Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ad Hominem: Battles Over Broadway and the Role of Personal Identity in Criticism

 Max Gordon Moore and Adina Verson in Paula Vogel's Indecent. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Let’s start by accepting the premise that white men (a group which includes yours truly) have managed to make quite a hash of things over the last few centuries. One need only glance at today’s headlines to see the ways in which blithely privileged males have negatively affected our politics and culture. There’s been a strong, necessary, and long-past-due movement in the last few decades to remedy this state of affairs in the arts. However, a recent controversy in the world of theatre criticism has pointed to some concerning issues that arise when we apply this attitude to the question of whether and how the identities of critics and artists should affect the former’s responses to the latter. It stems from a series of statements on social media from playwright Paula Vogel, followed by “A Collective Call Against Critical Bias” on the theatre website HowlRound, in response to the early closings of Vogel’s Indecent and fellow playwright Lynn Nottage’s Sweat on Broadway.

Vogel and Nottage are two of the most prominent and respected playwrights in the United States at present, and yet they none of their works had ever made it to Broadway before, so it was disappointing when their respective plays announced that they would close early (although, in a surprising and virtually unprecedented development, Indecent subsequently extended its run at the last minute). In both cases, lukewarm reviews from The New York Times likely played at least some role in limiting their runs. Vogel took to Twitter to comment, “Brantley&Green, 2-0. Nottage&Vogel 0-2. Lynn, they help close us down,&gifted stra8 white guys run: ourplayswill last. B&G#footnotesinhistory.” Nottage added, “The patriarchy flexing their muscles to prove their power.” Vogel subsequently qualified her initial statements: “Btw I like well written pans of my plays (John Simon!) NYT was not a pan. Is there a manipulation of marketplace that dismisses women&POC?” and “I respect Ben Brantley. I served on a pulitzer jury w/him. He is not the enemy. hope to have more thoughtful dialogue. We need a better way.” She also took pains to emphasize that she was not disparaging Lucas Hnath or J.T. Rogers, the aforementioned “gifted [straight] white guys” whose A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Oslo continue to run on Broadway.

The HowlRound essay, which features some two dozen women from theatre and academia as signatories, expands upon Vogel’s initial statements, pointing to the disparity in funding between the Off-Broadway theatres in which Sweat and Indecent were developed and the larger war chests behind Oslo and Doll’s House. According to the essay, these larger budgets allow Lincoln Center, where Oslo is currently running, to cater “to a much more affluent audience.” Furthermore, the essay claims, perhaps paradoxically, that the “reception by The New York Times and the East Coast male critical establishment has been tepid at best,” “despite the shower of accolades for both” plays. It faults Brantley and especially Green for criticizing the playwrights’ ambition and condescending to them because they are women, then goes on to point out a few other recent instances in which male critics such as Hilton Als have criticized female artists.

As one might expect, the article’s comment section is largely a vast wasteland of sniping and intemperate arguments, some of them questioning the basic premises of feminism, intersectionality, and gender equality. However, theatre critic Jonathan Mandell raises a number of keen insights and questions, pointing out that, for all that the essay focuses on Brantley and Green, it only briefly engages with their actual reviews, and makes no attempt to comprehensively assess either critic’s larger body of work in order to demonstrate a more prolonged pattern of misogynist bias on either of their parts. He also observes that the piece falls into the trap of equating the overall critical response (“the shower of accolades” to which the essay refers) to the judgment of The New York Times (Green, who reviewed both shows for Vulture, is presumably a focus of the essay in part because he has recently become a critic for the Times).

On this last point, in particular, the HowlRound essay stands on firm ground. As the world of theatre criticism continues to contract, the outsize influence wielded by the Times, whose main critics are indeed both white men, is particularly egregious. It’s fair to question whether those critics’ assessments (which, as with all criticism, are inherently subjective and can induce head-scratching among those of us who don’t share their specific aesthetic principles) have undue power to make or break Broadway productions. However, as Mandell points out, the essay essentially reinforces the Times’s dominant status by effectively using it as a synecdoche for the whole of the critical establishment, brief mentions of Als and a few other critics notwithstanding.

A scene from Lynn Nottage's Sweat. (Photo: Jan Marcus)

It’s also fair to question why the essay seems to minimize the importance of Vogel and Nottage’s illustrious careers and larger bodies of work relative to the disappointing financial performances of their most recent productions. As with its paradoxical placing of the Times and its critics on a pedestal, even as it questions their judgment, the essay implies that the two playwrights somehow require validation from the center of commercial American theatre, despite the fact that their work is being read and performed in theatres around the world and is frequently taught in theatre courses at universities and colleges (in this regard, Vogel’s assertion that her work and Nottage’s will prove lasting is probably accurate). The privileging of such a hierarchical, capitalist institution as Broadway fits uneasily with the values of the work that Nottage and Vogel have produced, especially considering that its high ticket prices often exclude less privileged populations and ensure that its audiences skew strongly towards the white and wealthy.

