First crush

From August 2013.

I haven’t come across much commentary on Charles Isherwood’s entry in the New York Times “First Crush” series, and the online version doesn’t invite response. Not that there’s much to respond to; Mr. Isherwood cites his affection for the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure (pop-cult cred: check) and wryly quotes Henry James as an unwitting visionary of the disaster movie explosion (high-cult cred: check). Cute — and Mr. Isherwood, it must be said, is always cute, that sly-boots. But in his essay, Mr. Isherwood, as ever, pushes the envelope — except for an off-hand reference to a Tennessee Williams character, nowhere in his 1,400-word essay does he mention a single dramatist, play, or theatrical experience, unlike any of his fellow “First Crush” contributors, who at least manage to shoehorn in a reference or two to the arts they are assigned to review. Some may find this a curious lack, others not.

The New York Times arts and culture editorial staff apparently thinks that a theatrical critic with such an attitude towards and history with that art would be an appropriate successor to Mel Gussow, who preceded Mr. Isherwood in the second-stringer theatre critic chair at the Times. That probably says more about the Times than about Mr. Isherwood, but it comes as no surprise that over there, style trumps all. Well, here’s his “First Crush,” and here’s mine.


The series of autobiographical essays by New York Times critics detailing their early enthusiasms for the art they review is called “First Crush” — a term that implies  adolescent passion, clumsy dates, and thoughtless infatuation. It’s quite cute, really; a little reductive, perhaps, but what the hell. I’m not sure that I would describe my own early experiences with theatre and drama as a “crush.” My own first crushes were on girls, not on art; for me, my early experience of the arts was more of a slow, growing affection, and perhaps that’s not entirely it either.

When I was born in Philadelphia in 1962, I was born into a family that had absolutely no connection to or talent for the arts; nobody in my family even played the piano, and although both of my parents toyed with writing in their college years, that was far behind them. (Later, when I was to become a hopeful critic and dramatist, I couldn’t depend on the kindness of either strangers or family connections.) My mother stayed at home as a housewife and my father pursued a career as an electrical engineer. Before I was eight, the only real exposure I had to any of the higher arts was classical music, of which my father was quite fond, and when my brother and I had trouble sleeping my father hit upon playing Charles Munch’s recording of Debussy’s Blessed Damozel in a distant room when we were tucked into bed. This seemed to do the trick.

At the age of eight my parents separated and my brother and I moved, with my mother, to Hazleton, PA, a depressed coalmining town in northeast Pennsylvania. I spent my adolescence there, far away from any large city, but at the time theatre and drama were offered far more regularly on television and in the movies than they are today. My first exposure to these arts, then, was at second-hand. My aunt Loretta had in her record collection a recording of the 1956 off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera that I somehow heard, and I suppose it was Weill’s score that made its first impression on me — a distinct difference from the classical music my father played. From the opening crude, loud, aggressive chords of the overture, simultaneously strange and familiar (I’d heard enough Bach by then to recognize its Baroque references), I was fascinated and played it over and over again on my crude, loud, and shabby portable turntable.

But more influential than that (in the Times sense of the word) was a screening of Peter Hall’s film of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, which I saw on Home Box Office when I was only 14 or so. This is not a play calculated to appeal to an American teenager in the mid-1970s; nor was, for that matter, The Threepenny Opera. And my experience of the world at 14 was not broad nor nuanced enough for me to understand their personal appeal. So rather than an intellectual response, I recognized a more intuitive connection to these plays. The Threepenny Opera was rather easy to explain — its crude socialist politics appealed to the teenager in me who saw social injustice everywhere, and I was indeed a Marxist myself for about three weeks in 1975.

But The Homecoming? This was a different kettle of fish, and my response even more intuitive, I think. Without going into details here, my own family life at the time was strained at best, and my parents’ separation and divorce was preceded by the kinds of tension and stress that comprise a difficult home life. The indirection, sarcasm, and mysterious motivations of Pinter’s characters are found easily enough in any dysfunctional family, and I imagine it was this that made the play so fascinating — that I recognized in art something which I sensed in my own life; that it could be shaped in art through spoken words, if not to make meaning, then to be surrounded and explored. Rather than escape, these plays provided the road for a deeper journey into my own self. Anyway, the very first plays that I bought when I was 14 or so were The Threepenny Opera and The Homecoming. With each reading, they revealed more.

I found — quite to my surprise — that the urge to create and write about drama and theatre was a way of confronting my own experience.

