Artistic Injustice

We thought our audience may be interested in Robert Brustein’s most recent contribution to The New Republic’s blog, Open University.

-Nicholas Peterson

ARTISTIC INJUSTICE: by Robert Brustein

With so many dreadful examples of social and political injustice in the world, why bother to complain about another case of artistic injustice in New York? To sit by indifferently while a work of art expires from lukewarm reviews is hardly commensurate with failing to protest a genocide in Darfur. Yet, in some way, the two abuses are related examples of negligence and neglect. If the first is a blot on our moral nature, the second is another drop of acid on the decomposing skin of our intellectual and creative lives.

Consider The New York Times, an organ on which so many of us depend for clarity and balance. It is ironic that the same newspaper that editorializes so eloquently against corruption in the political administration now bears so much responsibility for helping to corrupt our culture. Look what has happened, for example, to the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” pages, once popularly known as the “Drama” section, and now often indistinguishable from the “Style” section of the same newspaper. In the past, it used to routinely publish numerous background features, reviews, and idea pieces about theatre in New York and elsewhere. Today, its front page is largely devoted to columns about the careers and collisions of rock, rap, and hip-hop stars, when it is not running multiple stories about “American Idol.”

Now I love gossip and popular entertainment as well as the next guy, but isn’t there a place for serious theatre in this Sunday section any more? References to plays have been relegated to a column or two on page five, unless there is a big numbing commercial musical or some media-soaked British import like The Coast of Utopia lumbering towards Broadway. I realize the changes at the Times are part of its effort to keep financially afloat when the print media are failing to attract enough readers. And yet, despite its abject bow to cultural illiteracy, The New York Times continues to regard itself as the maker of theatrical standards. The New York Post recently reported an angry encounter between the playwright David Hare (whose The Vertical Hour was recently backhanded by the Times) and the paper’s managing director, Jill Abramson. Hare accused the Times (correctly in my opinion) of having little interest in theatre, and even less in plays. Ms. Abramson allegedly replied, “Listen, it is not our obligation to like or care about the theater. It is our obligation to arbitrate it. We are the central arbiter of taste and culture in the city of New York.”

The most depressing thing about this statement is that, whether or not Ms. Abramason said it, it is true. In a one-newspaper town, the Times wields the scepter. But this imperial posturing often results in an arrogant, autocratic attitude towards the arts that is proving very demoralizing to artists. Another recent example was a behind-the-scenes flap regarding that paper’s coverage of Oliver Twist, a theatrical adaptation of Dickens’s novel co-sponsored by the Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), the Berkeley Rep, and the American Repertory Theatre (ART). As the founding director of the last-named company, I am probably in no position to even mention the production, and you are at liberty to discount my remarks as special pleading. But I no longer have more than a marginal connection with the ART (other than teaching a course in acting and dramaturgy at the Institute), and you won’t often find me defending its recent shows. I am breaking my silence now because this Oliver Twist is widely agreed to be an electrifying evocation of Dickens’ masterpiece by the English director Neil Bartlett, with a strong musical score and a brilliant American cast. It originated in London where it was highly praised, and has now been positively received by most of the New York critics–the major exception being the New York Times reviewer.

This Oliver Twist was part of a season series at the Theatre For a New Audience on “the Jew as Outsider,” which included The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta (F. Murray Abraham playing Shylock and Barabas). For that reason, Jeffrey Horowitz, the artistic director, made repeated requests of the Times to send its primary off-Broadway critic, Charles Isherwood. Horowitz believed that the same man who reviewed the theatre’s first two productions was in a better position to understand the relevance of the third, and the continuity of the season, than someone who would treat Oliver Twist as a thumbs-up, thumbs-down commodity. The Times said Isherwood was busy. Horowitz requested Ben Brantley. He was busy, too. Obviously, the Times was also busy–too busy to provide an intelligent background feature on dramatized Dickens, or on the treatment of Jews in English drama and fiction, or on the Outsider in Theatre and Society–or on any subject that might enlighten us about the issue of minorities or the purpose of theatre. It was too busy even to include any reference to the production in its Friday Openings and Preview section.

Nor did the Times–which had just run a feature called “The British Are Coming To Play American Roles”–bother to notice that 13 Americans had just returned from playing British roles in TFANA‘s production of The Merchant of Venice at Stratford-Upon-Avon (its second invitation by the Royal Shakespeare Company that was highly acclaimed in the London press). Heartsick, Horowitz made a pest of himself, writing letters and making phone calls, and took the unusual position of refusing to offer press tickets until the time, during any of the subsequent 21 performances, when those critics might be free. (Moved by Horowitz’s distress, I also wrote a letter to Ben Brantley, urging him to see the production.) The Times responded by sending a third- stringer who devoted 361 words to the event in a patronizing and inconsequential review.

Even that reviewer’s praise was condescending (“among the most competently acted productions on or Off Broadway”–consider the word “competently” in that context). Reasonable people can differ about the quality of a work of art. What is less open to argument is the way the Times often ignores or dismisses the more significant artistic achievements of the year, while exalting the sensational, the tawdry, and the inane. (Sarah Ruehl’s A Clean House, a superficial domestic sit-com featuring a cartoon Latino maid who wants to be a standup comic, solicited one of Isherwood’s few positive reviews this year.) What is also inmarguable is the way the Times often reduces a production to its function as a saleable or fashionable commodity, while still continuing to anoint itself as “the central arbiter of taste and culture in the city of New York.” Unlike Jeffrey Horowitz, I don’t believe that Charles Isherwood, so dismissive of so many major plays and playwrights during his tenure at the Times, would have written any differently about this Oliver Twist. There hasn’t been a Times reviewer covering important productions in a serious fashion since Mel Gussow left the paper in 2003. No wonder so many people are turning away from the New York stage when producers, in an effort to please the Times‘s critics, offer such disposable trivia at such exorbitant ticket prices? Who at that newspaper is now preparing to write the obituary of the American theatre it has been helping to bury through artistic injustice and critical neglect?

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