A Time For Art

All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed

-Sean O’Casey

If you want to create a masterpiece, you must always avoid beautiful lies

-Jerzy Grotowski

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.

-Albert Einstein

I didn’t like the play. But I saw it under unfavorable circumstances—the curtains were up.

-Groucho Marx.

Every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration.

Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought.

-Margaret Chase Smith

We have art critics, food critics, movie critics, music critics, life critics, style critics,  lifestyle  critics. In fact, it seems these days that everybody is a critic including friends, and family who are often completely incapable of withholding any criticism crossing their minds no matter the moment. When they are as clever as Groucho, I mind it less, too often they aren’t; too often they are just cruel and not terribly helpful.

There is also the concept of constructive criticism. It is a concept necessary to human and societal development and although it too can be painful or unsettling it is necessary. Of course, the receiver must be open to it. The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. could greatly benefit from constructive criticism especially when looking at the results of his party in the most recent elections with an eye toward his own ambitions of succession in2020. But he won’t and when I look at the big picture for myself and others of like thinking this might be a good thing. If he keeps his head in the sand crying out “Fake news” with each criticism, based on what I am seeing in the real news, it is very likely that his voice will continue to diminish more than it already has.

 Too many today think of themselves as critics. Criticism should not be confused with basic opinions. Criticisms are supposed to be based, at least to some degree, on criteria. Too often we offer opinions disguised as criticisms. Or the other the other way around.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to their own facts. Facts are facts and there are no such thing as “alternative” facts.

 It is becoming increasingly common for differences of opinion to come dressed in rags of hostility and brutality. We shimmy under a limbo pole, low in qualified criteria and fact and high in the art of the ad hominem attack and biased narratives informed solely by propaganda outlets.

 This aggressive approach to criticism has billowed out to the professional critics we have long relied on  for information and background. I cannot put this at the feet of Donald Trump. Few are excluded from this appraisal including myself. Moaning about this in this manner might make me the ultimate hypocrite. Still,  when the main theater critic of the “go to newspaper” for theater writes a review mixing some  considered legitimate critical points with cheap insults I am perplexed and disappointed. I expect that limbo pole to be a bit higher in these instances. Perhaps I expect too much.

 The most recent Broadway revival of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie was savaged and forced to close even before the end of its very limited run. I found the review of the chief critic appalling both for its resorting to sophomoric  slights and for its seeming inflexibility regarding the text. Good theater pieces tell a good story, great theater not only tells us a story but has an essential  relevancy beyond the time frame it is fitted in.The updating and re staging of such material when handled with care may cause such material to sing in a more palatable way for audiences deprived of the performance of Laurette Taylor. Which would be most of us. I did not have a problem with his “originalist” view of the text and his feelings that  that such liberties may have overwhelmed Mr.Williams story. I don’t agree, but I get it and I am sure others fall in line with his thinking. But when the chief critic of the “go to paper” is so literal that he faults an actor for wearing a short sleeve shirt when  talking about “having tricks up his sleeve” in a play dancing in and out of time and space, as in a dream, I wonder if the critic’s prejudices are so over wrought that he can neither appreciate metaphor or the practical reality that the actor would need to go right from that audience narration back to a time and place that was overbearingly hot and for which his short sleeve shirt would be most appropriate.  To make matters worse, the chief critic of another large local paper wrote a similar review. So similar in fact that I needed to question how much work its author put into writing it. The same type of “short sleeves” reference was made.

Unfortunately, audiences were deprived of a new, novel and daring re staging of a classic play led by an iconic American actress playing a role which she was perfectly fitted for at this time in her life, mainly because of  a review that at times had the same sardonic flair of an overbearing high school drama critic looking to impress his equally catty friends in the cafeteria.  Its limited run closed a month early, largely on a box office poisoned by such unkind criticism. I understand that it is a critics job to give an honest appraisal and let the chips fall where they may.But to my mind these reviews skewed beyond the norms of formal critique. True,a negative review within the bounds of a more formal structure may have sunk this production anyway but I do believe it had a right and audiences had a right to make up their own minds absent of the type of malice it endured.

