Monday, June 11, 2007

Tony Analysis, Part II; or, Peter Birkenhead is a Putz

Update: Peter Birkenhead apparently left a comment for me. Rather that defend his essay and rather than respond to it, the only comment he chose to make had to do with my use of the term "lynch mob." He calls me a "class act"; nice. I call him intellectually dishonest if that's all he can come up with.

I have to begin my coverage of last night's Tonys by talking about Peter Birkenhead's dumb article -- yeah, that's right, it was just dumb -- in Salon on Saturday. It is so ignorant, and so reductive, and so flippant, and so misinformed, and so perfectly designed to be attention-getting and infuriating that it's hard to know where to begin. It seems to me that a lynch mob might be clearer than I am about what to do about what he wrote.

I'll begin by saying that if Birkenhead's grasp of facts are the qualities by which he distinguishes himself as a journalist, then I'm quite sure he'll be receiving an honorary degree from the Jayson Blair School of Higher Education before the month of June is complete. The dek for his article reads, "Why more people will be watching 'The Sopranos' than the Tonys on Sunday night," and he begins his assault on reason by stating, "It's not just because 'The Sopranos' series finale will be on at the same time, though, frankly, that you scheduled the awards to run directly against it -- essentially shrugging your shoulders at the culture-minded audience members you claim to court -- does seem startlingly symbolic." What Birkenhead does not seem to be aware of is that the League and the Wing were forced by CBS to schedule the Tonys well ahead of time -- well ahead of HBO. It was HBO that scheduled the final episode of "The Sopranos" against the Tonys, not the other way around.

But let's move on. Birkenhead writes that we in the theatre "seem to have trapped yourself in a system of theater creation in this country that is positively Soviet in its unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness. A system that, for the last 50 years, has reacted to television not by learning from it but by 'distinguishing' itself from it -- and thereby neutering and bleeding itself into desiccated, rarefied irrelevance. But it doesn't have to be that way." First, what exactly is Soviet about the creation of theater in the United States? Is it, for example, centrally planned by the federal government? Do actors, playwrights, directors and designers live in specifically designated housing? Are they busily writing plays like The Bedbug? And please, please tell me what "unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness" means. For two days I've been sitting trying to figure that out and I swear it completely eludes me. I'll be quoting a good deal from Birkenhead's awful essay, but one thing he keeps harping on is the opaque quality of current American plays. If that's his opinion, so be it, but what is not opaque about "unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness"?

Moving on -- how has the theater, by recognizing that it is innately and unquestionably a different art form from television, bled "itself into desiccated, rarefied irrelevance"? Irrelevant, I mean, to whom? To Birkenhead? And how can the theater be irrelevant when more than 12 million people bought a ticket to a Broadway show last season? More broadly, how can the New York theater be irrelevant when there are hundreds of nonprofit Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater companies? Even more broadly, how can the theater be irrelevant if the economic impact of New York theater -- and even more broadly, the American theater -- runs into the billions? By comparison, what has the economic impact of "The Sopranos" been? More sales of pasta? The explosive growth in t-shirts reading "Bada-bing"?

Birkenhead writes, "How come the go-to insult for theater critics and theater makers is still the word "television"?....I mean, the same elements that are considered avant-garde in the theater today were considered avant-garde in 1918. The theater still thinks dissonance is a daring musical gesture, and that nonlinear storytelling is new. It's embarrassing how proudly it seems possessed by not only the aesthetic, but the ethos and issues of another era."

This is so ignorant and uneducated that I'm hoping that lynch mob finds Birkenhead soon. First, television as a genre is inherently more restrictive in terms of structure, style and content than the theater is. Just consider the numbers on last night's Tonys that the "Spring Awakening" kids performed: Steven Sater had to write a new lyric for "The Bitch of Living" because the word "breast" was apparently too inappropriate for Birkenhead's unassailable medium of television; don't even ask what the cast had to do when they performed "Totally Fucked." And unless Birkenhead is making a reference to the avant-garde, futurist theories of Marinetti, it's clear he doesn't know much about what did or did not (or does or does not) consitute avant-gardeism, in 1918 or today. Maybe I should have made this point earlier, but if Birkenhead is going to make these grand and sweeping assumptions about the American theater based on Broadway, then he really has no business being published under the guise of being a cultural critic.

