If you’re taking time out of your day to read the blog of an unknown actor, there’s a better-than-average chance that you’re already aware that the New York Times has hired a new drama critic. For that small fraction of you who aren't (hi, Dad!), here’s a recap. Until recently, the two chief theater critics for the Times have been Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood. When it was announced that the Times had dismissed Isherwood from his post, there was much hand-wringing amongst us theater folk that the paper was downsizing its arts coverage and rendering itself irrelevant in an ever more digital world. However, it soon became clear that Isherwood’s position hadn’t been eliminated, but that he himself had been fired for inappropriate professional behavior. The details are still unclear, but it seems he’d had inappropriate contact of some sort with a Broadway producer – Isherwood has promised legal action, and eventually we’ll all figure out what’s really been going on. But regardless, there was indeed a full-time “second string” critic’s position at the Times to be had, and they were looking to hire.
Since time immemorial (or at least since the paper’s founding), the Times drama critic has been an imposing arbiter of taste – and, not incidentally, a patrician white male. Since 2004, the post has been shared between two white men with exceedingly middlebrow tastes. With the news of an open position, in a time when theatrical voices are growing ever more diverse, most followers of this story were hoping for the new hire to reflect that. They wanted the Times to hire a writer of color, or hire a woman. And this would not have been hard at all; for several years now, Alexis Soloski has been a freelance third-string critic at the paper. She’s reviewed major Off-Broadway productions for them, and did so for the Village Voice for many years before that. As a strong and respected critic who already has a history with the paper, she would have been a sensible choice. Instead, to the chagrin of all those tired of white male theater critics, they hired Jesse Green, currently the drama critic for New York Magazine. An opportunity, say those who argue for diverse voices in the arts, squandered.
Here’s the thing of it, though. Alexis Soloski is indeed a good writer. Jesse Green, many of us would argue, is the single best writer working as a critic in this city right now. (He’s also probably closest to my own aesthetic, which doesn’t hurt.) Where most critics’ writing is functional at best (and incoherent in the worst corners of the internet), Green writes a dandy line of English prose. His knowledge of theater history is second only to a legend like Michael Feingold, but he never becomes pedantic about it. Best of all, he’s great at pointing out the political overtones and wider context of a show without it ever seeming like he’s shortchanging the show itself to make his point. (If you want to read my favorite recent example of all this, and share my disdain for late-period Mamet, check out his recent take on The Penitent here.) In fact, if you wanted to hire a critic who could write intelligently on diversity issues, and were going strictly by writing samples, Green could easily be your choice.
This has led to plenty of arguments amongst my theatrical Facebook events, in which I have studiously avoided taken part, since both sides are essentially correct. It all depends on which premise you adopt. If you start with the premise that the Times, by virtue of its place in American culture, needs to feature the very best critical writing, then Green is the obvious choice. If instead you take as your postulate that the Times, as the pre-eminent critical voice of the American theater, should have writers that actually reflect the current landscape of the theater, the Green hire is a remarkably tone-deaf move. Can you call something "the best" without regard to a broader social context? Don't expect that debate to end anytime soon.
The problem with both of these arguments is that they share certain common assumptions, assumptions so deeply ingrained that most people don’t even notice them. They assume that only two full time writers, at most, can serve as chief critic of this paper at any one time. They assume limited column space for theatrical coverage. And they assume that the primary focus of this criticism is Broadway, with some especially high-profile Off-Broadway assignments to provide sufficient work for the two – and only two – critics.
Why not hire both Green and Soloski? Why not have Brantley gush over diva-tastic musicals (as is his wont), Green provide analysis of prominent current playwriting, and Soloski provide deep dives into what’s bubbling up in less obvious Off- and off-off Broadway venues? For that matter, New York will shortly be in need of a full-time critic – why can’t they hire two critics rather than one? We’ve all been going with the assumption that print newspapers are dying, and they have to restrict their coverage to try and survive just a little bit longer. But since the election, an anxiety-laden readership searching for understanding has driven the Times’ circulation sharply up – apparently somebody really is making America great again. And as uncertain times make the arts more essential, the coverage needs to reflect that, and there needs to be more of it, not less.
When we fight over scraps, it’s because somebody has convinced us there are only scraps to be had. If we want to fight for more inclusive writing in American criticism, and American theater in general, we need to fight against this mentality as well.
Posted on March 27, 2017
by Michael C. O'Day