 Such is the power of a New York critic and such have our own standards eroded that our culture becomes barer by the day. A culture that allows for incidences of true human tragedy to be ridiculed from our highest offices. A culture which denies the warnings of its greatest minds about the dangers to its own physical and natural health,ridiculing the messengers, all in the service of a demagogue who panders to our lowest denominators in the ultimate service to himself and himself alone.  A culture that blames the problem of poverty on those suffering from it.

So, what to do? What can we do to teach and to learn in an environment where the lessons of constructive criticism are becoming harder and harder to find because those capable of supplying it are becoming even harder to find? Or who have become as corrupted as the worst of these maladies themselves.  I believe the answer lies in the art itself. The teaching moments we find individually in our own experiences with a painting, a piece of music, a book, an essay, a play or any of a million other expressions of humanity witnessed from outside of ourselves and laid bare inside of ourselves.

It is in this spirit that I offer up not a critique but  a ringing endorsement of two plays I have recently attended. I am not a critic and thusly I will not break down my own whys and wherefores about what makes either of these pieces sing for me. Except to say that they did. Aside from enjoying them immensely and being moved at times to tears, I do understand that others will have a different reaction to both in emotional as well as intellectual terms. More to the point in these times of rhetorical thuggery and alternative facts we need to be reminded that the best of us still does have a place in this world even when it seems like the very worst in us is winning. In the end, if we keep our dukes up, we can move the needle in the proper direction.

So…if you can, and I do understand that too, too often the cost of theater is prohibitive, yet sometimes the cost to our souls for not facing our demons and supporting our better angels may ultimately be dearer, so again, if you can, and you are in the vicinity, try to make it over to the Shubert Theater or the Daryl Roth, methinks your spirit will get a much needed tuneup for these oh so trying times. Over the top rhetoric? Maybe, but I don’t believe it is, if one really believes it, and I do. For it is now the best of times and the worst of times. Hopefully there won’t be a run on knitting needles soon.

Please see Gloria at the Daryl Roth (extended through March) starring Christine Lahti  and an ensemble of extremely capable women. I was moved and educated. We have come a long way but the scarcity of men in the audience illustrated for me how far we still need to go. It was also very entertaining and if you are old enough to remember Bella Abzug you will find yourself smiling widely.

The Aaron Sorkin version of To Kill A Mockingbird is a perfect fit for these times and Jeff Daniels is a perfect fit for the role of Atticus Finch. The ensemble is spectacular,and the miracle of this staging is that the story we all know so well is told in a completely different manner without sacrificing anything. The era is still the 1930’s in Alabama but with the election of people like Cyndi Hyde-Smith in Mississippi and her rhetoric on hangings, it might as well be today. Your prior knowledge of the movie or the book will not allow you to anticipate anything. This version forces one to pay close attention. And not a second of your time is wasted. Never has this play been more important and rarely has a re staging and a rethinking of a theater piece  been so relevant. And yet, the 1962 movie with Gregory Peck will still resonate for you.  

I have a friend who after the 2016 election said he was going to sell his house and leave this country if the worst thing happened, and then it did, and I have not heard from him since and I wonder. I hope he didn’t because that is not how good wins. We do not win by running away. There is a quote by the choreographer Twyla Tharp painted on the wall of the Joyce Theater which says, “Art is the only way to run away, without leaving home”.

I agree. Let’s not leave home. Let us instead “art up” and take back the deed to our house. Let our imaginations soar and let us land in a land where we all belong.

2 thoughts on “A Time For Art

  1. My father wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and for a while was the reviewer of the movies on TV for their guide, and got a lot of letters wondering where he got the training to be a critic. He would give R for rotten when it was deserved. He replied that he had covered the sports desk for many years, and after watching wrestling all that time, he knew good acting when he saw it. He didn’t last long on that desk, though we all missed his writing, and still do. Thank you again! take care, Margaret

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