The work of some critics—we know who they are, we don’t need to name names—might be summed up with the frosty Gilbert & Sullivan lyric, “I’ve got a little list.” Others’ oeuvres may be closer to the prim parsing of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation,” while the writing of still others could be set to the tune of Sweet Charity’s “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and a few to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
The lyric that comes to mind for the criticism of Ben Brantley (he/him), while we’re playing this parlor game, is from poor, besotted Freddy in My Fair Lady: “There’s nowhere else on earth that I would rather be.” In his 23 years as The New York Times’s lead theatre critic—the longest tenure in that post since the mid-century reign of Brooks Atkinson—Brantley conveyed few things as consistently as sheer enthusiasm about the art form, and the privilege he had to write about it. I found his writing brittle or overwrought at times, and he had some big and notable blind spots. But by and large a typical Brantley review was marked by a down-to-his-toes engagement with the work in front of him, a full immersion in, even surrender to, live theatre’s pleasures and pains, that was a model for all of us in the trade.
Last October, Brantley, who is 66, announced he’d be hanging up his pen, leaving the post to his co-chief critic, Jesse Green, and raising questions about the future of criticism, both at the Times and elsewhere, as it faces challenges to be more representative of a diversifying art form and audience. I spoke to him last month over Zoom from his home in Columbia County about his years on the job and what he’s seen from his aisle seat.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: We’ve met only in passing over the years; I’m sorry it took your leaving the post for us to finally talk at length. You will still be writing a bit for the Times, is that right?
BEN BRANTLEY: I don’t know. I mean, maybe? I’m reading this book now on the philosophy of cats by a British philosopher. The gist of it is that you should live like your cat—that is, without awareness of the future, because you can’t imagine it anyway. So I’m predicting nothing at this point. It’s horrible to say this, but for me personally, it’s been a very contented period since March. I’m in the country, in quarantine, with a partner that I love very much and have for a long time, and a cat who gives me lessons and philosophy. So aside from the awareness of the horror of the world outside, which obviously is always going to intrude, on my own planet it’s the most contented I’ve been since childhood.
I was going to ask if you miss the fix of the nightly trips to the theatre. Sounds like no?
You have to remember, I left at a time when there was no theatre. You know, Jesse or I would write about perhaps a Zoom play, perhaps a recorded play. The last thing I saw live was Godspell, the first musical that was allowed by Equity to take place. And that was special. I mean, now everything’s special; if you actually get close to live theatre now it assumes incredible weight. If there had been more things like that, perhaps it would have been harder to to step away. But it just seemed like the perfect moment.
We often ask theatremakers how or when they caught the theatre “bug.” I was wondering, not so much what show first interested you in theatre, but what writing first interested you in criticism?
Probably the first great romantic figure in my life was Shakespeare, because my grandfather taught it. So before I could read myself, and certainly before I could read the plays, he would read to me from Lambs’ Tales, and my mother, his daughter, read Shakespeare aloud fairly early on. That was magic to me. In both art and journalism, any time you impose order on formlessness, the way that Shakespeare does—you would be thrust to the edge of darkness at the end of the comedies and then you’re brought back into such harmony. And of course, it was all artificial, it’s kind of a lie, but the ability to make shape out of a really scary formlessness is very appealing to children. I think that’s why they like fairy stories too. I was also very moved by musicals from the first time I saw one; I just thought, to be able to see someone unambivalently singing, “This is what I’m feeling!” I acted when I was a kid a fair amount.
So the bug was probably first in Shakespeare. And journalism is the artisanal craft—it’s what everyone in my family always did. It was the path of least resistance. And it’s certainly what I do best. So the Times job was wonderful in combining the practical skill of what I can do and the passion of what I like to see.
Was there a moment where you felt you’d found your voice or your calling?
I started writing when I was 10 years old, for local papers and so forth. And I put out a paper on the street, The Faculty Drive Detonator and the Rosedale Record. I remember my mother saying she thought it wasn’t fair that some people could just write, because it meant you could always get by a little more easily than other people. It was what I could always do. Periods when I wasn’t really paying attention in school, I could still write.
I think you get your voice by reading too. It’s all the things you absorb. And over the years, whether it’s Charles Dickens or Henry James or Jean Rhys or Toni Morrison, writers with that kind of persuasiveness, or in my case, more specifically, Pauline Kael, they get a grip on you. I started reading her when I was 8 or 9. And just to be swept along on that type of conviction—that’s when I realized how exciting criticism could be.
