Critical collections remind me of Christmas trees—lots of little items to rip open and examine. Even if the gifts repeat themselves (thank you, another necktie), there’s a festive air to the whole phenomenon, a sense of summing-up and possibilities.
There are a few neckties in these collections by Stanley Kauffmann and Bonnie Marranca, but there’s a lot to celebrate, too. Kauffmann, of course, has been nationally known for over a quarter-century from his base at The New Republic; Marranca has edited several theatre books and is a co-founder of Performing Arts Journal Publications. Reading these anthologies back-to-back—the one writer a mainstream critic with a feeling for the avant-garde, the other a “performance” critic with an acute eye for the mainstream—one gets a larger-than-life impression of careers, of victories and more often disappointments, of continuity.
Continuity has been a Kauffmann watchword, both in his film writing and in his previous theatre collection Persons of the Drama (1976). It’s true here: read his pieces on composer Elizabeth Swados or director Andrei Serban, on Fugard or Fitzgerald or Rabe or Streep; compare his analysis of Edward Hermann’s work in Mrs. Warren’s Profession and in Plenty. Looking through Kauffmann’s comments on Pinter’s The Hothouse, No Man’s Land and Betrayal, one recalls earlier thoughts on Old Times or The Homecoming. Not only that, it’s clear that his own experience of those wonderful plays enriched Kauffmann’s ability to “see” the later works.
Kauffmann’s knack for evoking an actor is as unerring as ever; more often than not, his remarks connect the performer to a larger issue. Sometimes the connection is to a playwright, as with Tom Stoppard and Travesties (“On the evidence so far John Wood is a much more important artist than the author to whom he is devoted”). Or it may be a reproach for a wasted career, as with George C. Scott in Present Laughter at New York’s Circle in the Square (“He energizes a stage so easily, he has such three-cushion-billiard skill with fine points, that he makes us wonder what in heaven’s name he is doing with his life”).
Kauffmann is also a master of le mot juste. “What’s needed,” he suggests apropos of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, “is a new society in which freedom is not a vacuum to be filled with gonad satisfaction.” Having endured Jules Feiffer’s Knock, Knock three times, he expects to “go straight to heaven, no questions asked”; Alan Howard in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry V comes off as “a mature rake…who has decided to try virtue for a change. He looks like a cross between Robert Redford and a witch.” And quite often these pieces kick off with a bang, drawing you in:
Dreamgirls is not only a smash hit, it’s a good show.
Almost any comment about Nicholas Nickleby is true.
Pacific Overtures is one of the most exquisite textile exhibitions I’ve ever seen.
Ashes is a love song, sung in the language of PC tests, ovulation charts and sperm counts.
Eighty percent of this volume is made up of discrete reviews, some of them very moving. (See, particularly, the three pieces on the aborted BAM Theater Company, an arc of hope and despair, or the articles on Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, Beckett’s own production of Godot, David Hare’s Plenty, or the best single piece in the book, a longer examination of Howard Brenton’s troubling Sore Throats, produced last year at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The final section—book reviews, a 13-page history of theatre in New York City, assorted observations—provides a pleasant counterpoint to the weekly or monthly reviews.
Kauffmann’s anger hasn’t abated with time: I doubt that Thomas Babe or Stephen Sondheim or Stoppard or Maureen Stapleton will remember him in their wills. (“Stapleton has long ceased trying to act; she has become a beggar for pathos, like a dog sitting up and begging for biscuits…”) Given the mediocrity Kauffmann points out so adroitly, it’s no surprise that even a critic with his raffish dignity must occasionally give way to rage.
I was caught by Marranca’s collection on the first page. Starting off a (very good) essay on Sam Shepard, she notes that he “writes as if there were no tomorrow.” The analysis that follows more than justifes the jaunty assurance of that line. As does most of this idiosyncratic book.
Links between Shepard and food. The parallels between The Three Sisters and Peter Handke’s Ride Across Lake Constance. Affinities between Brecht-Weill and David Bowie, Peter Allen, Laurie Anderson. The ways in which Pirandello’s amazing life overlapped technological marvels—camera, film, phonograph. Marranca is all over the theatrical map, but she’s a guide to be trusted.
Her style is brisk, measured, of a piece, as when she evaluates Lillian Hellman:
Frankly, when I thought of writers I love I did not think of her, the work had fallen into place alongside the other silent h‘s in my bookshelves.
And when she re-evaluates Six Characters in an admirable, long piece on Pirandello, she can be startling:
With scissors Madame Pace cuts herself an entrance into the text which then has to be pieced (peaced) together again…Every time Six Characters is opened to the page where Madame Pace enters the text, there she will be with her scissors hanging from a chain at her waist.
In her brief paean to Judy Garland, she points out, eerily but accurately, that “death notices of famous people are always written in advance.”
Sometimes, in her enthusiasm Marranca slips over into the maudlin or the excessive. I’d relish arguing her statement that Maria Irene Fornes is writing “the finest realistic plays in this country,” or her assumption that experimental director Richard Foreman is “formalistically more radical than Brecht.” (So much for realism and formalism.) I don’t think that Barbra Streisand’s voice years ago was “the sound of blue and yellow watercolors.” But these are bumps in the road. Marranca is passionate about her subject, and if the passion sometimes overheats, the rewards along the way are considerable.
Marranca is unexpectedly ecumenical, too. She’s certainly interested in the politics of performance, but shows demonstrable affection for Thornton Wilder; she admires Robert Wilson and Einstein on the Beach but has only contempt for those who swooned over that opera and saw critical analysis as “irrelevant.” She ends her book with “Reading Chekhov,” a new, extended series of reflections which seem to me required reading for anyone remotely touched by that man’s art.
At the end of his book, in “Letter to an Actor,” Stanley Kauffmann concludes: “I just want you to know that I know I’m only trying to make the best of a far from completely rational situation in my profession, just as you are trying in yours.” That’s modest. At their best, in their separate collections, Kauffmann and Marranca do more than “make the best”; they push horizons back a little farther.
Steve Lawson is literary manager/associate director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He writes often for television and about film.
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