers to work and still maintain a respectable wage. These goals could be achieved if all the people involved in putting on a show were willing to share in the risks and rewards. Union leaders could begin a hire-more-actors-and-musicians campaign. Instead of trying to get higher salaries and benefits for the fewer and fewer actors and musicians working on Broadway, union leaders could make it their goal to get more people working. This could be achieved by having union leaders and producers agree on a sliding salary scale based on the number of performers employed. The more actors or musicians hired, the lower the scale. At 40 actors or musicians, the lowest pay scale would be reached.

In principle, great. Economics has made the large-cast show prohibitive. And that has impoverished the 90-minute, small-cast dramaturgy of our age. But to fix the deck the other way? And to reward artists less? (And, obviously, such a formula would go out the window when big stars turned down those "adjusted" salaries.)

Goldstein asks for even more artist sacrifices to keep this questionable dream alive:
When a show is in trouble and royalties are waived, actors and musicians would be required to work at half their salary for up to 60 days or until the show returns to profitability. The stagehands union could agree to a similar program.

Stories of voluntary pay-cuts to keep a beloved show going are legendary. But such measures hearken back to the indentured servitude of the days before Actors Equity.

Does no one on Broadway remember something called the Broadway Alliance? Crica 1990, I recall a small group of producers and artists getting a coalition together to make similar concessions, and they succeeded in producing a few new plays. (Steve Tesich's The Speed of Darkness was one, I recall.) It tanked. It was great for the playwrights, I'm sure, to have the exposure. But, in retrospect, would they and their plays not have been better served by a well-subsidized smaller venue where their work would not be lost in a balcony full of thrill-seeking tourists. Oh, how short our memories are...

Sorry, but there already is a solution to producing better theatre at lower prices and better quality: the non-profit model. The Broadway of Phantom, Mama Mia, and Billy Crystal is in no danger, believe me. What Broadway is Goldstein so worried about? The vanity shows (see here), misguided star vehicles, and beleaguered jukebox pretenders? He, of course, thinks he's in the 1950s:
Working together, politicians, union leaders, producers, actors, musicians, theater owners and the news media can revitalize Broadway, enabling producers to recreate the golden years of New York theater by putting on magical shows with large casts and orchestras and opening the door to new successes that will become tomorrow's classics.

Raise the Titanic, anyone? Clone the dinosaurs? It's over, man.

And why mourn? Let's recognize the glory days of Broadway (when art and commerce could co-exist, but still--let's be real--never peacefully) constituted a unique historical moment. Obviously the industries of culture change with the times, and in response to other changing industries. To keep Broadway going the way it was pre-1965, say, is to pretend there is no cable television or netflix, and that the audience hasn't been raised to think of theatre as a freakshow. If, as a songwriter, Goldstein is wedded to that past--and needs it for his livelihood--understandable he would advocate such measure. But to rest of the world, I say: please don't confuse this with theatre.

And to our congress and city councils, governors and mayors, I plead: we in the real theatre are over here! We, who stand little chance of making profits at all are the true non-profit--not those who fail to profit. What's a better investment of public funds? Wham!: The Musical? or, discovering the next Edward Albees, or August Wilsons, or Julie Taymors? proficient stagings of the classics--not just Shakespeare, but our American classics, so we can finally brag of a national repertory.

The Times will say, of course, the opinions of any op-ed piece expresses only the opinions of the contributor. But with all the Times Sq real estate and advertising at stake here, one suspects the paper is more than happy to define theatre so exclusively, and as a business more than an art. Don't let them, folks. Write in and let them hear from the other New York theatre.

Friday, October 14, 2005

more Pinter round-up

The accolades and other interesting links keep surfacing. First, here's a delightful first-person account from Pinter himself, showing both a touching humility, as well the good ol' vitriol. He also accounts for the gash on his head!

Then, if it's econiums you want you can do no better than Guardian critic and Pinter- courtier Michael Billington and that other British political (or formerly political) playwright David Hare.

On the other front, alicublog surveys a dense variety of responses from all over the political/cultural map. (Hat tip, Terry Teachout)

Thanks to colleague Norm F. and frequent across-the-pond commenter WebLoge for some of these links. Webloged wondered yesterday, "Interesting that you seem to be much more excited about this in NY than we are over here." Still true? Or are Londoners just tired of the old man's ranting omnipresence by now?

corrected Pinter radio link

Sorry that my previous link (pre-Nobel) to Pinter's Voices on BBC radio was incorrect. I've now fixed it. You can also just click here.

Pinter love-in, Day 2

So is this the weirdest Harold Pinter photo you've ever seen or what? It was on today's front page of the Times. Apparently this is current. As in yesterday. And it's not a costume for his star turn in Zorba the Greek. The caption explains the bandage is the result of a "fall", but, still, that doesn't explain the mustache...

The accompanying article by chief London correspondent Sarah Lyall is certainly an improvement from the initial rush-jobs appearing online yesterday. Ben Brantley's short-deadline appreciation is also perfectly fine, for now. (You'll have more fun with the nifty "audio slide show" option!) But I still await the more detailed and complex appraisals.

Then again, let's not eulogize the man already! Lyall's piece ends on a funny implicit critique of the habit:

There was a moment of exquisite discomfort on television on Thursday afternoon after the Nobel announcement was made, The Evening Standard reported.
"A Sky News presenter announced at 12:01 p.m. that Harold Pinter had died," the paper said, "before correcting herself, after a Pinteresque pause, and saying that he had in fact won a Nobel Prize."

The featured product on the right, by the way, is indeed the Peter Hall film of The Homecoming with Ian Holm and most of the original cast. Granted, production values are lacking and, as it was filmed a few years after the stage premiere, some of the actors may not be the right age. But what actors! An invaluable document of "the Pinter style"--or at least as codified by Hall in those landmark productions.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Can't let the day go by without passing on the "official" Harold Pinter website, for those fans out there who don't know about it yet.

