Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More Birkenhead Fallout

Well, the fallout from my rant about Peter Birkenhead seems interesting -- got a whole bunch of emails today from people I didn't know, and a few, mostly congratulatory emails from people that I do know. And seven comments!

The sixth comment was, I thought, outstanding and apt, so I responded -- quite completely, I think (and hope). I also hope it is not some breach of rules, but I am publishing in this post the comment that the person made and my response. Then I am on to other things as it was a rather emotional day.

Comment Six:
"Clyde, let me ask you something. You have now dismantled everything that Birkenhead wrote, point by point. Is it your opinion that the American theatre, Broadway or otherwise, is in great shape and can't possibly learn something from anybody else? And is it your opinion that it is in great shape because ticket sales are up? That relevance equals income? That's your barometer? Nothing about the almost total lack of originality in the productions? Birkenhead is right -- you did remake his points for him all over."

"To suggest I made Birkenhead's points all over again is rather irresponsibly reductive. And no, I don't think the American theatre is a model of health. If you study American theatre history, you'll find that the American theatre has NEVER seen itself as healthy, so at least we're in something of a tradition. What Birkenhead did is suggest that the theatre is a mess because it isn't like television; that it's effectively hobbled by mission statements (conflating the nonprofit and commercial business models in the process); that it's Soviet in organization (never mind the fact that Birkenead feels free to dictate content to the American playwright); and that it's so out of touch with what is and is not avant-garde that the doughboys of World War I would consider our present stage utterly passe. All of that is sophistry. Moreover, I suggest that we had better stop thinking in terms of the health of the American theatre being defined by Broadway -- that's the problem right there. For example, neither you nor Birkenhead nor anyone else at the moment is talking about how utterly uninclusive Broadway is -- we are a community that offers more than 1000 productions a year, but the Tony Awards essentially pretends that only 40 or so of those productions really matter. The problem is that Broadway and the Tonys is about real estate, not aesthetics. The problem is that Broadway is brilliantly branded and has been for a century or more; "regional theatre" is not a brand and is about as sexy as the Periodic Table. (You're not a physicist, I assume.)

Finally, I wouldn't talk about the "total lack of originality" as a case of bad Broadway buffoonery: I see originality lacking in every art form these days. Not every painting can be "Guernica"; not every symphony can be "The Rite of Spring." Not every film can be "The Godfather"; not every TV show can be "The Sopranos" (if you consider it original). And you know what? That's how it should be. If everything is original then originality has no value. Art is a matter of evolution coming in due course, but what Birkenhead is proposing is a kind of mandatory devolution. Now please, please do not interpret my use of the word devolution to imply that I think theatre is inherently superior -- there's a lot of crappy theatre out there as we all well know. I'm also not suggesting that theatre is inherently superior because I feel the moment we in the theatre begin trying to quantify art, to value it relative to other mediums and forms, we might as well become Roger Ebert and give things thumbs up, thumbs up and one, two, three, or four stars. I mean devolution in the sense that Birkenhead does not like theatre, does not know much about it, evidently, and does not care to learn. His proposals, in fact, are all about trying to make the theatre into some over-ripe, super-romanticized version of what it more than likely never was, except possibly once upon a time in his head. I feel he was too facile blaming the artists, blaming the critics, blaming the producers, blaming the designers, blaming the marketers, blaming the audiences, and on and on.And I won't let him get away with it: There are too many people more well educated about the theatre than he, people who happen to care very deeply about the theatre's seemingly cursed and intractable problems, than to have someone whip out some metaphorical gun and shoot us all in print just to get himself some cheap attention (I guess he succeeded.) If you know anything about the theatre, we are quite capable of shooting ourselves, thank you very much.

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Art said...

I think you make your argument wonderfully, but as a small point, (for which I hope won't incur your wrath,)...

While Roger Ebert's television show was responsible for the "thumbs" phenomena, he is a literate, witty, sensitive and thought provoking critic. (As was the now deceased Gene Siskel.)People who don't read past the star ratings are missing out.

Here is the opening sentence of his review of "Ocean's Thirteen": "The genius of the past decays remorselessly into the routine of the present, and one example is the downfall of the caper picture."

Not to mention Mr. Ebert has a groundbreaking website in which he illuminates The Great Movies with expansive essays about known and unknown great films from all over the world.

It is the news organization, and, to some extent, the public that pushes the star systems. At a panel of critics that Robert Brustein convened here in Boston a few years back, Linda Winer of Newsday talked about how the Guardian in London was going to force critics to start assigning stars to classical music reviews!

While Mr. Ebert will always have the thumbs as his legacy, I hope it is his writing that will survive a little longer.

When you say, "we might as well become Roger Ebert," I would reply... "Would that more of us could, would that more of us could!"

Leonard Jacobs said...

LOL, fair enough! Thanks for pointing that out -- duly noted.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, and I always learn a lot from you Leonard, and much from you blog. Fascists with guns and bombs don't scare me so much, but New York Theater blogging... truly frightening. My company wants me to blog, but I'll leave that to the big boys. I'll try an online journal maybe while over in Iraq.
- Christopher Carter Sanderson