Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Persona non grata - cura te ipsum!

In case you haven't noticed - and only a theatre nerd would - Bill Marx (logo-ized at left) is finally back blogging (as "Persona non grata" on following his mysterious fall from grace at WBUR (where he was replaced by the less-abrasive Ed Siegel, who had just retired from the Globe). And as usual, Marx is once again exhorting the critical community "to use the point of your pen, not the feather" (a favorite quote from Swift), and taking many of his former print colleagues (in particular Louise Kennedy and Terry Byrne) to task for recent puff-pieces.

Now far be it from me to attack anyone who's criticizing Louise Kennedy or Terry Byrne - they're skilled suburban-feature writers (to varying degrees) but neither is by inclination or talent a theatre critic (the Globe, for some reason, obviously thinks of its reviews as suburban features). Still, one does wonder why Marx imagines he's in a position to hurl critical brickbats - sure, he's smarter than Kennedy or Byrne, but is his own record really so exemplary? Let's take a look!

But first - yes, I admit there's all but an ocean of bad blood between me and Marx. Years ago, when I was trying to shape productions of my favorite classics from the local, non-professional theatre scene, he was something of a nemesis - but then he was everybody's nemesis, openly hated in the theatre community (as in people spat when they spoke of him). He was widely quoted as describing his job as "shutting down as many small theatres as possible," and he certainly seemed to take that duty seriously; I personally lost thousands of dollars in productions that he panned, and despite raves from other critics (including Anthony Tomassini, now a music critic at the Times), my little company never managed to gain much momentum. I was broke, the scene was moribund, and I gave up on that particular dream.

Of course said scene is different now - but is it stronger because of Marx's brand of criticism? I'd argue not - in fact, he seems never to consider (although I once ruined a fatuous symposium he hosted by pointing it out to him repeatedly) that as his influence - and the influence of critics in general - has waned, the Boston theatre scene, rather than withering, has blossomed instead. This is an irony I think he has to face: local theatre has done better without him (and perhaps without the rest of us, frankly!).

This dichotomy is all the more glaring when one ponders Marx's own history. In the bad old days that he gazes upon so fondly, nastiness was de rigeur (reviewers took their cue from the Globe's bitchy Kevin Kelly), with Marx, ensconced at the Phoenix, as its acknowledged junior avatar - and the theatre scene was basically a flatliner; Marx was like a surgeon scraping away for cancer in a patient that was already dead. Looking back, in fact, it's almost funny to imagine him styling himself as Kenneth Tynan or John Simon - but having to expend his acid on my productions, and others like them, in basements and church halls, starring recent college grads and community theatre types.

Still, if you imagine him as some incorruptible Robespierre, riding above the fray, think again; Marx eagerly fluffed major-league players like the ART, and was hardly above penning fawning puff pieces, such as one he wrote for the late Skip Ascheim's amateurish production of The Winter's Tale (Ascheim's company, ironically enough, fell before the point of Kevin Kelly's pen). Even now, there's a fluffy interview on his site with Suzan Lori-Parks, arguably our most over-rated living playwright.

Marx was, it's true, better at book reviews (he's really a bookworm masquerading as a theatre critic) and gained a positive reputation (and I think an award or two) in that field - but even this, I'd argue, is something of a debit. It's apparent that his literary nature, combined with his lefty politics (he's a Marxist in more ways than one) led him to unconsciously envious positions on several cultural fronts. Like many an armchair critic, for instance, Marx seems to resent the prerogatives of actual theatrical production; he just never thrills to live theatre - it's like a sad also-ran to some production he's got playing in his head. And so while there's still a certain urgency, at times, to his prose, it's always tied to critical issues, not in-the-moment aesthetic experience - in short, he loves criticism, not theatre. (He's not alone in that regard - does Carolyn Clay, for instance, love theatre? If so, you'd never tell it from her bloodless, pun-clotted output.)

There's an argument, I suppose, for valuing criticism for its own sake (even if it amounts to little more than an intellectual echo-chamber), but Marx's Marxism makes his position even more extreme: he seems disgusted in general by filthy lucre, and nothing sends him into a tizzy faster than the prospect of someone actually making money on a show. Indeed, in a widely noted dust-up with me over my rave for the Huntington's Love's Labour's Lost, he admitted:

I steer away from heavy-breathing statements of comparison such as "towers above" or "greater than" because they sound like ad copy.

Well the good Lord save us from ad copy! Now in that brouhaha, in which the Huntington quoted my rave in WBUR's online blog (where I posted at Marx's invitation) but credited it to simply "WBUR," Marx had something of a point - the Huntington, no doubt, was trying to insinuate that the famously pissy Bill Marx had been wowed by their show. Still, ponder, just a moment, how weird his outrage was, and consider what it means that he consciously avoids promoting even the shows he likes (and he admitted liking Love's Labour's Lost). If I had been Marx, I'd have certainly complained to the Huntington, and demanded that they specify the source of those quotes - but I also would have winked at their little gambit; they are, after all, trying to sell tickets, and I'm trying to get people to see the right shows. But Marx spurns both goals; for him, instead, it's all about the integrity of his armchair.

So okay, Bill disdains criticism's real-world purposes - but that still leaves the question of just how good his intentionally rarefied writing actually is; how gorgeous is that critical castle he's been building in the air? 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. At WBUR, to be fair, Marx built an interesting and forward-looking web presence - his own contributions, however, were reliably intelligent, but little more (Debra Cash, who wrote on dance, was actually the far more interesting critic). He was also no great stylist, and it's surprising how often he marched in lockstep with the Globe and Phoenix. He learned to see through some of the ART's fatuousness, but was still bamboozled by productions that played to Marxist delusions (Olly's Prison) or 70's-era avant-garde posturing (Three Sisters). In short, he was sometimes slightly ahead of the herd, but just as often behind it.

And more and more, Marx's writing was directed at other critics - perhaps, some argued, as a kind of revenge-by-proxy for his career disappointments. Indeed, of his last ten posts, six have dealt with the decline in book reviewing in the mainstream press; three have dealt with the money scandals at the Wang (that filthy lucre!); only one has dealt with any actual artwork (a takedown of "modern classics," Ayn Rand, and H.P. Lovecraft). Surely the proportions here should be close to the reverse - who cares about some guy whose idea of incisive criticism is demanding that other people write it?

So I suppose my message to "persona non grata" is "cura te ipsum" - i.e, physician, heal thyself! Marx might more effectively stimulate thoughtful criticism if he took a crack at it. He could start by considering a question he raises, but never answers, in that hatchet job on Kennedy and Byrne:

How about looking at the ways the yeasayers do a disservice to theater and the craft of criticism?

Well, how about it, Bill? This would seem to be the question of the hour! Theatre seemed to get better as your influence waned - was that just an illusion? If so, why - and if not, then what exactly is your value-add, and that of criticism in general? And let's be blunt - simply being untainted by commercial concerns is not in and of itself a justification for criticism. There has to be something more - so what is it?

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