The Playgoer: Baitz vs Isherwood, and all that is implied

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Baitz vs Isherwood, and all that is implied

"The Times critics present themselves as advocates for consumers, and not as advocates for the theater itself... I suggest that [they] re-read Tynan, for instance, who was funny and could be ruthless, but was always on the side of the artist, and never innocently hid behind the pretense of being in the hire of the cultural wing of Consumer Reports."

-Jon Robin Baitz, blogging on HuffingtonPost.

I think I'm one of the last theatre geeks to finally get to this terrific invective by Robbie Baitz that he posted last week on Huffington. (Where he's regular blogger. You can subscribe to his feed here.) But here's a pretty mainstream playwright--and now Hollywood/TV writer--making a very blogger-esque argument.

I mean, you think you've seen anti-Isherwood tracts here? Try Robbie. His piece is inspired by a something Isherwood wrote earlier this month, calling for strike-sidelined theatre exiles to return East. As a reminder of the bi-coastal divide of our dramatic talent it was welcome. But its deductions and prescriptions were highly suspect.

First, there was the already cliched use of Clifford Odets as the ultimate Hollywood sell-out. As an Odets scholar I thought maybe just me and the other two would care. But thankfully Baitz sets the record straight on that one:

In fact, Mr. Odets, far from being hooked on the money, had given so much of it away to the Group Theater, et al over the years, that he had very little choice but to turn to Hollywood. Particularly after he grew ever so slightly cold in the eyes of the fickle New York critics. He had children to bring up, and that cost money then as it does now. (Mr. Isherwood, whom I do not dislike at all , has, I note with a degree of idleness, no such obligations, as far as I know.)

Um, I'll refrain from explicating that last parenthetical. Just keep in mind Baitz himself is an openly gay man. Also keep in mind that Baitz conducted a very moving interview with the publicity shy Walt Odets (the playwright's son) in the Lincoln Center Theatre Review for their Awake and Sing production, where the sadness of the Hollywood years are poignantly brought out.

Baitz is worth reading in full, so if you haven't yet, do so. It even made Riedel's column today, reporting on the dust-up, with some implied responses from the Ish himself. Also quoted, backing Baitz up, is fellow bicoastal playwright Warren Leight:
"Charles Isherwood asking playwrights to return to the stage is kind of like Ted Bundy wondering why no one hitchhikes anymore."

And you thought bloggers had it in for the guy!

Okay, so playwrights don't like critics. What's new, you ask? Well, I may be reading too much into this, but I sense a kind of "critical mass" is now building around not just the Times second-string critic, but the overall coverage of theatre at said paper.

I've heard bloggers incessantly criticized for resorting too easily (and often) to Times-bashing. Fair point. And rather than fixate on offending details in the prose of Mssrs Brantley and Isherwood, I prefer to shine the light on the editors above them who call the shots: namely arts editor Sam Sifton and theatre editor Rick Lyman.

Now I do agree it's pointless to try to shame or lecture the Times into better coverage. Hey, they're a business and they have their reasons for doing what they do, not what bloggers like me would want them to do. But if I do have an agenda in my indulgence in "media criticism" with them, it is to do my little part in chipping away at this false mantle they're erected as "the arbiter of culture." So many--so, so many--New Yorkers and culture-loving people around the country really do still look to that paper as the authority on theatre. It's really still true. It's probably based on those days past when they were a little more convincing an "arbiter." But now that the theatre as a whole--as an artform--is not being well served by the paper, it is incumbent upon anyone who cares to steer readers who care elsewhere. It is indeed time to call out: The Grey Lady has no clothes.

What's compounding this increased feeling of exasperation is yet another(!) Isherwood column pre-Thanksgiving. Assigned (presumably) to guide readers on theatrical alternatives to strike-shuttered Broadway, rather than use his precious space to champion artists Off and Off-Off the average Times reader's radar, he basically (albeit humorously) suggested you're better off people-watching at Trader Joe's. I'm not exaggerating.

I'll leave it to the passionate Isaac Butler to call this for what it was: an insult. But I can't decide to whom--to the theatre, or the reader?

While Isaac has now had it with the man and basically argues the prosecution for his removal, I again prefer to focus on the bigger editorial approach. I have no doubt Isherwood (and Brantley, too, for that matter) are doing exactly the job they are being paid for. Hence the one line of Isaac's I agree most with:
It seems that only theatre that can afford advertising in the Times' pages has any value to most of its reviewers.

