At the suggestion of one commenter, I've decided to pull out of the comments on my "You knew this was coming" post the following response to those who wrote in urging a higher ranking for Carolyn Clay (left) of the Boston Phoenix:
Clearly Carolyn Clay has her defenders - and I'm certainly impressed by the poised, complex critical coiffures she's teased up, week in and week out now, for some thirty years. But I have to ask you folks - how would you describe her critical profile? To be a bit more pointed - do you even think she has one, beyond a need to always appear 'tasteful'? This is the problem with Clay - she writes more intelligently, I suppose, than the rest of her sorority, because she imagines the audience for the Phoenix is more educated, but is there an actual critical personality kicking around behind that calm façade? I confess I've no idea what's behind all the camouflage; she often seems to be typing up an elevated gloss on what she perceives as the educated consensus, and little more.
That's okay as far as it goes, I suppose, but I always think the most useful critics are the ones you feel you understand, if only because this allows you to put their raves and pans in some sort of context (as in, "oh they hated that, but they always hate that kind of thing, and I often like it"). And then there's the problem, as I've pointed out before, that when Clay does abandon the crowd, I often find she wanders out onto some weird critical limb that not only do I not understand, but which seems utterly unconnected to the rest of her work. Consider also that after thirty years of doing something, most people become known quantities - that Clay has remained so personally elusive might almost be the result of a strategy, which is a little strange to say the least.
And then there's the problem of a larger legacy, or critical stance, formed over the course of her career - but as far as I know, there's no book, no seminal essay, no nothing from Clay. And don't imagine there's been nothing to talk about: over the last thirty years, for example, the ART arrived in an explosion of challenging hits (Six Characters in Search of an Author, The King Stag) but then staggered and slowly failed. How did America's leading critic [Robert Brustein] go so wrong as an artistic director? There's also the rise and fall of Peter Sellars to consider, the struggle between the city's "real" theatre and its academic one, and I'm sure a half dozen other topics worthy of lengthy consideration. But out of Clay, over three decades, there hasn't been a peep on any of this. I know this sounds cruel, but this gap really represents an abject failure, not just of vision but of nerve.