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Critical Mass: 'The American Theatre Reader'

June 10, 2009 |  7:27 am

AT_April_84_SamShepa Long before the digital revolution -- I believe it might have been the Neolithic period -- theater criticism was actually published in book form. Anthologies of reviews, monographs on artists and essays on theatrical developments would sit proudly in stores that carried such not-yet-antiquated things as poetry, histories and novels.
    
"The American Theatre Reader -- Essays and Conversations from American Theater Magazine” is a refreshingly unexpected throwback to such a literate age. Defiantly unglossy in its look and flagrantly retro in its defense of intelligent theater discussion, the collection is also a reassurance that, despite all the countervailing economic and cultural forces, there continues to exist a small battalion of theater writers still fighting the good fight.

Naturally, there's a sizable "but": As part of Theatre Communications Group, whose mission is to “strengthen, nurture and promote the professional not-for-profit American theatre,” American Theatre has been more an advocate than a challenger of artists and institutions. And throughout its 25-year history, the magazine has struggled to resist being a house organ of the TCG network of regional theaters that, in effect, foots a chunk of the publication's bills. Not surprisingly, the tone of the writing can get cheerleaderish, and my subscription, I have to confess, always seems to be lazily lapsing.  
 

AT_March_94_TheAmericaPlay But under the leadership of Jim O’Quinn, the gentlemanly editor who been there since the start, the magazine has undeniably given space to a remarkable array of playwrights, directors, actors, designers and producers, as well as those contentious critics with whom artistic directors can’t help but have a love-hate relationship. Just as important, the coverage has been part of the broader decentralizing push to understand American theater as something more than a New York phenomenon. Implicit in this is the recognition of just how provincial it is to think of the rest of the country as "the provinces.”

Representing the old critical guard in the anthology are figures such as Eric Bentley, Harold Clurman and Robert Brustein, who in one piece squares off against Frank Rich in a wide-ranging conversation guided by Robert Marx. Playwriting trends are tracked by New Dramatists artistic director Todd London as well as such contemporary practitioners as Jose Rivera, Naomi Iizuka and Diana Son. Tony Kushner vents his wise spleen about the education of artists. And August Wilson’s controversial views about colorblind casting are thunderously propounded.

I’ve been dipping into the anthology at night, bouncing from Alan Schneider’s recollections of his original Broadway production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to Ross Wetzsteon’s lively 1986 give-and-take with the feisty Joseph Papp. These pieces offer insights not just into the history of contemporary American theater but also into the way artists and producers think -- a rare intimacy. 

But there’s one article I’m particularly grateful for being republished: Julius Novick’s “The Critical Instinct,” which was originally delivered as the keynote address at the 1986 Northern California Theatre Critics Conference. The piece should be required reading for all practicing theater critics, and I know I’ll be perusing it again in the not-so-distant future for reassurance and guidance.

Novick’s subject is the ongoing challenge a reviewer faces in trying to maintain his or her intellectual and emotional integrity amid myriad pressures, subtle and not-so-subtle, from artists, audiences and editors. The goal, as he sees it, should be to string sentences into literature rather than itemize them into a consumer report.

In an apt quote Novick retrieves for us, George Bernard Shaw reveals what made him as brilliant a critic as he was a playwright: “I am keenly susceptible to contrary influences -- to private friendship and even acquaintanceship, to the pleasure of giving pleasure and the pain of giving pain, to consideration for people’s circumstances and prospects … but the critical instinct gets the better of them all.” 

Good criticism, Novick argues, isn’t anonymous, with the writer’s identity bleached out or subsumed into a newspaper masthead.  It’s an encounter -- an interaction, really -- between an individual sensibility and a unique manifestation of the art form.  

“To be truly honest,” Novick writes, “is to be engaged in a never-ending fight against a never-ending human capacity for self-deception. Nobody wins that fight all the time, but a good critic is constantly pressing himself to discover what he really thinks and feels, what’s really going on.”

Words likes these perhaps best reflect what American Theatre nobly strives to achieve: advocacy that refuses to suppress difficult truths.

-- Charles McNulty

Photo (top): American Theatre cover, April 1984 . Photo (bottom): American Theatre cover, March 1994. Credit: Theatre Communications Group

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