My formal theatregoing didn’t start until 1975 or so; during my first visits to New York, I concentrated on these writers, seeing the American premiere of No Man’s Land with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and Richard Foreman’s Lincoln Center Threepenny Opera on one most memorable 1976 trip; a year or two later, I saw Thomas Babe’s A Prayer for My Daughter and Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class at the Public. In Philadelphia I saw a little-theatre production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle; my aunt also took me to see a road company production of A Chorus Line in Philadelphia, with which I was rather less impressed. And there was still television, where I was able to see plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Simon Gray, Brecht again (Galileo), Ionesco, and of course Shakespeare; the BBC’s recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays were run regularly on PBS in the mid-1970s as well.

My experience of these plays, and my own growing critical responses to them, were also shaped by the art, music, and literature to which I was exposing myself. My experience of these other arts informed my experience of theatre and drama, and vice versa, of course. But with the vantage point of time, I can imagine that both spoke to my sense of the ultimate unknowability of the world, of the uncertainty of identity — and my personal experience of my own family life spoke even more intensely to that sense. I must have visited the permanent Duchamp exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art dozens of times; introduced to Grove Press titles by the Brecht, Pinter, and Beckett volumes that they published, I took in Burroughs, Miller, and Genet. And my father made it a point to take my brother and me to concerts at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, where I heard the world premiere of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony. (I was also there for a double-bill of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony. This latter was hardly a difficult piece, but my father, my brother, and I noted that half of the audience left the Academy after the Beethoven, never to return for the Copland — my first experience, I suppose, of an audience’s disdain for contemporary classical music. And Copland was not Schoenberg.) And along with all of this was the great comedy explosion of the 1970s — National Lampoon, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Saturday Night Live — which seemed to participate in the same kind of modernist culture, and of which I was a passionate fan.

I suppose I have the reputation of being a somewhat intellectual writer, as a dramatist and a critic, and it’s a label with which I have a great deal of difficulty, because my first experience of these plays and this art was quite visceral — based in experience, not in abstract concepts. It’s something that even now I have a great deal of trouble explaining, even though I have the tools to express my response to this art more insightfully, I hope. I keep looking for the experience that I had when I was 14 and first exposed to Pinter and Brecht; I find it, on occasion, in Richard Foreman’s plays, Howard Barker’s, Sarah Kane’s, and of course Beckett’s. It’s rare, but such experiences always are. And I still don’t like A Chorus Line.

2 thoughts on “First crush”

  1. So much to read, so little time: before encountering this post, I didn’t even know the Times was running a “First Crush” series, and I haven’t yet followed your link to read Charles Isherwood’s entry. If the idea is, as you say, for critics to describe “their early enthusiasms for the art they review,” then it’s very curious (your word is exactly the one I’d choose) that Isherwood has explained a taste for theater without mentioning anything beyond a character in Williams. I can’t help wanting to see how he pulled that off. To write about a thing without saying anything about it? That may be very elegant, or it may be very idle.

    Your report on Isherwood’s essay and your account of your own background led me to a broader response: I asked myself what I’ve had a crush on, and I found so many answers that it seems easier to say what I have not developed a taste for, which is two things—business and family life. Owing to early experiences, I’m fond of opera, classical music, dance music, dance itself, football, science fiction, all sorts of other fiction and nonfiction, science, mathematics, electronics, and machines. Among the many fleeting but concrete memories I could recount are seeing operas like Aida and Lucia di Lammermoor, reading Tom Swift books, and figuring out how my grandfather’s push mower worked. For reasons that I can only partly explain, all these experiences prompted me to wonder how it’s done, what’s involved in making it, how you do it. Theater came relatively late; though I had seen it in public school, it made little impression on me until my senior year in high school, when my mother took me to a production at Southern Methodist University, where she was on the library staff. The show electrified me. I wanted to tell a friend about it; I wanted to see it again; I wanted to be a part of making such things. I’ll leave it at that.

    After reading someone’s personal account, it’s natural to reciprocate by offering one’s own, so I hope it’s okay that I’ve briefly done so here. Your account, by the way, is clear, concise, and illuminating. Given that I already know something of your story, it’s more or less what I would expect, but you hit on some valuable points. Although one reason I go to the theater is simply to see what’s there, another reason is the one you gave: I’m hoping to find again something like the experience I had in a black-box theater on the SMU campus.

  2. Of course, John, you’re welcome to offer here whatever you like; it’s always interesting to hear what draws one to one’s enthusiasms. Thanks for providing your own history.

Comments are closed.