Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Casual Casuistry of George Hunka (Updated)

(NOTE I: There were some horrid typos and grammatical mistakes and just plain sloppiness in the original version of this post, so I have fixed those. I also removed a pair of passages that one person felt was somehow getting in the mud. I disagree, but as the offending passage wasn't all that germane, out it went.)

(NOTE II: The current count on this post is four private emails thanking me for writing this and one suggesting otherwise.)

(NOTE III: I fully expect certain people to rush to the defense of the person I'm discussing in this post. That's fine. Those who hate me will hate me anyway.)

My colleague Mark Shenton from London -- who I ran into at the Lincoln Center Cymbeline -- alerted me to a post from George Hunka on the Guardian's arts blog in which he gleefully draws and quarters American theatre critics, bemoaning the perceived lack of fine contemporary criticism. Oh, for the days when Bentley and Brustein were young! Oh, for the days when Gilman and Esslin were the it! Hunka's nose, I should note, must be profoundly brown from kissing the ass of critic Michael Billington of The Guardian, of whom he speaks in his post in worshipping terms. Funny thing, praising the critic of the paper paying you to post. Or pillar to post. Anyway...

Here's a quote from Hunka's piece:


When, as a teenager thinking about making a career as a dramatist, I read this criticism, I found critics who believed in a theatre and drama of profound significance to contemporary culture and society; at the same time, they considered 3,000 years of an art form that had over its history touched the deepest wellsprings of human fear and desire. These critics knew that history intimately, too, and engaged with it critically and with enthusiasm. They were as educative, and as inspiring, as reading the plays and playwrights they most carefully and brilliantly considered.
Theatre critics of yore "considered 3,000 years of an art form that had over its history touched the deepest wellsprings of human fear of desire" and now they do not? Really? Is that not a tad hyperbolic? Hunka decries -- as if the world is really desperate for more people to ascribe more power to the New York Times, so as to attack it -- the fact that Brantley has edited only one book and Isherwood written only one book (about a gay porn star). As if they're all we have to talk about in the realm of contemporary theatre criticism.

Hunka's sense of history has more holes in it than Gary Gilmore post-execution. First, let's be clear: there are a lot of critics beyond the Times' terrible twosome. He might have written, for example, about Michael Feingold, who hasn't written any book-length criticism that I know of (book-length criticism is apparently the sole standard of excellence), but does anyone question that Feingold has written more intelligently, thoroughly, and exquisitely on the theatre over the last 35 years than anyone else? Does Hunka believe Feingold does not, in his criticism, consider "3,000 years of an art form that had over its history touched the deepest wellsprings of human fear of desire"?

Hunka ignores the work of Julius Novick (active until recently), and reaching back a little bit, Walter Kerr, Harold Clurman, and Mel Gussow, all of whom, I think, wrote quite eloquently and often on the post-1945 American theatre. Ignoring Kerr is weirdly tragic: he wrote How Not to Write a Play (1955), Criticism and Censorship (1957), Pieces at Eight (1958), The Decline of Pleasure (1962), The Theatre in Spite of Itself (1963), Tragedy and Comedy (1967), Thirty Plays Hath November (1969), God on the Gymnasium Floor (1971), and The Silent Clowns (1975) all while at the old Herald-Tribune and, later, the Times (links courtesy of the dreaded Wikipedia).

Hunka ignores the work of Stanley Kauffman, and John Simon.

Hunka ignores the work of John Heilpern of the New York Observer, whose Conference of the Birds is an unquestionably important work, and whose recent biography of John Osbourne has been widely acclaimed.

(It also occurs to me that while Hunka decries the lack of book-length critical studies that are not from the academic marketplace (what an absurd measurement for what is acceptable criticism), we have, perhaps, some of the finest critic-biographers we've ever had. Anyway...)

