The Playgoer: (anti-)Quote of the Day

Custom Search

Thursday, April 06, 2006

(anti-)Quote of the Day

"There's not much point in aiming high if you can't hit your target. And is it really necessary for playwrights to dream up new worlds?"

-Charles Isherwood, in his New York Times review, yesterday, of the very important Humana Festival of new plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Quite a startling statement from one of the nation's leading drama critics. Perhaps he would object to it being taken out of full context. But it is his concluding paragraph.

Nothing wrong with favoring one play's craft over others'. And, hey, I wasn't there, so maybe I would enjoy Teresa Rebeck's piece over the others as well. But to zoom out to this generalization seems, at best, unnecessary. Especially when it has such alarming implications as a taste-making dictum--which such a statement, coming from the New York Times, does inevitably flirt with.

Is it "necessary" for theatre to "dream up new worlds"? Ok, arguable. Prospero, for one, might take issue. But more to the point--isn't it great when that does happen! Isherwood finishes the thought with: "the one we live in still provides durable material for theater that moves us, makes us laugh and allows us to see even a small frame of experience in a new light." Agreed. Realism is still a viable form, I concur. But talk about complacency! Even if the new worlds are only aimed at and ultimately missed, the trip getting there is often far more interesting than the same old world retooled.

I'll stop there and leave the rest of the Isherwood-skewering to Messrs. Grote and Butler.


parabasis said...

Thanks for the shout out, Playgoer! You said it, sister.

Anonymous said...

Wow. The sheer dreary thoughtlessless of those two sentences may represent a low-water mark in recent New York Times theater criticism (although by saying that, I'm probably forgetting a hundred lines that could compete with it). But given that Isherwood's first big "think" piece after moving to the Times was a heartfelt essay complaining that most plays were just too darn long and how wonderful it is to get out of the theater district and home by 9:30, nobody can say this attitude is really a surprise.

Anonymous said...

Well, I was there, and Isherwood's whole review reads like he was smoking crack. He even failed to mention one play ("Low" by Rha Goddess) completely. It's not in the least surprising that someone who regarded "The Scene" (a trite, unsurprising, unconvincing attempt at hipster-theatre) as the pinnacle of the Festival begs for more limitations on imagination.

Anonymous said...

I read the whole Isherwood review through, and you're definitely not quoting him out of context. The head tastemaker of The Times to the next generation of playwrights: "Don't seek out new forms, like every other generation of writers before you. We already found the one that works in the early 1900s." Well that settles that issue... I'm going to pick up an Ibsen anthology and a copy of Eugene Scribe and call it a day!

Aaron Riccio said...

I think Isherwood is commenting on something that the jazz producer/performer Herb Alpert points out in this week's New Yorker. "Man, you know, these young guys, they know all the modes, they know all the chords, they can play high and low and fast, and they can do amazing things, but the one thing they don't know how to do is leave the bone alone." Granted, it's a different subject, but it's not that far off course: a lot of young, hip playwrights do sometimes pepper up scripts with new-for-the-sake-of-being-new material. And I disagree, Playgoer, with that maxim "There's no such thing as bad theater" or, as you put it, "the trip getting there is often far more interesting," because honestly, it's sometimes just a turbulent ride.

HOWEVER, I absolutely think this experimentation, even when misguided or unnecessary, is crucial to a growing theater. One man's failure is another man's "Eureka!" and just because Isherwood had an uncomfortable seat is no reason to take it out on a little envelope-pushing.

If we take it from Isherwood, we might as well bow down to Hollyway and Broadwood now, because all we'll ever see are commerically solid revivals with big-name draws, and we'll just stagnate forever. Remember folks: part of the fun of theater, and any art form really, is that you don't have to be right to ultimately succeed.

Playgoer said...


First, it is in no way fair to paraphrase my statement as "There's no such thing as bad theatre." Where do I say that?

Second, I think it's even more unfair to say playwrights to dom something theatrically different or experimental only to be "new for the sake of new." Do you really think we can read into the playwright's motives like that? Is it not possible a writer just has a different voice? How cynical!

Aaron Riccio said...

Yes, I'm cynical, I agree. But if you look back at what I said, I wasn't saying you said there was no such thing as bad theater, I was saying you said (not a paraphase either), "the trip getting there is often more interesting." I equated THAT statement as a justification for people who say "there's no such thing as bad theater" because it's a claim made by people who think the means justify the end. However, I didn't mean to imply what you specifically believe or don't; my apologies.

However, I do stand behind my statement that--at least for some bombs that I've seen lately--a lot of young playwrights DO do things just to be new. I'm not saying I know their motives, and perhaps I should've justified my statement by saying that it SEEMS that way, but when a play (like "Acts of Mercy") tries to invent its own dialectic and that act so clashes with itself . . . it's hard to justify. Every writer has a different voice, but when s/he exaggerates it, it's not always pleasing to the ear, or attractive to the eye. ::shrug:: And at least from the workshops that I've taken, I can tell you that most people my age ARE (and admit to) adding epaulettes to their scripts just for the sake of trying something out. These writers usually get rid of that stuff in workshopping; the lazy ones who somehow manage to get their stuff produced without really going over it . . . they're the ones I'm irked with.