Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Christopher Isherwood

Over at Parbasis, Isaac Butler wonders aloud what is up with Christoopher Isherwood's assassination of the new play Bach at Leipzig written by Itamar Moses. Isherwood writes that Moses is "clearly a writer of nimble verbal gifts and high ambition," and his play actually seems to engage ideas -- and yet Isherwood smashes him. Later in the season, no doubt, Isherwood (or Brantley) will write an essay in the Sunday Arts section about why American theatre seems so trivial, totally forgetting that they are responsible for cutting young playwrights off at the knees while wondering why they don't run faster. Now, I haven't seen or read Bach at Leipzig -- it may be as sodden as he says -- but I am ready to say that we should be encouraging, not killing, any American playwright with "nimble verbal gifts and high ambition."


Anonymous said...

While I understand Isaac's frustration, I believe this issue boils down to the function and obligations of the critic.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a fan of Charles Isherwood. I am not surprised to see that his NY Times review illustrates the same limited vision that he frequently showcased during his previous tenure with Variety.

However, this is a very difficult issue, one that I struggled with myself during the months that I spent as a lead literary critic for a newspaper.

The trouble is this: the largest works are essentially critic proof. I wrote negative reviews of The Da Vinci Code and a Stephen King novel, but I'm certain that I had very little impact on the book sales even within my immediate community.

I realized this very early on and decided instead to focus most of the paper's attention on local writers. While I could not hurt the "giants," I could help local novelists and publishers gain more exposure and perhaps sell a few more books.

If myself or one of the other book reviewers read a book from a local novelist that we felt was particularly problematic, then we simply didn't review it. While we were not capable of hurting Stephen King (no matter what we wrote), we might hurt a lesser known name.

The question I continuously asked myself was this: Why spend all of your time telling people what not to buy, given the limited space that you have, when there are plenty of worthy works deserving of praise and attention?

That said, I do think the "giants" are fair game. If you are a critic and want to slam Joe Mantello's latest production of The Odd Couple with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, fine. I just wonder about the wasted energy on such a review--who does your work serve? After all, the show sold out a nine month run before opening night.

I think there is nothing more repugnant than the critic who moonlights as a stand-up comedian and seems to derive a great amount of pleasure from glib remarks like:

"Sitting through Mr. Moses' reverent attempt to mimic the brainy irreverence of Tom Stoppard is like being forced to consume glass after glass of flat Champagne, with no hope of giddy inebriation in the offing." --from Isherwood's review

I do believe that critics have a vital role to play in the theatre and art in America. However, in order for this to begin to happen, there needs to be a reconsideration of the relationship between artists and critics. The current distance between the two allows critics to be extremely sarcastic and sometimes unhelpful.

It is much more difficult to write in such a sarcastic manner when you have engaged in a conversation with the actual artist. There were a number of works that I praised in my reviews, that nevertheless had a few shortcomings. However, I can say that having spoken to many of these writers (or at least their publisher who sent the copies), I felt an obligation to give their work the most thoughtful response possible. That often meant being very careful in how I phrased my particular criticism.

I can say for sure that it is much harder to be ungenerous when you see your role (as a critic) as being complimentary rather opposite of the artists. Critics should have the courage to write what they believe, the forethought to keep in mind what they want to accomplish, and the maturity to recognize their place and role in the community.

In the end, we all have different roles to play, but I believe our goals are more similar than different.


Freeman said...

I read that review and found it rather striking. It was a spanking. This writer is essentially endorsed by Stoppard, and is rather young, so Isherwood compared him to Stoppard, almost to say "Not so fast."

Anonymous said...

I really do believe that Charles Isherwood was attempting to wreck Itemar Moses' career. I get the sense that, reading the profile of Moses in the Times and then the review back to back that Isherwood saw a rising star who he (for some reason) thinks is a faker and wanted to take him out. The review is -very- carefully written. Writing about a show and slamming the writing while complimenting/barely talking about the production is a really good way to ensure that the play will never be done again regionally.

It's an abuse of power, if you ask me.


Freeman said...

I don't know. It seems more than unlikely that Isherwood was trying to wreck his career. He did complement his "verbal" this and "ambition" that. He just didn't like the play, and went after it.

Over on, Martin Denton promotes and encourages a sort of activist reviewer; someone who sees their function as helping the writers and performers acheive their goals, even through constructive criticism. Even over there, you get the occasional review that just uses someone for target practice.

I've done a fair amount of reviewing, and you write a lot of copy. There isn't all that much time to sit and go "Should I destroy this person" if you're a professional. You just write the best, clearest piece that you can and your conscience, unfortunately, is your only guide.

I'd be curious if the Times reviewers actively think about the results of their reviews, or if they actively have to NOT think about them in order to write what they feel is their true opinion. That's got to be a difficult balance.

Anonymous said...

I saw Bach last night and thought it was wonderful. A terrific production of a very good play. While not up there with Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, certainly better than the revival of Jumpers two seasons ago.

Perhaps Isherwood marks on a curve. Playwrights with obvious talent and praise from the masters -- average D. Playwrights with no talent, who have something weird to say -- average B.

There is no other rational explanation for Isherwood loving Thom Pain and hating Bach.

Anonymous said...

his review of 'ruby sunrise' was lukewarm, too - much less than this complex and ambitious play deserved.

Anonymous said...

Isherwood bashed rolin jones and noah haidle in similar unfair fashions. I think they are both very talented and isherwood's reviews seemed both unfair and uninformed. I think he enjoys putting down young playwrights.

arcticactor said...

Isherwood used Sarah Ruhl's age and Kushner's Angels to destroy "Passion Play" -- her follow-up to "The Clean House." Seems to be a running tactic with him. He beats the crap out of these amazing young writers by comparing them to their obvious influences. And that ulta-pithy metaphor he uses to describe "Bach at Leipzig" comes straight from the critic's bank of interchangeable insults. I saw the play in previews after reading it and found myself laughing start to finish ... along with the rest of the audience. I don't care to speculate on Isherwood's motivations -- his appraisal is simply wrong. Glad other people noticed this, too. I just finished a long post about "Bach at Leipzig" on my blog ...

sirromdivad said...

"Later in the season, no doubt, Isherwood (or Brantley) will write an essay in the Sunday Arts section about why American theatre seems so trivial, totally forgetting that they are responsible for cutting young playwrights off at the knees while wondering why they don't run faster."

Apparently it's Isherwood