Monday, January 11, 2010

Criticism

I really like these andouille chicken sausages. They're tasty as hell. Trust me, get a package and enjoy. The little bodega-on-steroids near my house carries them. (It's a pretty amazing place, that bodega, nearly an entire grocery store crammed into one tiny spot. Awesome.) The larger supermarket does not. They carry chicken sausages from these guys, who don't have andouille sausages. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who said, "Well. Get your sausage at the super-bodega." I said, "It's a little out of my way and I want to go to the big supermarket." My friend said, "Well, then, ask them to get the sausage you like. Order it special." I said, "No, I'm going to write a letter to the guy who makes the sausage, the actual guy and tell him, I want an andouille sausages." So I write an open letter to the guy who makes the sausage and say, "Dude. Your sausage is so weak. I don't like it at all. I want an andouille sausage. You should make it." He writes me back and says, "Um. Dude. That's not what I'm making here. If you don't like it, get it from someone else." I say, "Well, there is someone else who makes it. But my supermarket doesn't carry it." "Then," he says, "buddy, ask your supermarket to get those sausages." And I say to him, "Hey, man, let me remind you that I am a consumer. I don't buy things for supermarkets." At which point, he kind of wants to stab me in the neck with sausage-making implements.

That's kind of what's happened in the comments thread here. Thomas Garvey raised a completely logical and valid point in a nicely-written piece: why are most plays about Africa about apartheid? There are other things happening in Africa than apartheid and its lingering effects. There are other stories about race relations to be told. It's a point that I, obviously, agree with. So I linked. A pretty good conversation ensued, in which a few other plays about Africa were mentioned. And I said:
I do honestly think that you raise good points, but the answer is, you know, go out and find those plays. They're out there, they're being written. Or commission them. I don't think it's a failure in the imagination of playwrights as much as it's a failure in the imagination of producers. I find it a bit ironic that, after all of the diversity talk, you've hit on a problem could be solved by...a focus on diversity.
Thomas replied:
Once again, just for the record, I am not a producer, I am a critic.
And I, for one, kind of want to stab him with sausage-making tools. Let me, again, quote the key graf of his review of Groundswell:
So why does our theatre remain stuck in an almost-nostalgic obsession with South Africa? Perhaps because we use Africa as a proxy for our own genuine, but milder, set of social ills - Boston may have great strides against its racism, but it's still organized in the style of apartheid, with a vast shantytown in Roxbury. (Yes, I know there's an integrated "collegetown" elsewhere.) But why doesn't anyone write a play about that? Why has there never been a play about Boston apartheid? Instead we engage with it at one remove via South Africa. Which frankly is a form of virtual cultural colonialism, and of course distances us from the harsh necessity of grappling with our own issues (while assuaging our guilt for not doing so). I'd like to think the theatre can do better than that, but so far I've been proven wrong - and I don't expect the situation to change any time soon. And it's worth noting that bizarrely enough, South Africa is the only place in Africa today where gays and lesbians enjoy legal protections, and where gay marriage is legal (unlike in most of the U.S.!). Yet we never hear about that.
Absolutely a legitimate question. One answer to which is produce plays that aren't about apartheid. But that is apparently not Thomas' criticism. His criticism is that he's not seeing those plays, so they're not being written. Even when he's told that those plays exist and is indeed aware of them (see his comment on In The Continuum et al.).

Here's the part where I trash my career. Ah, well.

This is what I think is generally wrong with theatre criticism in this country. Everything is put on the backs of the playwrights. Playwrights aren't writing the big plays. Playwrights aren't engaging with current events. Playwrights lack ambition and scope. Where are the Shakespeares and Chekhovs and masterpieces? But their connection with the work comes at the tail end, in the theatre. Our theatre criticism is focused on the playwright's voice, which is great and grand, and the playwright's vision, but the flip side is that the critics see with blinders on: the playwright is all.

These back-and-forths, these arguments with Thomas or Chris or Terry, feel like they come down to this: the playwrights are supposed to save theatre. But the fact is, it doesn't happen alone or in a vacuum. We write the plays, but over the two or three or five or ten years it takes to get it to the stage, thousands of hands touch it, millions of tiny decisions are made and then, finally, one big decision that is totally out of our hands is made: to produce this particular play at this particular theatre at this particular time. But when the reviews come out, we're treated as though we held the A.D. at gunpoint and said, "Produce this play! Now!"

Of course there needs to be a gap and distance and the critic shouldn't be overly sympathetic to the playwright. I'm not looking for mollycoddling or handholding here. I'm not even advocating for a change in the nature of criticism. Just an awareness that there are other players, other actors in this drama. And saying "I'm just a critic"...well, that actually gives up a whole raft of powers and influences. You can't always talk to the monkey. Sometimes you have to talk to the hurdy-gurdy man. But if you think that little monkey is always dancing to his own tune...brother, you have bigger problems.

And now...I will never eat lunch in this town again.

3 comments:

Thomas Garvey said...

You know, 99, I swore I would disengage from your petty rants - I only returned to your blog because Art Hennessey (damn you Art Hennessey!) lured me back by saying there was an interesting discussion of one of my posts on it. What a mistake! You can parse my comments as an attack on playwrights if you so desire - that's your general M.O., in case you've never noticed: everything, it seems, is an attack on playwrights. My comments really weren't intended that way, but who cares. I won't be back this time, and I'm sure you'll be much calmer and more level-headed as a result, so it will be a win/win.

99 said...

I don't see an actual point or response there. If you care to explain your final comment, I'd be happy to hear it.

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