Thursday, August 23, 2007

Me vs. Marx, Round II

In a response to my recent post, “Persona non grata – cura te ipsum!,” Bill Marx first takes me to task for my memories of his long reign of error in the print media:

First I want to get some of the silliness out of the way. I am not now nor have I ever been a Marxist, I have no hatred of “filthy lucre” nor do I resent theaters that make money, and I never described my job as wanting to “shut down as many small theaters as possible.”

Now I can’t claim that I personally heard Marx say that line about shutting down theatres; I can only report, persona non grata, that I heard the quote ad nauseam. If you never said it, you might ponder why so many people would want to put such words in your mouth. As for your claim that you’re not on the left politically, and that you’re not resentful of profit in the theatre, I confess I’m rather shaken! I wonder what else I may have gotten wrong about local arts figures – could Robert Brustein actually be a Mormon? Is James Levine straight? The mind boggles!

But then again, I hardly expected Marx to ‘fess up – and it may be that indeed, he hath ever but slenderly known himself. Perhaps he has no awareness of what is all too apparent in his writing. Or perhaps he simply believes that by shifting this way and that within the plausible confines of his prose, he can get away with statements like:

Garvey wrongly believes that I was outraged when the Huntington . . . quoted from his WBUR arts blog review of Love’s Labour’s Lost . . . I was glad that Garvey contributed his reaction, but wanted to clarify that the words came from him and not from me.

Let’s put it this way: the appropriate time for saying that was in the original post, and not a year later. Another good thing Marx might have mentioned at the time was that he himself had invited me to contribute to the WBUR blog – leaving out that key fact threw a shadow of disrepute on me as well as on the Huntington; is Marx really too obtuse to understand that?

And as for his later claim, “I have no problem when quotes are attributed accurately from reviews,” there’s this (from his earlier post about LLL):

I steer away from heavy-breathing statements of comparison such as "towers above" or "greater than" because they sound like ad copy. But critics can't escape being blurbed, no matter how hard they try.

No matter how hard they try – that’s a bit telling, isn’t it. Marx doesn’t mind being accurately quoted – he simply writes his reviews in such a way as to make any accurate quote commercially useless. Do I have that about right, finally?

Marx does offer this justification, however, for his loco M.O.:

Criticism becomes mindless mush when reviewers fill it with hyperbole tailored to wind up as ad copy.

But surely passionate praise is not necessarily mindless mush; it’s here that Marx stumbles into a prejudice of his own. My rave regarding Love’s Labour’s Lost (at left), while full, yes, of “gush,” as Marx called it, was also full of careful evaluation and criticism – indeed, because of this my review was far longer than his own perfunctory take. And whatever Marx may want to believe, sometimes gush is appropriate – when I wrote that Love’s Labour’s Lost “towers over the whole theatrical season,” I meant it as a sincere critical evaluation, from someone who’d seen at least a half dozen productions of the play, and the vast majority of professional Shakespeare productions done in Boston for the last quarter century (frankly, LLL towered over almost all of them, too).

(A point Marx never makes, btw, is that negative criticism may be just as stupidly damaging as the positive variety; pans can be “mindless mush,” too, but I’ve never seen him hound anybody about them.)

But to continue:

Garvey agrees with me that the current Globe regime doesn’t want serious theater critics. His charge is that I don’t have the authority to say so. I am tainted – I have written puff pieces! It would be hard to find a theater critic, especially a second-stringer, who hasn’t. Even the NYT assigns Ben Brantley occasional personality features. When I wrote theater and book reviews for the Phoenix and then for the Globe I supplemented the meager fees paid freelancers by producing fluff. I wasn’t happy about grinding out publicity pieces; I am not alone in disliking that part of the job. When WBUR hired me, I stopped doing features as soon as I could and concentrated on reviews in the online magazine. I haven’t covered up the fact that I sinned – but throughout the decades I never forgot the difference between advertising and criticism and never stopped believing that preserving the distinction matters.