It's actually Not for profit, naturally. (Though he certainly has, make no mistake.)

Pinter-Nobel playlet

Much thanks to George Hunka for posting in the comments below this actual transcript (and recording!) of a phone interview with Pinter this morning by someone from the Nobel website.

Here it is in full. (It only lasted one minute. How Pinteresque.)

-- Hello. Good morning.
– Good morning, good morning, Mr Pinter. Congratulations. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation.
– Yes. Well, thank you very much.
– It’s fantastic news for us here; and I would like to hear what your thoughts were when you received the news.
– Well, I’ve ... I’ve been absolutely speechless. I am ... I’m overwhelmed by the news, very deeply moved by the news. But I can’t really articulate what I feel.
– You didn’t have any idea it could come your way, did you?
– No idea whatsoever! No. So I’m just bowled over.
– There’s so much to talk about. But I would like just to ask you what, in your career, you think has been the most important, what has the most ...
– I cannot answer ... I can’t answer these questions.
– No, I understand.
– There’s nothing more I can say, except that I am deeply moved; and, as I say, I have no words at the moment. I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm.
– You will be coming to Stockholm?
– Oh, yes.
– Okay. Thank you, Sir.
– Okay?
– Thank you.
– Thank you very much.
– Thank you.

Gotta love that "Oh, yes." A podium on the world stage? Yeah, he'll have some "words". They may not be about dramaturgy, though.

Tune in tomorrow for the right wing reaction...

"August Wilson Theatre" christened Sunday

After this Sunday evening 10/16, the Virginia Theatre will indeed be officially named the August Wilson Theatre. The "rededication ceremony" will be open to the public. Martin Denton of has the details.

The Permanent Secretary
Press Release13 October 2005

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2005 is awarded to the English writer Harold Pinter "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".

The Swedish Academy
Wow, these folks write a very poetic press release!

more Pinter coverage

Here's the Guardian's newsflash (thanks to "Professor MH"), a much more thorough--and accurate!--account of HP's career. According to the AP, Pinter wrote only 3 plays, and two of them one-acts! Also note the difference in these two phrasings:

AP: "Pinter is the first Briton to win the literature award since V.S. Naipaul won it in 2001."

Guardian: "Pinter's victory means that the prize has been given to a British writer for the second time in under five years; it was awarded to VS Naipaul in 2001. European writers have won the prize in nine out of the last 10 years so it was widely assumed that this year's award would go to a writer from a different continent."

I report, you decide.

Also, the NY Times has now posted its own reporting. But there'll be plenty, more analytical and critical pieces to come, rest assured.

The Nobel Dramatists Club

Update: I apologize for not fact-checking this awfully incomplete AP list. As this complete history of Nobel Literature laureates shows, Pinter is not the "10th" but more like the 20th, depending on who you count.
Some omissions are disconertingly non-western (or I should say non-white) and others are actually major 20th century Europeans. And by major I mean like Shaw! (1925). The other glaring omits are: Derek Walcott , '92; Wole Soyinka, '86; Jean-Paul Sartre, '64; John Galsworthy, 32; WB Yeats, '23; and Knut Hamsun, '20. You can also make a case for some writers who at least dabbled in the drama: T.S. Eliot, Gunter Grass, Camus, Andre Gide. Hell, even Saul Bellow wrote a play. (free subsciption to Playgoer for whoever knows the title!)
So are the AP staffers just that drama illiterate? Or is such the nature of insta-journalism?

Since I know you were wondering...

From the AP (courtesy NYT):

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- Harold Pinter, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, is the 10th playwright to win the honor, according to the Swedish Academy, which has given the awards annually since 1901:
-- Harold Pinter, Britain (2005)
-- Dario Fo, Italy (1997)
-- Samuel Beckett, Ireland (1969)
-- Eugene O'Neill, United States (1936)
-- Luigi Pirandello, Italy (1934)
-- Grazia Deledda, Italy (1926)
-- Jacinto Benavente, Spain (1922)
-- Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann, Germany (1912)
-- Count Maurice Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck, Belgium (1911)
-- Jose Echegaray y Eizaguirre, Spain (1904)

Ok, I'll go first and admit I'm not really as up on my Deledda as I should be. As for Benavente and Echegaray, let's just say--to use the academic's favorite cover--"it's been a while since I've read them."
I plead guilty to the cultural/linguistic insularity which marks the English language theatre...

And the Nobel goes to...

it's announced. And I was close! Let's say, the other dramatist we have been discussing here of late...

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Pinter update

As the Times reports today (and Webloge graciously posted in a comment here to yesterday's Pinter story) Harold Pinter is indeed far from done with theatre. Get this: Harold Pinter, now battling with what seems a quite serious case of cancer of the esophogous, will perform Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. This is the play, remember, where a silent(or mostly silent?) ageing man onstage looks, or listens, back on his life by playing a series of old recordings of himself. I suppose the play's use of tape recordings makes the acting job feasible for the reportedly weak-voiced Pinter. Not that anyone expects feelings from Beckett, but this sounds already like an incredibly moving production of the piece. (Not that the playwright--either one!--would want that, of course.)

It will be part of the Royal Court's 50th Anniversary Season. Also slated: a new Tom Stoppard (stiffing the National? or did he get stiffed?); The Seagull by way of Christopher Hampton (is there a living English playwright who hasn't done a Seagull???*) a revival of Churchill's Cloud 9, and a revival of the play that started it all Look Back in Anger. (If anyone can rescue the reputation of that now-tepid curiosity, it's the Court, one would imagine.) Plus readings of other selected highlights of their prodigious and prestigious repertoire of premieres.