Since you mentioned journalism, I wanted to ask about journalistic ethics. Among the theatre critics still working, you have been one of the few old-school holdouts who still adheres to a very hard wall between collegiality with the theatre field and independence as a critic, to the extent that you’ve rarely done feature stories or interviews, let alone befriended theatre folks outside your work. Many of your colleagues have actually worked in the theatre, and many have different attitudes about where this line should be, but you’ve been a bit of a stickler on this, is that fair to say?
I was just brought up that way. I think it’s wonderful, on plays I’m not reviewing, when I’ve been able to be with an actor or director or even a playwright, to be able to see what goes into the process for them of creating that play or that performance. But I would not have wanted to be a critic going into that, because I think you’re complicit. I mean, being a playgoer is being complicit—you are contributing to it, you’re giving your energy to feed off of, and so forth. But if you’ve been a fly on the wall while it’s happening backstage, you know things that you shouldn’t, and it’s unfair to what you’re going to tell the audience afterwards. Obviously, critics do more research than most people do before they see a play. But there has to be a part of you that’s always willing to be surprised. People have been pretty good, for example, about not talking about the end of Fairview. But can you imagine seeing that if you had attended rehearsals?
So is it a case of wanting to be surprised, and keeping your theatregoing kind of pristine that way, or is it also to avoid the more pernicious danger of influence or conflict of interest?
Well, that is sort of genetically coded into me, coming from a family of, I think, very honorable journalists. Rosemary Harris lives in the town where I grew up, in Winston-Salem, N.C., and my mother would see her at dinners and so forth. My mother mentioned what I did, and Rosemary thought, “Oh, I must keep my distance”; clearly, she’s from an older generation, and that was sort of her perception too. She’s one of my favorite actresses—did you see her at Edward Albee’s memorial service? She recited a poem he’d written to a dog that was buried on Montauk, it was ravishing. I once went back to Winston-Salem, where I was being honored by my school, and she was at the dinner. Someone said to me, “Ben, you really have to go over and get this over with.” She was seated as I went over, and she looked up as if the camera were right there, and I said, “I’m Ben Brantley.” She said, “Oh, it’s a good thing I’m seated, so I don’t have to choose between bowing and genuflecting.” You know, there are moments where it’s like, this was your fantasy of what it was going to be.
I forget if it was Eric Bentley or Harold Clurman who put forth the idea that critics should have a very clear idea in their mind of what their ideal theatre is. The rap on Pauline Kael was that she lacked a theory of her art form and just shot from the hip, though if you read her work and don’t get a very clear sense that she had an ideal cinema in mind, I don’t think you’re reading her closely enough. Have you ever reviewed with that kind of agenda?
It’s an excellent question. To answer honestly, everyone goes with an agenda; you think you don’t, but you do. But when you start talking about a kind of Platonic ideal of what something should be, and then evaluate according to that, you are cutting yourself off from so many experiences. I guess I do have certain semi-inflexible standards. For me, the most important aspect of any work of art is that it be true to itself, that it creates a self-contained universe in which every detail tallies, or if it doesn’t tally, it’s making a point in not tallying, but still reflects the overall mindset. I think that’s essential.
Beyond that, the times in this job when I’ve been most excited, and it’s happened a fair amount, have been when I think, “Jesus, this is brand new. This is really a new language, a new voice, a new perspective on something you’d thought about a lot and thought had sort of been wrung out.” And that’s when you get the feeling between your shoulder blades.
Suzan-Lori Parks is often cited as someone you championed at a crucial point. Was that the feeling you got with her early work?
Well, I think about her, but there are other playwrights now, and they’re mostly women—Lucas Hnath I would put in this category too—who are such individualists. Suzan-Lori Parks reinvents the play every single time she writes a play. She’s like Caryl Churchill in that, Churchill being the great example of what I’m talking about. Hnath has a mind like that, a kind of quicksilver, reinventing mind. Or Jackie Sibblies Drury, she goes out on so many different limbs and manages to balance there so gracefully. For all the lamentation about theatre—of course we’re going to lament its absence right now—it has been a very fertile period. I don’t care if there wasn’t anyone worth nominating on Broadway for a big musical; the period just before the pandemic shutdown was, I think, a really exciting period.
You and I have been covering theatre for roughly the same period, from the early ’90s to today, and I had occasion to reflect a few years ago on how lucky I was to come up in a period when August Wilson was still writing his plays, Tony Kushner was doing his best work. I think it’s taken for granted how rich the last 25 years have been. Has that been your impression? What has changed the most, for better and worse, over your time covering the field?