Case in point. Today's Arts, Briefly section (emphasis on the "briefly") offered what could charitably be called a concession to the protests against Isherwood's blowing off of alternative theatre in favor of alternatives to theatre, as well as to their general failure to take advantage of the strike to--in the immortal words of the Times--"remember the needy" when it came to theatre. (I myself last week proposed they "send Brantley to the Brick, and Isherwood to Inwood" but alas my call was not heeded.) So finally, the rest of the community gets some props:

Off Off Broadway Offerings

Despite the stagehands’ strike, there are dozens of theater options available for those willing to venture farther off Broadway. Among them are the Amoralists’ production of “The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side” ( at the Gene Frankel Theater and the Actors Company Theater’s ( revival of “The Runner Stumbles” by Milan Stitt. There’s also a one-night-only gay play festival, “Instant Play Insanity,” at the Wings Theater on Christopher Street tomorrow ( Five short plays will be written, cast and rehearsed in the 24 hours before showtime at 8 p.m. Other options are listed at and, most with ticket prices of $20 or less.

What do you make of this account of what's happening Off Off? Would this be the selection of titles that would first come to your mind? Notice two of the productions are "one night only." Frankly these titles seem to me chosen purely as personal/professional favors to the pr reps of these particular shows. Or else conforming to some typical middlebrow view of what Off Off Broadway was in the 60s (i.e. where they do those "gay" plays).

I'm all for giving a shoutout to NY Innovative Theatre Awards, but picking unitedstages over Clearly not an informed choice. (Also notice the gesture of: we don't really know what's going on Off Off, so just go look on the web somewhere.)

In this context, I must say I'm very thankful for Brantley's apparently personal commitment to promoting Richard Maxwell's career. Otherwise an opening as exciting to downtowners as "Ode to the Man Who Kneels" might never have been reviewed at all! (Or, like Adam Rapp's latest, relegated to a Saturday review.)

The bottom line, of course, is...the bottom line. Isaac is absolutely right to tie the apparent policies here to advertising revenue. It's not just that direct, but the ethos in the paper's pages are more commercial (or simply celebrity-driven) than ever. This all reflects conscious editorial policy, I believe. If there's been one obvious change in the Times over the last five or six years it has been a very conspicuous targeting of a wealthier readership. Note all the new sections added to the print edition: "Escapes," "Dining In" and "Dining Out." Now do you actually read those sections, or like me do you file them directly into recycling under "can't afford that"? The dirty little secret of these innovations (ok, not so secret) is it's not about the content, it's about the ads. NYT sells ad space in such "premium" supplements (what Colbert calls "Gold Edition") for a bundle, on the promise of delivering upper-income-bracket eyes.

It's a sensible move from a business standpoint. The Newspaper business is in crisis. NYT's strategy has become pure, naked snob appeal. Or not even "snob" (that implies taste)--just rich. You see it on the front pages (more stories about high-end shopping and Ivy League colleges than ever) and in the arts. In the internet age when anyone can read NYT content for free, the only people left subscribing to the dead-tree version will be those with money to burn. (Especially now that TimesSelect imploded.)

Has it always been thus? I guess so. But as a native New Yorker, I can honestly say I remember a time when regardless of the Times' privileged status, any New Yorker felt they could pick up the paper and find something for them. Now I'm not so sure of that.

Yes, the playwright always will be the natural enemy of the critic. But I take Baitz at his word that what he wants is not just a nicer critic, but a critic--nay, a newspaper--that actively engages with the theatre as a living artform. Not just nostalgically waxes for simpler times, or reduces it to a consumer service. Bad reviews would be more palatable and less destructive to the profession if it were accompanied by coverage that aggressively supports the endeavor of theatre, on all levels. That supports it against the taint of consumerism, as opposed to confirm such anti-theatrical prejudices. That challenges the reader to broaden beyond Broadway.

Of course, the time that a newspaper could do that profitably (and with support from corporate headquarters) is coming to an end. And so I say: Welcome to the blogosphere, Robbie Baitz! I hope others will join you out here.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the tone of Isherwood's column was offensive, but I think you attack Stephen McElroy's Arts Briefly unjustly. The reason for Stephen's brief piece is, I suspect, because Stephen himself cares deeply about Off-Off-Broadway. Now, I must admit I like Stephen--he wrote an article about my NEUROfest and included about the only small item about the Havel Festival before the festival ended. But I also know, from talking to him, that one of his goals is to include Off-Off. Given a full column, it would read quite differently that Isherwood. Anytime Stephen has a chance, he does include the Off-Off scene. And he is very knowledgeable about it. Which is to say, as well, that the Times is not a monolith, and it is subject to change. When Mel Gussow was writing for the Times as their second stringer, he too had a great knowledge and affection for alternative theater. I don't look at Stephen's item as a half-done apology, as you seem to. It is not an apology at all--it is another writer's perspective. Which I see as a ray of hope.

Playgoer said...

Fair point, Edward. I didn't intend to blame Stephen directly, but true his name is on the article. Again, I tend to blame the editorial policy in general.

And Stephen has a right to promote whatever shows he wants in that particular column. But I did find the choices odd, and certainly not what I would have chosen if I had only a few lines to give all of Off Off.

The real problem, was in the editors only allotting that much space at all, and not giving all that space that Isherwood wasted to someone like Stephen who could have used to it to give readers a more thorough briefing on Broadway alternatives and alternative theatre.