The Playgoer: Bentley, Brustein, & Kaufmann: The Transscript

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bentley, Brustein, & Kaufmann: The Transscript

Back in the fall, three giants of oldschool, intellectual American theatre criticism--Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and Stanley Kaufmann--gathered at a roundtable here in NYC at the Philoctetes Society. Since neither I nor anyone I know could find the damn place(!) I'm grateful to American Theatre fpr printing an edited transcript this month.

(The complete text--and even a video!--are available on the Philoctetes website.)

Lots of scintillating and provocative statements all around (some fresh, some grumpy). But I found myself nodding along most with Brustein. Here he is explaining how he got fed up with "conventional" reviewing even after making a good career at it:

It was very boring to be continually banging your head against what you thought to be the really deleterious and second-rate mediocrity of the Broadway stage. You gained nothing. You were probably losing readers. So the task I set for myself was to put theatre into a context and try to see how this or that play fit into our particular time, our particular society, our particular culture, our particular political life, and how it reflected on that. I don’t think anyone can write a word without somehow creating that kind of reflection. You just have to find it. Then I began to get happier about my criticism.

And more and more, I found myself subordinating the judgment that was so necessary to criticism, and that we’re all looking for: Does he like it? Does she hate it? When I read criticism, I find that to be the least interesting part. I began to call that “Himalayan criticism” after Danny Kaye—when he was asked whether he liked the Himalayas, he said, “Loved him, hated her.” It’s essentially what we’ve all been practicing—Himalayan criticism.

Indeed. Other subspecies of this kind of review include: Let's rate everyone's accent! Or, compare the actors to the stars who did the role in the movie!

And on the perennial question of where are the new great American plays...
It’s not that there are no playwrights in this country—I think there are more playwrights in this country of high quality than ever before in my memory. They just don’t have a place to have their plays produced. Broadway has turned away from them altogether, as has even the resident theatre movement, which is no longer being supported either by the National Endowment for the Arts or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation (though there is some support from Mellon and Shubert and Jujamcyn, but not enough to keep them going). Therefore, [the resident theatres] have begun to turn themselves into commercial producing organisms. And they’re putting on things that have been successful elsewhere and not taking the chances on the new. As a result, we have succeeded ourselves out of existence, I think.

Isn’t it also an incredibly impoverishing pressure on a young playwright who wants to see his or her work produced when he or she is told, “Look, two or three characters max, one set”? What kind of constricting effect does that have on the dramatic imagination of somebody who wants to think epically, who wants to think about class?...And if that playwright does write that play, he or she is told, “We’ll give you a reading, a workshop, another reading, another workshop.” They never get productions.

And if that's not depressing enough, imagine how my heart sunk at these encouraging words from Mr. Bentley:

Some of you young people here who might be thinking about becoming drama critics, I think the advice is, “Don’t.”

Oh well.

(By the way, his counter-advice is we should all become playwrights!)

So if you're not an American Theatre subscriber already (or pilfer it from your office) print it out for a good long read.

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