Aww, poor Bill – driven on by poverty to prostitution! (Really, all that paragraph needs is a violin.) So Marx was willing to compromise his principles for a buck – some of us, however, never saw how writing puff pieces counted as slumming to begin with. I wrote truckloads in my day, too – and why not? I was happy to give various shows a shot.

Ah, you say, but the heart of the matter lies in that last sentence - I never forgot the difference between advertising and criticism and never stopped believing that preserving the distinction matters. Okay, I’m willing to give Marx that much, sure – but, to put this as sweetly as I can, who the fuck cares? Marx held onto a distinction between features and reviews – so did I (I just happened to also write positive reviews!). And I’ve got news for him – Louise Kennedy and Terry Byrne no doubt think they’re hanging onto that distinction, too. Louise apparently likes to imagine heavy, middle-aged women are still sexy – hence Tina Packer (above left) makes the ideal Cleopatra; perhaps Terry has a jones for the left-lesbian tropes of Double Edge, or feels that simply hanging on for years out there in the sticks means the troupe deserves a pat on the back – thus her rave for The Magician of Avalon. And in much the same vein, Marx had a soft spot for the lit-crit pretensions of the ART, which led to him to overrate mediocre shows at the Loeb. Take out the academic snobbery, Bill, and you suddenly begin to look a lot like them.

And there’s a deeper problem here – in a word, that criticism is parasitic; its health is contingent on the health of theatre itself. Marx says, and rightly so, that “when stage criticism provides reasons for its verdicts it serves the theater by articulating values and raising the standards of discussion.” But this doesn’t go very far when too many shows have closed, does it? You don’t have to be Kurt Gödel to perceive the problem in Marx’s logic: surely the first duty in raising the standards of discussion is ensuring that the discussion stays alive – and that means keeping theatre alive. Really - who cares what the pilot fish are chatting about in their literary magazines if in the meantime the whale shark has died? This is the trump card that the likes of Louise and Terry hold over Marx: whatever he may say about their accuracy, they can always claim they’re erring on the right side, i.e., the side that will keep the whole show afloat.

Marx has his answers to this problem, of course – the trouble is, together they form a pretzel. On the one hand, he says:

Garvey’s second charge is that hard-hitting criticism has no beneficial effect. He insists that the Boston stage scene blossomed while my vitriol flowed in reviews that misled readers and harmed theater companies. If that level of impact was extremely arguable then (the ability of second-string critics to close shows was exaggerated), those days are long gone. Thankfully, the era of the concentration of critical power (and authority) in the hands of a few publications and radio stations is ending.

Now I never said that hard-hitting criticism had no beneficial effect; I said Bill Marx's brand of criticism (i.e., with negative, but no positive, passion) had no beneficial effect – hardly the same thing. The next sentence is even crazier – I said that the scene blossomed as Marx’s influence declined, NOT while his “vitriol flowed in reviews that misled readers and harmed theater companies.” It’s somehow telling that he gets this key point wrong – although, indeed, Marx grew less vicious as theatres increased the size of their audience, and his misjudgments were more clearly discerned; that’s always the way this kind of thing works. As for his line about “the ability of second-string critics to close shows was exaggerated” – that’s probably true now, but not then. Second-stringer Globe raves for my productions of Tartuffe and The Seagull, for instance, more than doubled the size of their houses (the Phoenix had less box office power, and probably none at all now).

Then there's this line:

I agree with Garvey that theater critics have less influence than ever before and in many ways that is a liberating development.

So they had little to no influence, but now they've lost it, or something like that . . . and that's a good thing . . . but it's still a bad thing when weak productions are overpraised . . . okay, whatevah!

Marx goes on with something like an explanation for these convolutions:

What will be at stake online is the quality of the discussion, with opinions surely clashing over what is right and wrong with Boston theater . . . A certain number of people (not huge) want to read critics who take the arts seriously, who do more than tell readers what is worth spending their money on . . . The payoff for the reader[in criticism like my own] is in the intellectual stimulation you provide, the chance to butt heads with your ideas and sensibility.