These controversies raise some important issues, but they also lead to a number of troubling questions. First and foremost, there’s a seemingly irreconcilable tension between the particular and the general. Regarding the latter, the fact that women and people of color are broadly underrepresented among both artists and critics is indisputable, and efforts to remedy that disparity require the utmost urgency. However, when it comes to the particular, there’s effectively a presumption of bad faith on the part of two specific critics who find fault with individual efforts from the playwrights in question. One of the essay’s signatories, Dr. Jill Dolan of Princeton University, has suggested a model of what she calls “critical generosity” towards works such as Angels in America, even as she dismisses, in the same essay, Brantley and his former colleague Charles Isherwood as men “who revel in their power to destroy productions they don’t like for reasons that are always political, as well as aesthetic, and always masked by the ‘objectivity’ that power bestows on their work.” Again, it’s fair to question Brantley and Isherwood’s critical judgment, as well as how that judgment has an effect out of all proportion to its validity, but to allege such a level of personal viciousness and unethical behavior to individual writers feels out of step with the generosity that Dolan calls for in the rest of the piece. In the same way, suggesting that Brantley and Green wrote “tepid” reviews of Sweat and Indecent because they actively sought to “usher women offstage,” in the HowlRound essay’s words, seems like an allegation that’s serious enough to require much more extensive proof.

The essay also implicitly presumes that women and/or people of color who reviewed Sweat and Indecent would automatically find much more to like about them, which comes off as a reductionist and faintly condescending viewpoint. That certainly wasn’t the case for Pauline Kael, arguably the greatest film critic of all time, and it isn’t true for some of the most preeminent film critics working today, such as Stephanie Zacharek, Dana Stevens, or Farran Smith Nehme. As Mandell points out in his ripostes, a number of female theatre critics also had reservations about Nottage and Vogel’s plays. Furthermore, the recent experience of Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times offers us a case of a female critic becoming embroiled in a controversy over the importance of identity, as she has faced the prospect of being denied tickets to Chicago-area productions over a racially charged review that she wrote of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre.

The principle that we must make the identity of the artist a (if not the) primary consideration when assessing his or her work also raises potentially troubling implications when applied to other situations. The most obvious example involves Israel and the ongoing controversy over To the End of the Land, a stage adaption by David Grossman of his novel of the same title. Despite Grossman’s record of criticizing the Israeli government, the play’s sponsorship by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs has led to calls from artists such as Wallace Shawn and Annie Baker for Lincoln Center to cancel performances. While this controversy isn’t immediately related to issues of critical judgment, it seems fair to ask if or whether an identity-focused mode of criticism would have to take into account the background of an artist like Grossman, and, if so, on what grounds he ought to be assessed.

Tensions between critics and artists go back for as long as theatre has existed, when Aristophanes complained of the lack of success of his comedy The Clouds and lambasted the popularity of rival playwright Euripides. Vogel and Nottage’s disappointment at the curtailed runs of their plays is completely understandable, as is any resentment that they might direct against individual critics whose reviews they perceive (perhaps fairly) as having been responsible for those circumstances. (It’s certainly fairer and more even-handed than, say, the anti-critical response of Kurt Sutter, the male showrunner who directed vitriol at television critics who gave generally negative reviews to the later seasons of his drama Sons of Anarchy.) However, the confusion between the general observations – that women and people of color are criminally underrepresented both on the stage and in the critic’s chair and that the perception of playwrights’ success has an inordinate amount to do with how they fare on Broadway and with The New York Times – and the specific objections that Brantley and Green raised in their individual reviews point to some of the underlying problems that we still need to sort out as we attempt to remedy the former circumstance.

To that end, it’s worth pointing to another tweet that Vogel sent in the wake of her initial thoughts about Indecent and Sweat’s closings. “Here what I’d like,” she wrote, “once a year critics give 1 public lecture each teaching us and formulating their aesthetic principles.” This seems like an eminently reasonable request, not only for critics like Brantley and Green, but for artists such as Vogel and Nottage as well. We should all recognize that criticism is an inherently subjective undertaking, and one in which a multiplicity of voices is much more desirable than a single, authoritative pronouncement from on high. How, then, are we to achieve this desired state, in which a mixed or negative review from a single outlet won’t be enough to sink a production, and to what extent do we accept the existence of “aesthetic principles” that, conditioned though they might be by our individual identities, are broadly acceptable to all?

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscenti page and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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