The Playgoer: Ranking Goodness

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ranking Goodness

David Cote has some thought provoking invective against NYT's Charles Isherwood's faint praise of the Tracy Letts/Steppenwolf juggernaut August: Osage County on its way to B'way--namely for faulting it as not "possess[ing] the penetrating truth or the revelatory originality of a fully achieved work of art" and the author as "more a skillful entertainer than a true visionary or a dramatic poet." Saith David of such "high standards":

I wonder how often Isherwood’s Tony-named colleagues—Scott and Tommasini—review a new movie or symphony and go out of their way to assure the reader: Well it’s no Citizen Kane or Beethoven’s Ninth, but pretty good! Do reviewers in other fields even bother with this sort of hierarchizing humbug?
Good point. Do critics in other media have a greater appreciation of genre, that is an acceptance of appreciating a work within the context of its genre. Obviously, reviews do this all the time with, say, musicals--which are largely evaluated on how well they entertain regardless of how thin the spoken drama parts of them are. But when it comes to "straight" plays that are not yuk-fest comedies, must they all be Ibsen? Have we lost our love for the "potboiler"? (Which is Letts' genre of choice, at which he excels--see Bug.) Under the name "Melodrama" it has become an automatic death sentence--but it used to be a dominant and viable theatrical form when theatre was still a popular theatre.

David's point about film is illuminating because there we have seen a whole generation of stylists --aka "entertainers"--practically canonized by the critical establishment--such as Tarantino, David Fincher, heck the entire Hong Kong school. And indeed, no one apologizes for "Seven" not being Citizen Kane--itself arguably best appreciated as a genre film.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

From the Chicago critic Cote links to:

"And, unlike many recent plays about death, it’s also not a limp-wristed rumination on loss, or a phony, MFA-minted take on family dysfunction. Defying the American playwriting model of the last decade, August: Osage County doesn’t try to guilt us into liking it. (Via Moises Kaufman alone, I’ve seen enough grief porn to last a lifetime.)"

"August: Osaghe County: NOT FAGGOT THEATRE!!! YEEEEEEE-HAWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!"

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Garrett - I saw August: Osage County a few weeks ago and was blown away. It's the best new play I've seen in years. It's a modern masterpiece.

Dr. Cashmere said...

At the risk of defending The Ish (as Cote calls him) I think what he was attempting to do, maybe in too many words, was to call the play a potboiler.

And I don't think there's any harm in that, or in his thinking that even a great potboiler is something short of "visionary."

Talking to people about BUG, a reaction I heard several times was, "a lot of fun, but not Great Theatre or anything." And these weren't nitpicky theatre-types. Just regular, amateur theatregoers. And I knew what they meant.

So based on that (and not having seen the new play) I can see where Isherwood might be coming from.

But I suspect that another factor at play, here, may be the critical thrashing Isherwood has received lately on the Sarah Ruhl front. Those clauses seem like a hedge, an attempt to insulate himself from the charge of having written yet another all-out rave.

Kenneth said...

What are all those people doing on the stage? Doesn't Tracy Letts know that you can't have a cast that large and expect to get your play produced?
All kidding aside, Congrats to Tracy for getting this up, and with a wonderfully realized stage set, it appears to me. Can't wait to see this in NY.

Jason Grote said...

There's a great bit in the Harper's readings section this month - Ursula K. Le Guin responding satirically to some idiotic thing a New Republic book critic said about Michael Chabon approaching genre litereature with ice tongs or some such:

http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/09/0081680