I will say that what has been continuously pleasurable for me has been not necessarily spotting, because in many cases they already existed, but being in the presence of truly individualistic playwrights, artists, performers. When I arrived, who was hot then? Mamet, who I thought was wonderful for about five more years; talk about an original language. When I first came to New York, back when I was in college, the coolest playwright in town was Sam Shepard, and so I had a great affection for him. He’s someone I actually came to see more depth in as I got older. And there were still a lot of the NEA-censored artists, performance artists like Karen Finley and Tim Miller and Holly Hughes. I loved my first couple years at the Times before I had to take on the so-called top job, because I love going to tiny, out-of-the-way spaces and finding something original. One thing I had been worrying about a lot before the shutdown was whether New York is going to lose its young theatremakers. Could a group like the Wooster Group be formed now? Do you remember the Drama Dept.? They had that, “Hey, guys, let’s put on a play” feeling.
I’ve always had a real fondness for what you might call the traditional experimentalists. I loved Richard Foreman. He was someone I was just so happy to be able to write about, because he’s so purely a man of the theatre. Or Wooster Group, even though they were seemingly sabotaging the theatre by displacing voices and visions through technology, but it was also so theatrical.
In terms of what’s changed? Musicals got better; they really got better since I’ve been in the job. I mean, to have Fun Home and Hamilton and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, Rent, Dear Evan Hansen—those are all pretty remarkable shows, each singing, so to speak, in their own voice. There wasn’t another Oklahoma!—there wasn’t a musical that everyone else was gonna use as their blueprint, like, “This is the ultimate musical.” I mean, Sondheim, who’s clearly the dominant artist in musicals in my lifetime, is inimitable. He may point people in different directions.
It will be interesting to see when the theatre comes back if there’s more of a groupthink, a sense that there needs to be more of a homogeneous political view, and you have to be on the right side of things. Which could be very valuable in society at this point, but then you’d miss Heroes of the Fourth Turning.
The way I feel with plays, I approach each one as if it’s an individual that may or may not get along with me; it’s always a blind date. And for me, that’s been really good. This period has been very fertile for individual voices, and much even more so in the 21st century. It’s been a remarkably exciting time.
When you got the Nathan Award in 1996-1997, they said that you “brought to the daily review a generosity of spirit to match your sharpness of insight.” I think some of that might have been the perception that you seemed nicer than your predecessor, Frank Rich. I would also say that what comes through in your work, up to your last review, is a real eagerness to like what you’re going to see. Critics always say they don’t go into shows wanting to dislike them; they really want to like things. But with you, I’ve almost always really felt that, even when I disagree with where you land on a show.
I’ve said this many times, but every time I go to the theatre, I feel so nervous just before it starts. It’s like, I know what they’re going through. And is there going to be this moment, and it has to happen like in the first nanosecond, where that anxiety is dispelled, and the conversation between you and what’s going on onstage can take place? Even if it doesn’t quite get dispelled early on, I have learned that things can get better. So I tried to stay open for—what was the conventional wisdom of theatre, that you can hold the audience for the first 10 minutes no matter what you have, and then after that, you better be able to have made your case so it can be followed?
But yeah, I did always want to like it. And I almost always have on some level liked it. I mean, people were appalled that I liked Mamma Mia! I thought it was exactly what the world needed at that point. It was just after 9/11 and it had no pretenses. I can’t condemn wholesale any genre—I mean, unless it’s Nazi art, you know. Did you see Dana H.?
Yeah, and I got the chance to interview her.
I mean, who knew that you can do that? That was one of the most thrilling pieces of theatre I’ve seen in recent years.
It was a quite a document. That wasn’t very long before the pandemic, and I think there has been talk about bringing it back.
You know, when people ask, what would be your ideal theatre, it would be that you could see shows again that you may have missed them during their three-week run—that there could be some kind of repertory theatre that could bring these things back. The other great docudrama I saw recently was Is This a Room?, the Tina Satter play. My larger point here is, is documentary theatre a form I’m innately drawn to? No. But then you go look at these shows, and there’s no way you can say, “This is not art.”
That’s a good way for me to approach the question of your power. Let’s say you did come out and say, “I love documentary theatre, I’d like to see more of that,” and everyone started shaping their work with your tastes in mind. Have you ever consciously tried to lead or direct the field this way? Have you ever sensed that power and recoiled from it?