Hunka ignores the pioneering criticism of Edith Oliver, who wrote for The New Yorker for 40 years -- no, she didn't publish a full-length book of criticism, but does any publication give its critics the latitude of The New Yorker, and did she not take advantage of it? Is Hunka unfamiliar with John Lahr, the current theatre critic at The New Yorker? People may cavil at his insistence upon revealing essential plot details, but his biographical profiles are essential reading for theater lovers -- and Lahr's book on Coward is exceptionally good. People may cavil with the opinions of Lahr's second string, Hilton Als, but not only is Als exceptionally perceptive and often persuasive, he's the only major critic of color in New York City -- and the fact that most people are unaware of it is a tribute to his skills as a critic and writer generally. Like John Lahr, Als won the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism. Here are some more George Jean Nathan winner Hunka ignores:

2005-2006
Charles Isherwood
2004-2005
Raymond Knapp
2003-2004
Trey Graham
2002-2003
Hilton Als
2001-2002
Daniel Mendelsohn
2000-2001
Laurence Senelick
1999-2000
Albert Williams
1998-99
Michael Goldman
1997-98
Alisa Solomon
1996-97
Ben Brantley, Elinor Fuchs, and Todd London
1995-96
Michael Feingold
1994-95
Robert Hurwitt
1993-94
Marvin Carlson and John Lahr
1992-93
David Cole
1991-92
Kevin Kelly
1990-91
Jonathan Kalb
1989-90
Steven Mikulan
1988-89
Eileen Blumenthal
1987-88
Scott Rosenberg
1986-87
Robert Brustein
1985-86
Gordon Rogoff
1984-85
Jan Kott
1983-84
Bonnie Marranca
1982-83
Herbert Blau
1981-82
Julius Novick
1980-81
Carolyn Clay and Sylviane Gold
1979-80
Sean Mitchell
1978-79
Jack Kroll
1977-78
Mel Gussow
1976-77
Bernard Knox
1975-76
Michael Goldman
1974-75
No Award Made
1973-74
Albert Bermel
1972-73
Stanley Kauffmann
1971-72
Jay Carr
1970-71
Richard Gilman
1969-70
John Simon
1968-69
John Lahr

Well, let me correct that -- he does not ignore Jonathan Kalb. Good thing, that.

Meanwhile, please notice that many of these critics are outside of New York. Surely Hunka realizes there are, in fact, critics elsewhere, yes? Why does he ignore Charles McNulty, formerly the theatre editor of the Voice, now the theatre critic for the L.A. Times? Or Gordon Rogoff (the link is to a list of books)? Or, back at home, some other NYC heavyweights: Alisa Solomon and Erika Munk?

Why does Hunka cast such a narrow net? Could it be to service his point, to position himself as some kind of cultural arbiter? Could it be that his hope is make the Guardian buy into it?

Hunka writes:
Theatre in America now doesn't produce such critics. When one reads most American drama criticism in newspapers and magazines these days, you realise that the reason for this lack isn't that these critics don't want to write books like Billington's. It's that they can't, even if they wanted to. And that says more about the health of American theatrical and dramatic criticism than it says about the health of theatre and drama in America.
..."because they can't"? Oh, rubbish. As evidenced by the links to the names of these critics, they can and do write books -- and for Hunka to suggest that "books about theatre right now are relegated to university or small presses" demeans the academy -- it demeans anyone publishing books about theater anywhere.

Perhaps the Guardian needs to know what else Hunka believes, a la the 100 Saints disaster.

Hunka writes, in his easily assailable and highly selective "State of the Union," as if it is he who decides what the state of the theatre blogosphere is. Or, to put it in Project Runway terms, if you're in, you're in, if you're out, you're out.

(NOTE: How curious that comments for Hunka's post in the Guardian are turned off.)

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1 comment:

Rob Kendt said...

Leonard, this is an encouragingly corrective post; it's good to see all those names mentioned, and attention being paid to a slew of us ink-stained wretches. I agree that it's a pity that George overlooked Michael Feingold, since he's the only comparable American figure to Billington in terms of longevity and impact. And though I also find that last paragraph's broad-brush "because they can't" overly dismissive (I think the economics of non-academic publishing, both newspapers and books, has a lot to do with the dearth of the criticism George pines for, and probably over-romanticizes just a tad), and while it's true that we have produced some excellent critical biographers on this side of the pond, I have to agree with George in lamenting that there's no American equivalent to Billington's new book, and I must join him in wondering who could write such a book, were one to be written. I offer this with all respect for your passion and commitment.