*The same could be said with big American playwrights and Three Sisters (Mamet, L. Wilson, now Craig Lucas, etc). Has Chekhov adaptation become some new rite-of-passage into "respectability"? And do we really need yet another approximated contemporary paraphrase of someone else's literal translation? (Lanford Wilson did learn Russian at least, god bless him.) I'm all for new english versions of foreign classics, but do we really need to keep reinventing the wheel on the same four plays! Basically, we have plenty of selection now in the Chekhov department. Time for a moratorium, I think.

Quote of the Day

"If you let someone talk for more than seven seconds on your show without interruption...then you are a failure."

- an admirably candid Joe Scarborough relaying some advice he received from a network executive about how to conduct public discourse on television. (He is quoted in today's Times piece on the upcoming--and must-see!--"Colbert Report" on Comedy Central.) It might as well apply to all commercial tv interviews. When it starts happening on PBS as well, we'll know the end is nigh...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

New Pinter Play

Well, sort of new. But quite momentous. Harold Pinter--who has recently hinted at a sort of retirement from the stage--has put together a short radio play for the BBC, Voices, partially based on previous works. You can actually listen to it here! I haven't had the chance yet, but won't let that delay in informing you, dear reader.

An odd, but intriguing project. A composer, James Clark, has set to music speeches from some of Pinter's most overtly political plays (basically, his "torture" plays). A Pinter musical? Clicking is believing, I guess..

The Independent has a very thorough account of the project and the collaboration. Here's the gist:

The two met in 1997, intent, in Clarke's words, on "formulating a work which would use words and music in a new way". As a result, in Voices Pinter's sparse script is combined with Clarke's radiophonic score.
...For Voices, Pinter has reworked five of his later plays - One for the Road, Mountain Language, The New World Order, Party Time and Ashes to Ashes - into a fragmented narrative on cruelty, torture and oppression...

(The Independent's correspondent here, Alice Jones, provides a model of good arts journalism, by the way. Not to show my anglophilia, but you won't see a profile this deep and serious anywhere in the NYT. Serious art deserves serious coverage.)

I won't here get into the debate over the merit of these later Pinter plays. Yes, the general opinion is that his political activism has "overtaken" his art. But what does that mean when his art was always profoundly political. (Or, at least, about power.) Besides, One For the Road and Mountain Language may not be great plays, but definitely feature some chilling, chilling writing. Pinter mastered the "torture scene" long before it became a cliche. In fact you could argue he wrote the template.

Sadly, Pinter's diminished visibility and productivity is the result of an apparently losing battle with cancer. Yet he soldiers on. One of the treats of this BBC broadcast is to hear the man himself perform the heavy from One For The Road (a role I was privileged to see him play at Lincoln Center just four years ago). The only bad news about that is the audible strain his illness has had on that robust voice. What strikes you seeing Pinter in person is what a bear of a man he is. As the article illustrates, his inner voice and determination seems as strong as ever, even if his body can't keep up.

Postscript: George Hunka at Superfluities has, of course, beaten me to the punch on this story, and added much more interesting Pinteriana. And I agree, let's reserve a Nobel for Harold, too. (I'd say "Sir Harold," but as the Independent notes, he turned down a knighthood from John Major years ago.)

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Francophobia at the NYT?

I'm completely nonplussed at Jesse McKinley's "story" in the Saturday Arts section on the upcoming production of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis at BAM. The facts are pretty straightforward: like most plays at BAM, it's an import from abroad, in this case France. The great Isabelle Huppert has been performing the play over there already, in French, of course, and will continue doing so here. Why would anyone expect otherwise?

Well McKinley and the Times thinks it's really odd (hilarious? outrageous?) that a knowledge of French might be asked for by decent theatregoing Manhattanites. (As if it's not bad enough we have to schlep out to Brooklyn, they might as well have added...) Now BAM does lots of foreign language productions (a bit of important context not to be found in the piece) and the barrier is usually overcome by "supertitles," headphones, or some such device. So, true, it is noteworthy that BAM is only offering partial English titles for this particular show. Why--you may ask--has a line-for-line translation been vetoed here? That would be an excellent question, perhaps leading to revelations about artistic choices of the director and his star. But it is not a question you'll see asked in this article.

Instead McKinley offers this glib and superficial account:

Ms. Huppert will perform the show essentially as a monologue, standing nearly motionless for 105 minutes without intermission. There will be a few English super-titles but very little else to help those of us without a working knowledge of the language of love.

("Language of love"? Don't Times editors have a cliche squad? Is this really the implied level of discourse for a NYT arts reader now?)

I guess this gets to me because I have had some of the most amazing theatregoing experiences of my life at foreign-language performances. (And most of them were at BAM) When you are liberated from the habituated "hanging on every word" posture and stop just passively following one line of dialgue to the next, you start noticing subtle things about staging and the physicality of actors' bodies and even voices. (I will always remember the robust sound of Ingmar Bergman's ensembles, for instance.) Supertitles can actually be a terrible distraction from the stage (there's just nowhere to put them as conveniently as in a movie-frame), and I try never to resort to the dreaded headphones of "simultaneous translation" when usually two announcers--one male, one female-- read all the parts in a monotone usually employed for NPR headlines. Obviously, intelligibility of the dialogue is important. That's why, if it's available, I always try to read the play beforehand. When it's a classic, like a familiar Shakespeare, it's really no problem to at least follow where they are in the play.

Such effort is called preparing. And perhaps what ticks me off is that is what is mocked most in McKinley's article. Starting with the headline: "Sending a Warning on an Unusual Play (Go Pack Your Pocket Larousse?)". Right. As in, "Warning: thought and active spectating may be required." The blunt topic of this short article quickly boils down to: BAM fucked up and programmed a Frog play with no subtitles.