Birkenhead writes, "You know that people who write for film and television aren't just doing it for the money anymore, right? They do it because their work won't be developed to death by an endless supply of places with 'mission statements,' because they know they will have more artistic freedom, more fun and more opportunities to do the kind of interesting work the theater once provided, about, you know, recognizable people in dramatic situations, struggling with the human condition." This is so out of touch as to be jaw-snapping. Ask someone like Theresa Rebeck why she writes for TV -- it's for the money, yes, and for the artistic opportunities, yes, but it also hasn't stopped her from continuing to write plays. Now, why does one suppose that is? Rebeck, who is but one example, recognizes as Birkenhead does not that television is a separate form requiring separate skills and, as noted, functioning under separate rules and separate expectations. Birkenhead also apparently does not understand that commercial Broadway doesn't suffer at all from "mission statements"; the mission statement is a creature of the nonprofit business model, and if he'd like to launch an attack upon it, let him do it after he's become sufficiently educated about it. And yes, Birkenhead is correct that there is such a thing as development hell and that it can wreak havoc on the aspirations of American playwrights. Yet I was unaware that the film industry, for example, was so easy to work in. Is Birkenhead actually implying that all you have to do is write a screenplay and off you go? Really? What putrid nonsense -- another nattering nabob of narcissism, writing just to get his intellectual jollies off.

Birkenhead writes, "If the theater is going to return to anything like its former position in our culture, it has to change. Why are some of you so resistant to the idea of marketing to young tastemakers, the 20- to 40-year-olds who enjoy sophisticated art and music, who are the potential defibrillators of the American theater? When you start producing more plays for and about the people in Nicole Holofcener's movies, or David Chase's television shows, you'll be on the right track." Now, there is something to this -- we do not need the Roundabout Theater Company reviving Cabaret again -- but then Birkenhead goes on to discuss Spring Awakening and other works, and says, "If you keep doing shows like that, keep producing plays that sound like they were written by people who might read Michael Chabon, or listen to the Decemberists, or watch 'Weeds,' I promise you, more of those people will come to the theater." Who is acting like the Soviets now? By specifically advocating for certain kinds of content, is Birkenhead not playing the role of the cultural minister, the warlord overseeing the theatrical gulag?

Birkenhead makes an assault upon plays "filled with cringingly unconfident writing that muddies the waters in order to make it all appear deep; writing full of insufferable name dropping and artless declaiming of Big Ideas, with a campy, brittle sense of humor right out of 1959, performed in a teeth-gratingly earnest, over-enunciated style that has become a parody of itself." What exactly, again, does this mean? Isn't it just extraordinary how someone ill-informed and in a desperate search for an essay that will grab him some attention, can make such sweeping comments without ever being informed, accurate or specific? Is Birkenhead really suggesting that American humor in 1959 was brittle? Brittle? Are you serious? And what is it, precisely, about the style of the American actor that does not comport itself to his liking -- the fact that, when actors act, they are performing for the stage, performing for the theater, not for television, thus having to use projection and other innately theatrical skills? Is that what he means by over-enunciated? The problem is that Birkenhead is a fatuous slob who would rather sit at home than move his whiny ass to the theater. Good; stay home.

Ah, but that Birkenhead sure can be unrelenting: "Richard Greenberg's insistent assertion of his bona fides as a collector of intellectual arcana in 'Three Days of Rain,' the late August Wilson's dogged refusal to trim his character's verbal output to a level that would articulate their inner lives rather than the playwright's high regard for his own ideas in plays like 'Joe Turner's Come and Gone' and Jon Robin Baitz' determined obtuseness in plays like 'A Fair Country' are symptoms of a theater community that has been too cloistered for too long." How interesting, don't you think, that all those plays are at least 10 years old? I mean, if you want to attack Greenberg, I think there could be some room for that, but at least pick a more recent play: Did he see The Violet Hour, Take Me Out, or The House in Town? Apparently not -- he was too busy selling those "Bada-bing" t-shirts when Salon wasn't paying him to upchuck his blather. In a similar vein, to attack August Wilson's loquaciousness may arguably be fair, but again, why does Birkenhead cite Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which ran on Broadway in 1988? Has Birkenhead been holding this anger down inside of him like Mama Rose? And, quite frankly, if Wilson felt that his characters could and should wax poetic in his plays, let us note that that is one way in which the theater can and does distinguish itself from television, for television does not allow characters the freedom to raise dialogue to poetry. If Birkenhead has a hatred for poetry -- or an ignorance of it -- that up to him. But how dare he suggest that dramatic authors be told how to write. That's just so...Soviet.

