Did that New York Times list naming the 25 best American plays since Angels in America do its job too well? Compiled by the Times’ two lead critics, Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, and three freelancers (Alexis Soloski, Laura Collins-Hughes, and Elisabeth Vincentelli), and emerging from collegially contentious negotiations among them, it is an impressively wide-ranging inventory that bears the stamp of no single critical voice or taste, yet doesn’t feel sanded down by committee consensus. These are some meaty, interesting plays and choices (and omissions), all well worth arguing about.
So where’s the argument?
Apart from stray quibbles over which plays should and shouldn’t have made the list (on Twitter I dashed off my own incomplete list of also-rans, and will echo here a knock I’ve heard, that all these plays have had major New York runs, though the list says “American”), there has so far been extraordinarily little chatter, let alone pushback, about this audacious stab at canon-making. Ten years ago there would have been blog posts galore, perhaps a piss take in Time Out New York (which has a penchant for list-making itself—alas, its famous “Grading the Critics” issue is no longer online), a snarky side-eye from Michael Riedel. But so far I’ve only seen a handful of tweets (here’s a sharp thread) and a lively (private) Facebook convo kicked off by Isaac Butler. Oh, and this tweet, which I am proudly obligated to share:
From the NY Times 25-best list https://t.co/kncZRqEVyN:
3 plays were published in AT mag https://t.co/zgNdkau94l
10 plays made our Top 10 most-produced list https://t.co/teh7VFS61I
14 are (or will be) published by @TCG https://t.co/cjyJ7x1mU8
— American Theatre (@AmericanTheatre) June 1, 2018
There’s part of what’s changed in a nutshell: Bloggers and mavens like Butler (and myself) have largely moved our insta-commentary to social media, where we can engage and argue interactively at whatever length we choose (and with whomever we choose). That’s all fine and healthy for what it’s worth. I don’t think the critical discourse would necessarily be improved by an attempt to ape the pop-culture hot-take industry, which spreads a trail of click bait around every conceivable contretemps.
The problem runs deeper, I think. If the Times list feels a bit like a royal proclamation echoing around an empty valley, it may be because those five Times critics are among the few theatre commentators left with any readership or influence. It’s been lamented and picked apart ad nauseam, including in these pages: The critical landscape is now a blasted heath worthy of Beckett, even in the American theatre’s commercial capital, from Backstage to Time Out to Newsday. And the picture is much bleaker elsewhere, even in the great theatre town of Chicago, as Kris Vire’s recent departure indicates.
At American Theatre we’ve tried to do our part to pump some fresh oxygen into the form, with a regular podcast hosted by Vincentelli and two other remaining critical lions, Terry Teachout and Peter Marks, and a lively web series featuring AT senior editor Diep Tran and critic José Solis, surveying New York theatre with an eye toward diversity and value for money. We’re part of this effort to diversify a new generation of critics and arts journalists. And we’ve even kicked around the idea of seeding some kind of offshoot journal that could review theatre in markets that have lost critics (or never had any). But we’re a nonprofit, so I wouldn’t hold your breath, unless you happen to know any lovers of theatre journalism with deep pockets. (I pause to note that my favorite working theatre critic, Helen Shaw, writes for a small, benefactor-funded online journal, 4Columns, as well as for Time Out and for us.)
It’s possible, of course, that one reason for the relative quiet in response to the Times list is its striking demographic diversity: nine plays by writers of color, most of them in the top 10, and roughly 12 with female authors (rough because that counts the ensemble-created House/Lights and The Laramie Project). This is an effective rejoinder to the notion that the white-male-dominated critical “establishment,” a shaky edifice if there ever was one, has overlooked or actively resisted the emergence of an increasingly diverse playwriting/theatremaking field, which is surely one of the more heartening, if frustratingly slow-going, trends of the last quarter century in the American theatre. On the contrary, most of the critics I’ve been reading and editing for the past 25 years, for all their faults and blind spots, have been among the primary cheerleaders and champions of these fresh voices. As anyone who’s done it could tell you, it’s one of the main jobs and joys of criticism to bear witness to the undiscovered, the overlooked, and the misunderstood, and most of us in the trade live in hope of the next time we can be surprised, challenged, awakened. We’ve had many such happy opportunities in the past few decades, and this list bears that out.
Not that I think it’s among the primary duties of critics to regularly engage in such self-conscious canonizing—I love a good list as much as the next culture vulture, but they should be done advisedly, with caveats, and none too lightly or frequently. (The Sight and Sound film poll is only once a decade, for instance.) By that standard the Times’ effort is as admirably modest and self-effacing as such a thing could possibly be, given the paradoxical authority such pronouncements inevitably have (all the moreso given the Times’ singularity). But for all its humanizing equivocation, this “Best 25” list—gorgeously designed online and filling an 18-page insert in Friday’s print edition of the Times—is certainly more formal and official-seeming than, say, New York magazine’s best-musicals-ever round table from 2011, which remains more memorable for its spiky back-and-forth than for its verdict (a straw vote favoring Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd). And it is self-evidently in the critics’ wheelhouse to compare, contrast, even rank, and to question received wisdom, especially that of their colleagues or forebears. A list is one such form of argument, however curated and distilled, and as such it’s a defensible project, indulged in moderation.
And heck, if this list prompts all of us to look back over the last 25 years and add our own favorites—I’ve seen strong cases for the work of John Belluso, Lisa Kron, Christopher Shinn, Eisa Davis, Nicky Silver, and many more—it might be judged a success. (Paula Vogel is leading one such charge on Twitter, and Sarah Schulman has a good list on her Facebook page.) The Times has promised to publish some reader responses later this week.
What unsettles me more than any fallout from this canon fire, or the relative silence about its provocations, is something bigger. As much as this list stands as a staggering testament to the continued vitality of American playwriting, it is also an exemplary demonstration of what critical attention and engagement can bring to the table. As I’ve noted, such critical attention is a precious, underrated, and increasingly scarce resource. The 25 years covered by the list roughly parallels my own career as an arts journalist—I’ve reviewed or written about nearly every play mentioned—as it does many of the five Times critics.
But try to imagine a similar list 25 years from now. Who will be around to vote on it? The problem is not so much a shortage of emerging critical talent but a paucity of venues. In what publications, and for what reading public, will the critics of today and tomorrow hone their critical eye and writing craft by accounting for their thoughts about countless plays in public; discover or rediscover under-appreciated artists; argue among themselves for an ideal theatre, or even just who should get what awards? On the evidence of the response to this list, color me…concerned. (If you’re among those untroubled by the loss of the critics and journalists who, among other things, create a record of the inherently ephemeral and local art of theatre, I don’t know what to say to you. Why have you even read this far? Why do you read American Theatre?)
As long as I’m on the watch here, these kinds of questions—not so much which plays are best as who’s going to be around to care or know enough to say smart things about any plays—are the ones that will keep me up nights and occupy my working days. Great work indeed.