So it is that Joseph V. Melillo, the executive director of the academy, recently took the unusual step of writing a letter to ticketholders of "4:48" essentially telling them what they were getting into. "As some ticket buyers may be unfamiliar with the play," Mr. Melillo wrote in a letter dated Sept. 20, "I wanted to elaborate on some of the unique aspects of this staging so that you can have the best possible experience at BAM." He then outlined the play's lack of "plotline, time, location or staging notes," and the decision to perform it in French.
Interviewed yesterday, Mr. Melillo said the letter was simply "truth in advertising," meant to inform his audiences that the show was "not the norm of what you experience at BAM."

So the idea we're supposed to get is Melillo has had to do massive damage control. But, actually, I think it's great for a producer to want to "prepare" his audience and give some context. While Melillo, even at a non-profit institution, must keep his eye on sales (and the "advertising" of his product), it's not a dissimilar impulse from the lengthy notes directors and dramaturgs might put into a program (or a theatre company's newsletter) in the hopes patrons might step up and take an active role, or "assistance" as the audience's role is actually referred to by--guess who--the French.

Understandably, some may choose not to sit through a whole 100 minutes(!) of partially unfiltered French spoken by a beautiful and powerful actress--in a rare New York stage appearance, I might add. For others, that sounds like already a more intriguing evening of theatre than most of the lame shows the Times has been giving space to lately. (Count how many promos they did on Naked Girl on the Appian Way, for instance, before Brantley panned it as a highbrow sitcom.) And there's even a simple way around the language barrier that McKinley never mentions. Read the play! It's published. Here. Okay, so it may add $10 to the ticket. But I'm sure that's immaterial to the demographic the Times has in mind anyway. Perhaps Melillo even suggests this in his letter to ticketbuyers. We'll never know since McKinley doesn't say.

So is the Times out to embarass BAM? Or is this just the slyest kind of PR, posing as critical reporting, but in fact existing only to promote the next big opening, for which tickets are still available? Or is this the dumbing down of arts coverage just proceeding as planned...

Friday, October 07, 2005

Nobel Prize on hold

The Swedish Academy has announced they are suddenly, mysteriously delaying the unveiling of the Nobel Prize for Literature by one more week, to October 13. Much speculation. But no one is raising the name of August Wilson. Again, I suppose Nobel doesn't do posthumous. But ya never know...


Will Katrina relief and the cause of "offset spending" finally give Republicans the cover they need to cut the NEA? No. They're seeking to eliminate it.

An advisory panel composed of over 100 Republican members of the House of Representatives has recommended ending all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)....The Republican Study Committee recommended that the two agencies be eliminated as part of its "RSC Budget Options 2005" report.

The "RSC" eliminating the NEA? No doubt the irony is lost on them.

Read the full details in Backstage. The report tried to quell fears by reassuring us most of these cuts (including $105 mil in federal NEA funding) "could easily be funded by private donations." Easily, huh. I'm not sure Development Directors would put it quite that way. (What conservatives always neglect is that federal grants are essential "leverage" in securing those very same "private donations." One begets the other.)

Other highlights:

"As with the NEA, the general public benefits very little" from the NEH, the report declares, "and it could easily be funded by private donations. Savings: $2 billion over ten years ($769 million over five years)."

..."CPB and PBS [saith the report] continue to use federal funding to pay for questionable programming, such as a documentary on sex education funded by the Playboy Foundation. Additionally, much of the programming on PBS, such as 'Sesame Street,' could bring in enough annual revenues to cover the loss of federal funding. Savings: $5.6 billion over ten years ($2.2 billion over five years)."
The report does not indicate specifically how programs such as "Sesame Street" could raise that revenue.

Oh, and in case anyone thinks the states will pick up the tab, check out what's going on in Michigan. 17.5% cuts. Under a Democratic governor!

Keep up with the ongoing struggle over at Americans for the Arts.

Education Digression

As one who works in "higher education"--and as a Harvard reject, though never, never bitter about it--I cannot resist recommending Malcolm Gladwell's must-read review in the New Yorker of Jerome Karabel's new book The Chosen, an exposé about Ivy League admissions.

Take a look at Gladwell's lede and tell me it does not evoke a much saner world:

I applied to college one evening, after dinner, in the fall of my senior year in high school. College applicants in Ontario, in those days, were given a single sheet of paper which listed all the universities in the province. It was my job to rank them in order of preference. Then I had to mail the sheet of paper to a central college-admissions office. The whole process probably took ten minutes. My school sent in my grades separately. I vaguely remember filling out a supplementary two-page form listing my interests and activities. There were no S.A.T. scores to worry about, because in Canada we didn’t have to take the S.A.T.s. I don’t know whether anyone wrote me a recommendation. I certainly never asked anyone to. Why would I? It wasn’t as if I were applying to a private club.

NB: the link to the article will probably expire soon. So go and print while you can!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Oxfordians, move over!

Update 10/7: a more lively news account of this book, with more details of its flimsy claims, can be found here, from the BBC.

Yes, just when I thought there was nothing more to say on the authorship "question", at least for the week, along comes this from Reuters:

Two academics say they have discovered the "real'' William Shakespeare, the never-before-identified Henry Neville, whipping up a tempest of debate among the Bard's followers who have had to defend him against a host of pretenders. Academics Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein have recorded their findings in a new book in which they make the case for Neville, a Tudor politician, diplomat and landowner whose life span matched that of Shakespeare almost exactly.

Now if these new deniers are indeed credentialed professors at an accredited institution, that would be news. Would be. But it seems that the label "academics" may be applied a bit loosely to James, who is of no fixed university, apparently. Plus, check out her methods:

James, a Briton, says she stumbled upon the new contender Neville while decoding the Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets, which led her to identify Neville as the author of the plays. She spent the next seven years gathering evidence to prove her point. When she asked Rubinstein, of the University of Wales, to check her facts, he was sufficiently convinced to agree to advise on and co-author the book.