Hmmm. . . so that's what's at stake online . . . he disapproves of Kennedy and Byrne because they're not elevating the discussion . . .

Well, I hate to say it, but have to admit I don’t really care about what's at stake online; nor do I care about my readers unless they go to the theatre or the concert hall or the museum or the cinema (and I don’t mean by getting comps). I admit it - I care about criticism - the discussion - far less than I do about the arts themselves. Far, far less. In a word, when it comes to the arts, I’d rather do it than review it – my criticism exists as a service to the muses, not as an end in and of itself.

But to get back to my central question to Marx:

How much does he challenge orthodoxy - how often does he open new avenues of inquiry? How often is he a principled contrarian, how much do his insights surprise and enlighten? The answers, I'm afraid, are not often and not much.

Marx offers little reason to overturn this verdict. Perhaps he’s written with more vigor about books – but in his Boston arts career, he has rarely pondered the larger questions of the scene, and I can’t really remember him courting controversy in any deep or sustained way. Was he held back by unseen forces at WBUR? Are we on the brink of discovering a new, more interesting Bill Marx? Perhaps. And when and if that happens, he can beat up on Louise Kennedy and Terry Byrne all he wants. But not before.

1 comment:

  1. A few points. 1) After the Nora's production of "The Man Who," one of the other members of the cast -- I won't say which one -- said as he came offstage, "I saw Marx out in the front row. This is the kind of show he keeps asking theatres to do, and trashes when they do it." Marx didn't quite trash it (we got approving notices everywhere else), but he complained at length about the show's being only 75 minutes long--which was one reason Peter Brook didn't call it A Play--and whined that Boston theatre shows were running shorter.

    Well. Since that time, all four members of "Man Who" have done other shows, and every one of them (a total of eight, I think) has run two hours or over--"Stuff Happens" nearly clocked in at three. So Marx's "Hard-Hitting Expose" was wrong eight times out of eight. And so when Marx talks on his website about other critics' "burble of bilge," you probably should just smile and move on.

    2) Years ago he named "The Bay at Nice" one of the 10 best shows of the year. Unfortunately, his review made it sound like such a dire duty to attend, that we had single-digit audiences after his Globe rave! Marx's difficulty--and it's a grave shortcoming--is that he's not much good at communicating his enjoyment to his readers. I recall one exception: his rave of Beau Jest's "Krazy Kat," one of the most schizophrenic reviews ever penned: he seemed to be beating up on himself repeatedly for having such a good time. This is running toward and running away from honest criticism at the same time.

    You had leveled at Pauline Kael in an earlier post, but she was one of the best-known (Otis Ferguson was a progenitor) to say that it's permissible to love--not just like--imperfect work. Marx admits this, but not often. Maybe it's just not masculine to do so.

    3) Yes, a critic *can* affect a theatre community. I remember one who was active ten years ago, and preferred the kind of acting one associates with 1970's TV soap-opera 'realism.' I remember in my second show in Boston, someone in the cast said "S.V. is in the audience: time to act like a narcoleptic") Did the fact that he viciously trashed anything above a whisper affect small theatre's rejecting works--particularly 19th century ones--that require a more outsized type of acting? (I once saw a Philadelphia production of "Trelawny," acted in a 'realistic style,' ten times worse than the play I read; at the end someone in the audience asked, "Why did you even bother?")
    The critic mentioned above was in many ways a good writer; but in liking only one style, he knew as much about acting as a pig about oranges. Not that actors were in a position to inform him of the fact.

    4) Marx's blog talks about "knee-jerk boosterism" -- in Boston?! Where everything one acts in is compared with NY? What planet is Marx writing from?

    5) So. In the end, is Marx necessary? Yes, ten times over. If he can be weaned from constantly seeing himself as John Simon (whose star rightfully dimmed decades before he retired -- the number of films he trashed by Antonioni, Bresson, Fassbinder, Fellini, Truffaut, and others make up the best of the Criterion Collection) then we have a man whose best work really is invaluable to Boston culture; and I *don't* just mean our theatre.