I think of that as prognostication, and I’m not sure how effective it is. When I left the job, I got letters from a couple of people saying they sort of used me as the script doctor when I would see things early on. And I thought, “Oh, not me! I’m just one person reacting.” I obviously have my affinities, but I really tried to strip myself of them as much as possible whenever I was seeing something new. I mean, we may be at a point where we’re going to be asking not only about who has the right to be represented in the theatre—of course, everybody has the right to be represented in the theatre—-but in critical voices, and should only a person of color review people of color, for example? I know there are playwrights who would like that, if possible.
No theatre critic is omniscient or ever has been. I mean, did Frank Rich really tell theatre people what they should do? He said when he didn’t like things, and when he was disappointed if some things weren’t pointedly political enough or whatever, or when he thought they should have aspired to something higher.
I used to argue with folks who’d say that you, or critics of comparable stature in other markets, were using your power consciously to shape tastes; I would always say, that’s not the job, it’s just about responding honestly. But I would think after doing it for a while that you would become conscious of your power to influence not just the audience’s tastes but the theatre itself, and would find it irresistible to wield it.
Has it really happened that way, though? To go back to my paragon, Pauline Kael, she was perceived as shaping the course of Hollywood, and I’m not sure she did when you look back at it. Culture—like history, and we know how perverse and also cyclical history can be—follows its own inevitable patterns. Maybe critics can sometimes capture the voice of the moment, like Kenneth Tynan did with one particular review, of Look Back in Anger. And then he crossed over, you know, to the other side, working for the National Theatre, because he wanted to be a shaper. I don’t think critics are shapers. I think we’re mirrors.
The Tynan example reminds that Helen Shaw and others have sometimes thought that critics can be seen as unappointed artistic directors. I’m gathering you wouldn’t agree with that.
No, no. What I liked about Pauline Kael, and what I liked about Frank, was they’d be people that you’d know, and they’d be telling you in a certain tone of voice what they thought and you’d think, Hmm, that’s smart. I see what you’re saying; you hate the show; I think I’ll like it. But that didn’t make you respect them less. For me, the ideal theatre critic was always the person you wanted to have that conversation with. You wanted to know what they thought of the show. Not to say, “Oh, she or he likes it, I’m going,” but rather, “Oh, yeah, I can see, through this personality I now know well, to what the show itself is.” That’s the ideal for me.
Right, I feel like a good critic is a companion, without which the theatregoing or moviegoing experience is incomplete. But that assumes another person who’s seen the same play. You’re also writing for a lot of people who will never see the play.
That’s why I’m so grateful for critics from the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries; I’m able to experience the plays through them. I edited a couple of books of New York Times reviews and went through more than a century’s worth of them. That is just thrilling, because it’s a moment captured, the way good sports reporting does. It’s got that kind of, “Oh, wow, I’m here and this is happening,” whether it’s John Barrymore in Hamlet or Alla Nazimova in Ghosts. And I grew up reading the reviews in The New York Times long before I ever got to New York; that was manna for me. So I like to think that I’m letting people who won’t see it experience it.
What’s one word or concept you’d like to ban from criticism?
“Narrative.” It’s a wonderful word but it is so overused. One of the things I liked about the Times, though it was incredibly annoying too, was that when they felt a word was being overused, we couldn’t use it. I remember getting into fights with the copy desk early on, saying, “I can’t use ‘irony’?” So narrative is a word that should be about propelling you, taking you forward, and now it just seems have such tired feet.
Is there any show you wish you could go back and see, not again, but as if for the first time?
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was out of doors at the Globe in London, and I started crying five minutes into it. I don’t think I stopped. I’m starting to cry now thinking of it. That for me was magic, what Mark Rylance did with Olivia, but all of it. It wasn’t that the staging made it seem more “authentic”; it was instead, “We’re striving for an illusion, and we’re going to get there, and when we’re there, you’re going to be there too.” That is just so, especially in Shakespeare, when that happens—shivers.
And then there’s the opposite. You must have seen a lot of terrible, terrible shows.
I once shared a taxi with Fran Lebowitz, and she said to me, “I wouldn’t do what you do for anything in the world. I’d rather do frontline combat reporting.” I know what she means; theatre has the potential to be incredibly embarrassing. It also has the potential to be more exciting than anything else, as far as I’m concerned, more transcendent. Because it’s live and we’re all pretending together.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. email@example.com
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