Ah, "decoding." Of course. (I guess we'll have to read the book for instructions.) Anyway, note no affiliation. Rubinstein, granted, seems to have himself a post. So I say he's owed a good thorough peer review of the book (entitled The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare. I won't deny them the plug). Let's see what happens. I've always thought the best retort to the Deniers' cries of academic conspiracy and intimidation is: man, if you could actually prove any doubt about Shakespeare's authorship, what a way to make your career! (Same with evolutionary science, I'm sure.) But if you don't have the persuasive documents, you deserve the ridicule the academy will heap on you.

(By the way, I don't have the same beef with Reuters here as I do with the NY Times. In fact, this can serve as a model approach to covering fringe theories- objective tone, respectfully and fairly representing them while also getting balance from conventional "authorities".)

So what about their documentation? Well, so far, no smoking gun it seems. Though here's what appears to be their Exhibit A:

James said a notebook written by Neville while locked in the Tower of London around 1602 contained detailed notes which ended up in "Henry VIII'' first performed several years later. His experience in the tower, where he faced execution for his part in a plot to overthrow the queen, would also explain the shift in 1601 from histories and comedies to the great ''Shakespearian'' tragedies.

Well, I'm intrigued to read what's in this notebook. But since Henry VIII is one of the most obviously collaborative of the plays. It has long been the norm to co-attribute it to John Fletcher, and many of us would be happy to lose it from the canon altogether. So let 'em have it!... Plus, journal-keeping and playwriting are two kinda different artforms. If the connections are completely word-for-word, what rules out Shakespeare (or Fletcher) reading the journal???

As for the "shift" from comedy to tragedy, I guess it's refreshing to see a revisionist for once accept that the plays might not have all been written at once! (as the Oxfordians pretty much do.) But this development has hardly been an unexplained mystery in search of more answers. (There was a change in the monarchy, Shakespeare lost a child, etc.) And if political imprisonment around 1600 was a prerequisite for writing Shakespeare's late plays... well, take a number, when it comes to candidates.

In this book we once again get this old saw: "One of the chief reasons given by James and Rubinstein for doubting Shakespeare's authorship is his lack of formal education and familiarity with the ways of the court." As I've already argued over at Spearbearer, this can't go unanswered any more. Here's a few quick rebuttals for those of you playing the home game:

A) Oxford & Cambridge would not have helped Shakespeare at all since classes were all in Latin and the main subjects were law and theology--surely of interest to Shakespeare, but hardly central. Take a look at the far less accessible Marlowe to see what an over-educated Elizabethan playwright reads like. (Hint: lots of Latin) As for classical literature (Greek & Latin), the sources he drew on for the plays were all available in English translation by the late 1500s. (It was the Renaissance, remember.) The conclusive proof of this is the excerpts you'll find in the back of any good Arden edition from "North's Plutarch" and the like, where you can see Shakespeare cribbing lines almost word for word. No other "education" was necessary for a play like Julius Caesar, for instance.

B) Just because he didn't go to university, Shakespeare would not necessarily have been an "uneducated" dolt. Lots has been argued over in revisionist circles about the Stratford grammar schools. The fact is there was a pretty good one there in the 1570s-80s when young Will was growing up. Scholar of yore, T.W. Baldwin wrote two volumes documenting this in his classic tome, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke. (To the deniers who love to point out variant spellings of the name--which they love to screech out as "Shax-pere" as if that proves anything--I only refer you to the messed up spelling of the whole title of this "uncorrected" Elizabethan quote. The key phrase comes from Ben Jonson's own reference to his friend's deficiencies.) Baldwin's work showed this very good "prep school" gave its boys plenty of rudimentary classical studies and many of the books (like Ovid) Shakespeare would rely upon.... As to those who argue there's no record of young Will ever attending, it is true there are no attendance records at all for his childhood years. Does that mean no one went? As the son of a prominent local merchant and civic leader (some say even mayor) Shakespeare would have been a prime candidate along with the rest of the burgeoning bourgeoisie.

C) Also related to this is the "Travel" issue. That is, how could someone write plays about all those lovely European locales without actually going there! Well, let's leave aside the fact that not even The Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere had probably been to Ancient Rome. I just wonder whether these people have read the plays at all sometimes. They're not travelogues. Romeo and Juliet, for example, has as much to do with Italy as a Stouffer's Pizza. And, besides, everything he needed to know for that play is in this English poem from 1562. (Like Jayson Blair, he could do his minimal "on site reporting" from home.) Seriously, I defy anyone to point out a line in this play (or in Merchant of Venice, or Othello or...) that only could have been written "on location."...And by the way, is anyone claiming that De Vere or Neville or anyone ever visited that "seacoast" of landlocked Bohemia immortalized in Winter's Tale? As the Reuters piece thankfully acknowledges, some experts still maintain, "that someone of Neville's knowledge of Europe would not make the same basic geographical errors that appear in the Shakespeare canon." In other words, the plays do get things wrong a lot. It's not the "Stratfordians" who believe in Bardic Infallibility.

In short, when someone says "the Stratford man" (usually with dripping sarcasm) would have been too stupid, too unschooled, too untravelled to write the plays, please ask them: which one? show me a line? does that go for the glaring errors, too? These theories all seem to subscribe to some cheap fantasy world version of "olden times" when everyone was either a knight or a peasant, and if you weren't a Lord you were basically illiterate. This simplistic scenario has been debunked by historians routinely over the last century but some of us just don't read, I guess. And some of have never heard of this thing called The Middle Class, the Bourgeoisie, even though most of us here (in the US) supposedly belong to it. Which is why it's especially strange that these anti-Shakespeare theories have flourished in America seemingly more than the traditionally more class-bound UK. (Indeed Reuters points out that the Professor Rubenstein of this current book is a Yank!) My hunch: the old American inferiority complex in the world of letters rears its sad head in these endeavors. How else to explain why a bunch of American armchair scholars (usually lawyers, I find) genuflect before great Earls and Lords of the past to push aside that rude Sratford upstart from the canon. Taking Anglophilia to a ridiculous extent I'd say.

