The Playgoer: Hare vs NYT

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hare vs NYT

I found myself a bit embarassed last night at the SPF Salon theatre bloggers panel (thanks to all who came!) for being the only person in the room who had not heard about this very public David Hare spat with the Times' Managing Editor, Jill Abramson, at a recent social function.

The story made the NY Post's gossip report, Page Six, apparently sourced by Michael Riedel.

The nut of it:

Abramson was seated next to Hare and immediately launched into a speech about the supposed superiority of the Times' theater coverage.

Hare - whose "Vertical Hour" with Julianne Moore was a hit despite a scathing pan by Times chief drama critic Ben Brantley - snapped, "You must be kidding. The Times has contempt for the theater, especially Broadway, and especially plays."

Witnesses told The Post's Michael Riedel that Abramson replied: "Listen, it is not our obligation to like or care about the theater. It's our obligation to arbitrate it. We are the central arbiter of taste and culture in the city of New York."

Hare: "What are you talking about? If you believe that, you are even more out of touch than your newspaper appears. You have a critic who despises the theater."

While I'm all for people chewing out the NYT theatre coverage, and taking them down a peg, there are a few things about this story to be skeptical about. First, Abramson is too big a wig at the paper to monitor or be well informed about the arts coverage. (She strikes me as more of a Washington type.) Second, say what you like about Ben Brantley, but... "hates the theatre"??? Not the words I'd choose. Hates David Hare's plays, maybe.

Also--as Page Six notes--Hare happens to be in town directing the season's latest snob hit (now that "Vertical Hour" proved not to win that title) the Vanessa Redgrave/Joan Didion collaboration, "The Year of Magical Thinking." And the Times has certainly been, um, friendly to that project.

Look, the Times's problem is certainly not being not positive enough about Broadway. More arbitrating and more "contempt for Broadway" sounds like a good idea!

But still, ultimately what's important here is someone got Abramson's words on record about that "arbiter of culture." Hare's laughing incredulity was surely the only sane response. And it reveals the smugness and complaceny behind the increasing lameness and sellout decisions we see in the paper's arts coverage day after day. It comes from the fact that they have been the defacto "arbiters"--due to lack of competition. Lack of competition due to a collapsing media business, the downsizing of arts coverage, the laying off of real critics, etc. The fact the Time still has an arts section and a theatre staff of more than one, does kind of give it a crown by default.

But it doesn't have to stay that way. Down with the one-party state. Support the competition!

Personally, my own response might have been: So Jill, are things so bad that Brangelina, Paris Hilton and Pete Doherty are all your "arts" editors have left to "arbitrate" about?

8 comments:

Alisa said...

If you have never seen the vitriolic letter from David Hare to Frank Rich from 1989 over Rich's review of Hare's THE SECRET RAPTURE, send me your snailmail address and I will dig it out of my files to send to you. Hare's fury at the NYT (while hardly unjustified in many respects) has a juicy history. (Maybe you can scan and post it.)

also, aprpopos of the charge that NYT critics hate the theater, at Dick Gilman's memorial yesterday, Stanley Kauffmann spoke passionately on this very point: what is sometimes taken as hatred of theater is often (in the case of Gilman, or Kauffmann for that matter - - who was fired as the NYT's critic in the 60s for not "liking" enough shows) a deep LOVE of the theater and a kind of fury that it is not living up to its potential.

Anonymous said...

Ben Brantley raved over the Public's production of Sir David Hare's play Stuff Happens. Perhaps one day poor Sir David will catch a break. In the meantime, perhaps he can get out and support new plays by plunking down some of his millions for tickets to any of a number of interesting new American plays around town.

J. Kelly said...

I think Ben Brantley hates fun.

Anonymous said...

No, he likes fun. He hates ideas. I mean, the kind you have to think about.

Anonymous said...

or, better: he doesn't know that thinking about ideas is fun.

Jaime said...

Brantley might not hate theatre (someone at Gawker pointed out that he loves Hollywood more), but what about Isherwood? The distinction of hating plays makes me think he's the critic in question.

(Sorry I didn't get to say hi last night - great panel.)

Freeman said...

Isherwood wants to be the mother of Sarah Ruhl's kids and he went apeshit for Thom Pain. Brantley wandered downtown to see Hell House (and raved about it) and wrote a love letter to "Wake Up Mr Sleepy!" Which didn't exactly star Julia Roberts.

I think generalizing these reviewers isn't helpful. As people whose currency is their opinion, of course they're out there to be criticized and analyzed. But there is, I would say, some effort on their parts to acknowledge good work.

That isn't to say I think the Times coverage doesn't deserve criticism. But...doesn't everything? They've just got the biggest bullseye.

Hilary Sanders said...

Great post, Garrett. The New York Times deserves just about every knock it gets, but you’re right, saying Brantley hates the theater is disingenuous and just reeks of sour grapes.

David Hare LOVES writing about sinister, corrosive, monolithic institutions hell-bent on destroying civilization as we know it (Yay! I’m all for it!) so it comes as no surprise that he would hurl a few more rocks at the Grey Lady.

But here’s the thing about David Hare – I can sit and watch one of his plays, and be relatively engaged by his ideas, and his politics (which I usually agree with,) but he almost always proves himself to be a didactic windbag who takes himself way too seriously. He uses his characters as mouthpieces, and usually nothing more. He seldom engages my heart. I’m rarely emotionally invested in his characters. His IDEAS always take center stage, and whatever emotions might be connected to those ideas, are relegated to the murkiest corners of the theater.

Which is his right, of course, but not my favorite kind of play. I’m all for IDEAS and POLITICS in the theater, but I want them to SERVE an inner life. I want to know how these ideas and politics affect a person’s whole being, inside and out. If I want JUST ideas, I can read a newspaper, or visit a blog. If it’s live theater, I want my heart to be engaged by those live actors. I want to know what’s going on UNDERNEATH all that talk and all those ideas.

I mention all this because if the scene described is accurate, Sir David confronting the Managing Editor of the New York Times, then it’s quintessential Hare. All bluster and argument, saber-rattling and accusations, the high-minded self-righteousness, words, words, words – totally oblivious to what’s REALLY interesting, and what’s REALLY going on – the emotion underneath it all. And what IS underneath it all? Something Hare would never admit to, and something he’d never write about – DADDY DOESN’T LOVE ME. And THAT is good theater. He’s pissed he doesn’t get what he wants from them. He’s pissed he’s not Tom Stoppard. He’s pissed they don’t love him enough. It’s that simple. Everything else is sound and fury.

Hilary

PS – I wouldn’t necessarily categorize a third party report by a gossip columnist in the Post as someone finally getting Abramson’s words on the record about the Times being the “arbiter of culture.” Maybe if the story appeared in the-paper-of-record, I’d be more inclined to believe it?