The Playgoer: "Runaway Jury"

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Runaway Jury"

"To me, it seems like a case of the board trying to correct what they felt was a renegade or runaway jury by choosing a play that had a Broadway production."

-Pulitzer-nominated playwright/performer Eisa Davis.

Good article on this from Mike Boehm in the LA Times today. No one else has broken any news yet. Still nothing from NYT. I hope Riedel will come through with some scoop for his Friday column.

No real news from Boehm either. Other than he tries to get Ben Brantley on the record but he "said through a representative of his paper that he couldn't comment on deliberations." (Further feeding Grey Lady's silence so far?) But one interesting point is how unusual this really, really is for the Pulitzers:

[T]he awarding of a Pulitzer to a play that was not one of the finalists appears to be unprecedented, Gissler said, at least since finalists were disclosed starting in 1983. In 1992, Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" was chosen over four finalists, but Gissler said that was a case in which the jury nominated all five plays. Nowadays, he added, jurors are under strict orders to name only three.
What accounts for such a sharp break with "precedent"?

One factor seems to be the embarrassment last year over awarding no prize at all. (Something that wasn't unprecedented, but seemed especially churlish at a time when we all want to encourage new writing.) One former Pulitzer winner--a writer of pretty safe plays and hardly a rebel--offers some impressively critical analysis:
Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer in 2000 for "Dinner With Friends" but was a bridesmaid both in 1992 (to Schenkkan) and when no drama prize was awarded in 1997, speculated Tuesday that the Pulitzer board didn't want to give the prize to an unknown but, "for fear of losing credibility," could not brook two years in a row with no prize for drama. "They chose a play that had been talked about as an award-worthy play by a well-known writer," Margulies said. The real problem, he added, is the refusal to award prizes some years. "I've never heard, 'Gee, there was no editorial cartooning deserving of a Pulitzer this year.' There is something patronizing about the attitude toward the drama prize, that it is something that can be withheld."
Indeed, how many other Pulitzer categories have ever been given "no award." A quick perusal of the past lists on the official site reveals that while it was not uncommon for some awards to be "ungiven" in the early years, last years Drama-snub was the only such instance in the last ten years. The only one, that is except for 1997, when no award was given in .... yes, Drama. So some weird exceptionalism going on there lately indeed.

Margulies is also onto something in pointing to the Pulitzer folk's anxiety over "credibility," and how that would supposedly be shattered by awarding an "unknown." (Remember, even the thoroughly accessible "Anna in the Tropics" raised some eyebrows because it had not yet--egads--played in New York.) It's a shame that in a pluralistic age when the old-establishment cred of such an august and outdated body as the Pulitzers matters less and less, that they'd be so squeamish about actually using what little power they have to lift up new writers and expose otherwise ignored work to the light of day. Rather than give yet another $10,000 to the bookwriter for High Fidelity and Shrek The Musical.

It's hard for me to resist pointing out also that in at least in the case of one nominee might there have been some political squeamishness? Eisa Davis happens to be the niece of Marxist black-power activist Angela Davis. (Her previous show "Angela's Mix Tape" was about her.) Hey, the 60s were a long time ago, I know. And maybe the P-Board just didn't like her play. But if they read her bio, that probably didn't help either.

The article also foregrounds what I pointed to yesterday about the composition of the overseeing 17-member Pulitzer Board--namely that there are no artists or arts critics on it. The official defense? "They feel they have the basic sophistication and understanding to discharge their role...They're an intelligent cross section of America." Cross section of America? Look at the list again and have a good laugh.

Look--we don't have to kid ourselves. There's nothing highbrow about the Pulitzers anymore. Yes, it's nice for a playwright to get $10,000 and a virtual "title" to their name in perpetuity ("Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright ______" is up there with "Academy Award Nominee" in movie trailers.) But the last two years have illuminated just how out of touch the most elite circles of news media (which the Pulitzers both enshrine and embody) is with the current art of American theatre.

Maybe the day isn't far off that they drop the category entirely. And somehow I'm not sure that would be a bad thing anymore.


Anonymous said...

The real story is Paula Vogel's narcissism: she has now secured a MacArthur for Sarah Ruhl and a Pulitzer nomination for another former student, the writer of "Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue," a very promising work that in no way is deserving of being a Pulitzer finalist. It's the kind of play you'd expect of a very talented grad student. To think it would be a winner alongside a novel by Cormac McCarthy is appalling.

Let's talk about the other trend here -- the anti-establishment trend! Okay, maybe the board decided to go legit/Broadway, but the committee overlooked any number of extraordinary American plays, such as Keith Bunin's overwhelmingly well-reviewed The Bush World Is Hushed, an amazing look at religious life as denial of emotions in America; and Pete Gurney's extraordinary Indian Blood, about the eruption of adolescent sexuality in a socially repressive American community. These were "mainstream" but profoundly well-crafted and complex works produced by our moderately-sized non-profits (Playwrights Horizons and Primary Stages). That they were not finalists implies to me that this committee was very corrupt, and had an anti-establishment agenda. To put "Elliott: A Soldier's Fugue" above the Bunin or the Gurney is a sheer act of perversion.

Jaime said...

First of all, that Paula Vogel conspiracy theory is completely unfounded. (And to chalk it up to narcissim? At least nepotism if you're gonna go that way.) Okay, yes, when I saw that Quiara was nominated, I was curious to look through the jury for a Brown prof, but Paula's wasn't the only vote. And as for Sarah Ruhl's MacArthur, is Paula Vogel even on the selection committee? Don't MacArthur winners have to be nominated by previous winners?

And not everyone thought The Busy World is Hushed was such an extraordinary work. I thought it was good. A perfectly fine play. But a Pulitzer shoe-in by no means.

Anonymous said...

While we're complaining, let's not leave out the bottomless hypocrisy of The New York Times, which has a rule forbidding critics from being voting members of awards-giving groups (it's why A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis do not belong to the New York Film Critics Circle or the National Society of Film Critics) but mysteriously looks the other way and allows Ben Brantley (and I believe Charles Isherwood one or two years ago) to serve on, and in Brantley's case, to chair the Pulitzer judging panel. As a result, the Times, which already has a wildly disproportionate influence over theater, holds sway over the Pulitzers as well. What possible justification can the paper concoct for this? (Paging Public Editor Byron Calame...)

I'm also intrigued by the idea that "Rabbit Hole" was "favorably mentioned" in the panel's report to the judges. Is it a huge stretch of the imagination to believe that the "report" consisted of Brantley rolling his eyes in memo form at the panel's selection of three things that barely interested him and nudging them toward something they'd already seen at good old MTC?