My final question is: so what will the Oxfordians make of this new challenge? Surely doesn't help their cause! I call for a knock-down drag-out fight: Oxford vs Neville. Or will they join forces and forge some new, even wackier conspiracy theory of collaboration between the two! Reuters reports that the intro to the new book is written by actor Mark Rylance, who is the head of the new Globe Theatre in London. I think Rylance is a terrific actor. But wasn't he a confirmed "Marlovian" before? Does he just hate Shakespeare so much he'll settle for any other candidate? In theory, each of these camps should have as much problem with each other as with we "traditionalists." How about some consistency, guys...

(Rylance also, by the way, is US-born but British-raised and trained. Between him and Mel Gibson, I'm starting to wonder whether all such American Anglo-transplants are nutcases on at least one issue. Or at least have some huge chip on their shoulders...Disclaimer: Playgoer is not a licensed psychologist, sociologist, nor cultural anthropologist. Just a loudmouth with a blog.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Wilson & Richards

It's interesting that Shteir blames some of Wilson's messiness and long-windedness on Lloyd Richards. First, as Parabasis rightly corrects her, Richards didn't direct the play she refers to (King Hedley II). Also, many credit Richards with giving Wilson the shape and discpline he so clearly needed in his early plays (Ma Rainey through Piano Lesson). The signs of slackening were evident in their last collaboration Seven Guitars. After the two split, this criticism of Wilson's writing only grew. The collaboration with Richards will surely figure prominently in future studies of Wilson, but few will probably assign to him the responsibility for Wilson's logorrhea.

Quote of the Day

"In theater, there has been a movement in recent decades away from word-driven narrative. Grotowski was a pioneer of a theater that digs deep into subconsciousness. In their vastly different ways, Lee Strasberg, Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars and Julie Taymor also transcend overt narrative. Theater today - interesting theater, not formulaic Broadway commerciality - is as much about movement and image and multimedia and even song as the actorly articulation of text. Not that words still aren't central to the art, but they've lost their arrogant monopoly."

-John Rockwell, today's NY Times

I'm as much a "text" man as anyone. But acknowledging this shift away from theatre-as-recitation is crucial to any understanding of the modern theatre post-1960.

Some parting shots on the great Shakespeare authorship debate over at Spearbearer Down Left. I thank him for encouraging an influx of views and for welcoming my rants.

I'll clarify again here what I mean to say there, about what I am calling on the Times to actually do about William Niederkorn. Reassign him! Or at least print other points of view about Shakespeare. (Like, uh, the consensus ones?) But I didn't mean to say fire, or silence him, or make him available for public tar-and-feathering either. It all comes back to the Times's responsibility, like it or not, as a de facto authoritative source of cultural news. The publishing of Niederkorn's articles, in the manner they have done, indicate either a misunderstanding of that or a tremendous lack of judgment. Either that or he's the boss's nephew.

And one more thing. Mr. Spearbearer says something along the lines of if "the authorship case" were before a jury, he would see cause for reasonable doubt. Fair enough. Holes can indeed be poked in the narrative of a middle-class Stratford boy who turned up in London one day writing great literature--holes like the complete gap in the historical record covering those years in between those points in the story. And perhaps such "reasonable doubt" has led to the occasional "mock trial" ruling that Shakespeare was a fraud. (This is how Justice John Paul Stevens became an Oxfordian hero, despite no other literary credentials.)...But when it comes to history, poking holes is not enough. Historians hold to a higher standard than just "reasonable doubt." If they didn't, everything, theoretically, could eventually be "disproven" (including, yes, the Holocaust) by anyone who raises enough aimless questions about one link in the chain, even if they don't propose a viable alternate theory. And so I'm afraid that as long as people can't present hard documentary evidence linking someone else to the Shakespeare plays, they just don't deserve a seat at the same table of professional (i.e peer reviewed and credentialed) historians, and major newspapers should only publish their conspiracy theories within the same context they would frame any such "amateur" pursuit. Meanwhile the rest of us can get on with discussing the plays themselves.

To quote Fat Jack: "And there's an end."

Wilson detractors

That was quick. I guess the August Wilson grace period is over. Some are already speaking out to challenge the understandable laudatory chorus of superlatives lavished over Wilson's oeuvre the last few days. Rachel Shteir seems to be the courageous first in this Slate piece. Terry Teachout pleads agnosticism and bravely admits to being a major drama critic unfamiliar with the bulk of Wilson's finest work! (At least he's honest)

First let me say: of course Wilson was a problematic writer. Of course many of the plays are messy. And, of course, to give him merely reflexive, groupthink praise as just an Important Black Playwright does as much disservice to him as to the whole critical enterprise. This kind of debate over his work is actually long overdue, one could say, since it is actually a necessary step toward properly "canonizing" an artist, as opposed to just bowing to hype or pc pressure. In other words--yes, let's expose the flaws of August Wilson in exactly the same way we're, by now, used to rehearsing when discussing O'Neill, Williams, Miller and those other "flawed" giants.

As for Shteir, here are my quibbles. Her main complaints seem to be that Wilson failed at such dramaturgical elements as plot and character complexity. But her use of those terms strikes me as bound to a kind of realist, or at least psychological, drama Wilson constantly sought to transcend. She dismisses the end of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, for instance thusly:

At the end of that play, Ma storms out of the studio and Levee, whom the producers have double-crossed, stabs another band member. This seems less like playwriting than agitprop.