Birkenhead writes, "Hasn't our culture moved on a bit since, say, William Inge, and don't we all kind of take it for granted, for instance, that sexual repression is bad? Why do we need to see yet another sexual awakening story, even if it's by Terrence McNally ("Some Men") or Jon Robin Baitz ("The Paris Letter")? A lot of the better television shows, even back in 2003 or 2004, were weaving what was happening in the world into their stories in subtle, surprising, even funny ways, like it is in life, but the theater gave us two David Hare plays solemnly breaking the news that war is bad and George Bush is an idiot." Here, again, it's Birkenhead adopting a Soviet-style attitude, trying to proscribe what playwrights should and should not be writing about. What is it about plays about sexual repression -- or sexuality in general -- that makes Birkenhead so uncomfortable? I think many people would lay their lives down on the pavement to argue that "Some Men" was not about sexual repression or sexual awakening in its entirety, but about a good deal more than that. Reductive, reductive, reductive -- David Hare, in Birkenhead's estimation, should not write about the war or about the idiocy that is George W. Bush because Birkenhead says so? That's hardly what The Vertical Hour and Stuff Happens were about, quite frankly.

Finally, Birkenhead writes that the theater is suffering because it has been "hijacked," that it's been "commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration." How interesting and revealing that Birkenhead is now unable to supply any specific names here -- and how interesting, too, that he again makes the mistake of being unable to distinguish between the nonprofit and commercial business models. To attack dramaturges? And panel-discussion moderators? Is Birkenhead truly suggesting that panel-discussion moderators are hurting the American theater? Are we to believe that when Leslie (Hoban) Blake hosts a panel for the Drama Desk that she is hurting the American theater, or Broadway, beyond measure? What constitutes a chin-in-hand bureaucrat? And who is brooking no dissent? If Birkenhead knew anything at all about the state of the American theater, which he does not, and if he knew anything at all about the state of Broadway, which he does not, he'd be aware that the problem in the American theater, if there is one, is dissent itself: there is no unity of purpose, or unity of style, or unity of philosophy, or unity of approach, or unity of spirit -- and we seem to like it that way. Perhaps that's why television shows are so much unrelentingly the same and why the American theater is not, and why the American theater does not welcome the outmoded, agenda-driven, ignorance-based ramblings of apparatchiks like Peter Birkenhead spewing verbal diarrhea on subjects about which he knows so little.

Sphere: Related Content


Unknown said...



You're a class act, Leonard.

Thanks for making my points for me all over again.

Leonard Jacobs said...

At least I know what I'm talking about, Peter.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

I think what is really needed is more money and everything else will sort itself out. Theatre will flourish because theatre does flourish in all its varied forms. I hate to say it, but we need a hand out from the NEA. We need arts education in the schools. or we need more private funding. or we need TV to fund theatre. And we might make a case that it sort of is already when we think of playwrights like Rebeck who do both. TV is supporting her theatre habit. Although, she has a show on broadway next season and has had some hits lately so maybe that's moot. But my point is that capitalism and fear of ticket sales is ruining theatre. Oddly though, the same fear is making TV better, perhaps because the theatre subscribers are a very different bunch than 20 somethings and 13 somethings TV is marketed to.

Thomas Garvey said...

You go, girl. I got my pitchfork and flamin' torch - lead on!

Jen Ryan's Brain said...

whatever happened to televising plays on NETWORK TV? Yikes, 30 years ago CBS and NBC presented live productions of original plays, produced specifically for the "small screen". Why can't -- think Bravo -- adapt these productions and film them? Surely the overhead can't be too high. It would increase theatre's profile among "TV people" and perhaps attract a new audience.... anyway rawk on Leonard, wit yo bad self.

Scott Walters said...

"I think what is really needed is more money and everything else will sort itself out."

Yikes! Really, Adam? The cure for creative atrophy is more money??? That is exactly the self-satisfaction that Birkenhead is writing about. What is really needed is more innovation, or more intelligent thought, or more command of language, or more respect for the audience, or more sense of entertainment. But more money? Sheesh.

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.

Leonard Jacobs said...


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.