Maybe so. But that hasn't lessened the gut-punching impact of that moment on stage when I've seen it, the image of a black man stabbing another in the back, against the backdrop of the burgeoning and exploitative Chicago record producing industry. Agitprop? How about: point of view. Wilson had one and if he felt more strongly about the lessons of the real world than the nuances of his fictional characters, I've always felt it was a fair trade-off.

That is--because he expressed that "lesson" so compellingly! The tired old saw of "if you want to send a message get Western Union" has been a terribly limiting crutch for dramatic criticism. The truth is, no one likes a boring lecture. But Wilson didn't just write rants and his language was anything but prosaic. Nowhere does Shteir even reference Wilson's use of language. Perhaps she takes that as obvious by now, or a tired point. But the sound of a Wilson play is what is always remembered. And always will be.

Sound and sight. That's what great theatre is about in the end, if you ask me. And Wilson knew the power of the image. Think of the music from that ghostly piano finally bursting out in The Piano Lesson; the character of the "people-finder" in Joe Turner and Gem, who comes and goes, earning his living locating the lost kin of the post-slavery migration; and, my favorite, a plain old slab of ham, which a muttering loser finally bursts through the door with at the end of Two Trains Running, claiming just a piece of what he believes is what's owed him. Could Wilson's symbolism be ham-handed at times? Sure. So was Ibsen's. But no one since Ibsen, I would argue grasped so powerfully the potential meaning of objects on stage. (of props!) Shteir actually mocks comparisons of Wilson to Chekhov and Ibsen. Well, if we can take those two giants off their pedestals for a second... why not!

I'm surprised Shteir does not raise the issue of gender in Wilson's work. The obsession with maleness and frequent marginalization of female characters has certainly troubled some, I know. I'm sure that will continue to be part of the critical legacy. Again, all this debate should be welcome, and so Shteir is owed some thanks for getting it going. In fact, I won't be surprised if we now witness a general dip in his reputation, as happens to many great writers in their last years, before they are rediscovered or reappraised. (How many people thought of Tennessee Williams when he died as our finest playwright, as opposed to a has been pill addict?) But--and, please, Terry Teachout!--understand that the more we debate Wilson, the more seriously we should contend with his work. It's here to stay, and will be produced and studied more than ever, whether his star rises or falls.

By the way, any bets on him getting a posthumous Nobel Prize this year? I can't imagine he hasn't been shortlisted. And maybe they were just waiting for him to finish the cycle!

Monday, October 03, 2005

August Wilson, 1945-2005

August Wilson on his native turf, Pittsburgh's Hill district
(photo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The man must have known how little time he had left. Reportedly he fended off doctors until he could finish an acceptable draft of the last play of his cycle Radio Golf. We all wondered what kind of drama he would go onto after he completed this unique ten-part History Play. But whether or not he intended it, this was to be his life's work in the theatre.
And intend that he did not, it seems. Of the many things we were robbed of Sunday is a one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, which Wilson had every intention of performing during the Signature Theatre's retrospective in New York this or next season. He already performed it in Seattle, as reported here. I envy those few who got to see Wilson tell his own story, no doubt in a voice as powerful and hyptnotic as those he gave his most memorable fictional creations.
The era of August Wilson (which I date, for convenience sake, from 1984, the Broadway triumph of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, to the much cooler 2004 Broadway reception of Gem of The Ocean) is one we may remember as the last gasp of serious, popularly viable playwriting for the American stage. Name another body of dramatic work from our time that was neither imported from England nor exported to Hollywood. It's a welcome tribute that the Jujamcyn company is apparently going to rename the Virginia Theatre after him. A Broadway Theatre named after an African American--and one who didn't sing and dance, no less--will definitely make some statement. However, a prominent theatre buidling named after a black American is one thing--a theatre devoted to black American content is another and was Wilson's bigger goal. And the presence of an "August Wilson Theatre" as a home to yet more British imports and jukebox musicals (probably tributing white rockers who ripped off black musicians, no less) also raises the odd legacy of his career on Broadway in general. For a while he was the only playwright who seemed to be able to depend on getting produced there--but that was really due to the diehard optimism and persistence of one dedicated producer, Benjamin Mordecai (who Wilson only just recently movingly eulogized in "American Theatre" magazine). The dismaying experience Gem of the Ocean went through last year to find backing was more symptomatic of changing times than the merits of that particular play. Yet I wonder if the Broadway fixation killed his works in the end. Gem, and King Hedley II before it, barely had an adequate run after their middling reviews and poor sales (no wonder at $75+ seat).
We'll see if anyone (now that Mordecai, too, is gone) takes up the mantle of producing Radio Golf on Broadway, if nothing else but for the sake of completing the cycle. A tempting conclusion, which might either close the chapter of serious drama on Broadway, of which he was the last great author, or else challenge and inspire Broadway to remember what's possible. That happier outcome, though, can only materialize if Radio Golf is welcomed warts-and-all, if necessary, and heavily subsidized and supported so as wide a range of people as possible can come see it, and so it can actually run long enough for them to see it.... Or is it time for August Wilson to leave Broadway behind and find, posthumously, a new audience away from the commercial theatre which, frankly, has no more use for him. His longest run recently was Jitney, brought to New York by the non-profit Second Stage and smartly transferred and flourished in an extended Off-Broadway run. His now-classic plays have thrived and reached many more audiences in regional theatre (where, truth be told, they all started, as part of an elaborate tryout scheduled engineered by Mordecai and supported by the artistic directors of those theatres, like Peter Altman, formerly of Boston's Huntington). These productions have provided continuing work for African American theatre artists in theatres that might not normally take a chance on "black plays."
One cannot discuss Wilson's work outside the context of race, of course. He was proudly a "race man" to the end. He would have no separation of medium and message. But some of the eulogizing will also--appropriately--place him in a 20th-century American theatre tradition, one that they might say one day began with O'Neill and ended with him. A tradition of tales told on stage of personal suffering in a social context, in a magical realist format drawing on the iconography and archetypes of American history. He may have been the last great writer committed to the stage as his preferred medium for conveying such stories.
In other words, who would have thought Arthur Miller and August Wilson would die in the same year?
I wish I could brag of personal encounters with the man. I will, though, retain a memory of performances. Delroy Lindo's fiery magnetism as the tormented Loomis on the opening night of Joe Turner's Come and Gone in 1987. Then the way just weeks later Billy Dee Williams, a late replacement for James Earl Jones, had to implore audicences from the stage of the long-running Fences to go see Joe Turner, which was already ailing at the box office. (Now, two decades later, we see the Times critic confidently call that play his "masterpiece.") I remember lingering on the outskirts of the Boston tryout of Seven Guitars, picking up whatever scuttlebut I could of Wilson's struggle to keep the South African actor Zakes Mokae, for whom he had written the role of Hedley, despite his inability to learn the lines of the inevitable daily Wilson rewrites and having to go onstage with book in hand. (Mokae was soon fired.) And, most personally, I'll remember the moving experience of performing in an "outreach" production of Ma Rainey (yes, I played a white man in an August Wilson play) to a crowd of three people in Chicago in the midst of a February blizzard. The house could not have been more hot.
Some good coverage in the Times, especially a special online page, making up for their relative silence on his condition over the last month. For even more depth, see his hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a Seattle based account (where he lived the last 15 years and where he died) in the Post-Intelligencer. Eagerly awaited: look for something from the Voice's Michael Feingold Wednesday who actually served as one of Wilson's first dramaturgs at the O'Neill center; and who will be the first to get Lloyd Richards on the record, to reflect on their collaboration, and finally reveal the nature of their falling out?
This just in: Feingold's obit is already posted....And American Theatre magazine will publish Radio Golf in its November issue.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Whither Musical Theatre

There was recently here in NYC the 2nd now-annual "Musical Theatre Festival" whose goal is to nurture and give exposure to a new crop of more adventerous musical theatre. I myself missed it this year, and if you saw something notable, please write in. But otherwise, I'm fascinated by the desperation with which some artists and producers desperately cling to the survival of the genre at all costs. The latest symptom is a crop of smaller Off-Broadway musicals which I call: Spawn of I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change--a show which has managed to run for years on the basis of no theatrical merit whatsoever, but rather an intangible appeal to just the right demographic of out-of-town theatregoers who will see anything that makes them feel good. (Mostly grandmothers, I find.)
Take a look at these four press releases I recently received as a group in my inbox, and see if you can fathom what possibly propels their promoters' hopes that these will catch on as the next big thing. I can't say I'm angered or offended. Just perplexed. Perplexed why anyone deemed these good investments.

A WOMAN OF WILL is an exuberant new American musical about the rites of passage in a woman's life, written by and starring Golden Globe winner Amanda McBroom (The Rose) with an unforgettable original score by Joel Silberman. While working out of town on a Broadway-bound musical, Kate faces an unrelenting deadline while struggling to choose between her marriage and her secret, younger lover. Gloria Steinem raved, "A Woman of Will makes history sing, connects women across centuries, and sends you out with ideas in your head and music in your heart. Howss that for a one-woman musical?!" Don't miss this funny, exuberant, powerful celebration!
[For more, if you dare, goto rd=hcmcp?p=04992U04992A510ZLt012000mID90Inb]

Five dates. Five restaurants. Endless sidesplitting laughs. That's the delectable comic fare on the menu in the new musical FIVE COURSE LOVE, which
after a sold-out run at Geva Theatre Center now makes its New York premiere.The
endearing and often elusive search for love was never played out more colorfully than in this high-energy screwball comedy. With a breathtaking range of musical styles, it follows the love lives of fifteen unique characters, performed by three amazingly versatile actors. A slice of musical comedy heaven, FIVE COURSE LOVE is a delicious look at the chance for romance.
[ p=04992Q04992A510ZLt012000mID90Inb]

THE ARK is a rockin' new musical that's a tidal wave of fun. A contemporary
take on a familiar tale, it's the story of how one family learns to brave life's rough waters by sticking together. Michael McLean, renowned composer of more than 20 best-selling albums, gives us an incredibly uplifting score, ranging in style from pop to gospel. With a powerhouse cast, songs that'll have you dancing in the aisles, and one of the most adventurous stories ever told, THE ARK proves that, just like the waters, the depth of human emotion knows no bounds. Hurry, offer available for 40 days and 40 nights only!
[If you're starting to doubt whether these shows are for real, see]

BINGO is the splashy, zippy, fun new musical comedy from the Grammy-nominated songwriters of Swing and the Musical Director of Mamma Mia. On this very important night, die-hard bingo pals Vern, Honey, and Patsy brave a terrible storm in the name of their weekly obsession. An evening of great numbers and number calling, where love blossoms and long lost friends reunite. BINGO is an outrageously hilarious musical that leaves audiences' sides in stitches B4 they know what hit 'em. Call the lucky number below, and be the very first to shout BINGO! []

Why dwell on such easy targets? I dunno. And, hey, if any is a hit I'll eat my virtual hat. But it just strikes me as so sad. All these dreams invested in something so bankrupt. The great (and I mean great) tradition of American Musical Theatre has come to this? Yet it's perfectly symptomatic of the life-support required to try to sustain it under the changing economic & demographic seismic shifts threatening all theatre. This is contemporary theatre as entertainment sideshow. And those that seek to save the commercial theatre first are only encouraging, odd ventures. (And you thought the Wooster Group was weird!)