Salad days

Edited January 29, 2020

Yesterday I was delighted to find in my mailbox Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture, Megan Vaughan’s survey for Methuen Drama of that peculiar critical pursuit in which I played some small part from 2003 through 2010 or so under a variety of titles, primarily Superfluities Redux but also this eponymous journal. I can’t imagine there will ever be a more reliable history of the period: Megan’s done her homework, and rather astonishingly she must have spent years tracking down so much of my writing, little of which I’ve taken the trouble to preserve. She has also been a theatre blogger herself, and her prose is delightfully light-footed as she traverses the international canvas that we bloggers smeared our paint across in those halcyon days.

Not that I didn’t wince on occasion, but that’s hardly her fault, and the selection she made from my own blog is characteristic enough of my writing at the time. The tidal wave of the past didn’t sweep me off my Proustian feet as I paged through the book, but when Megan says on the first page of the introduction “The theatre blogosphere has made a more significant and far-reaching contribution to theatre — its practices as well as its profile — than anything else in the twenty-first century” — my gosh, I’m not so sure we were up to that.

What we were primarily up to, I think — Laura Axelrod, Isaac Butler, Mac Rogers, Garrett Eisler, Matthew Freeman, Rob Weinert-Kendt, and the rest (all of whom are well represented in Megan’s book) — was explaining ourselves to ourselves, each other, and whoever else might find us of interest. We could go on at whatever length we liked, and our comments sections invited responses that were sometimes more illuminating than the original posts themselves. It was a virtual community, and like any passionate community, it generated argument, good will, friends, collaborations, enemies, and interested bystanders. And where are they now? Well, burnout was always a risk; a lot of us have families and kids, which generate the need for earning a decent wage and cut deeply into the keyboard time; for some of us, passions have shifted; for others, there are new opportunities. (For me, the blog led to brief stints writing about theatre for the New York Times and the Guardian.) And Ben Brantley, as he was back in 2003, is still the lead theatre critic for the New York Times, and Jim Nicola is still the Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop.

I still have warm feelings for all of these people, and am proud of whatever we were able to do at the time, but in the U.S., at any rate, there doesn’t seem to be much of a blogosphere of any kind any more, for theatre or anything else; Twitter and Facebook have marginalized the individual voice into closed, monetized systems, parasitic on our privacy, that permit us to block or unfollow anything we disagree with, while we bloggers let it all out into the open, whether our readers were in our “friends” or “followers” lists or not. Happily, Megan reports in her book that things may be different in the U.K. Blogging as a critical form continues to have a life there, as well it should. The landscape’s far different now — and thank god that the form is far more heterogenous than it was when we started out, all those cisgendered white middle-class people with university educations. Ultimately, it is to be wished, the young newcomers from across the spectrum will lead criticism and theatre itself to newer and more hopeful horizons.

A few days ago, Megan groused a bit that I’d retired so much of my own material from those salad days, but it seems a lifetime ago. Some of the material I deemed worth keeping around is still available; there’s Word Made Flesh, a collection of several essays first published at my theatre blog and, though it’s now out-of-print, I’d still sign my name to it; and these notes on Richard Foreman, I feel, are substantial enough to keep in the archive. In print, I also contributed to this collection of Foreman plays and this collection of essays about Howard Barker, a quite different animal indeed, who also drew my critical attention at the time.

Foreman retired from theatre making about the same time I retired from theatre writing, and given the great impact his theatre and theory had on my own sensibility and temperament, I suppose that’s no surprise. I’m not sure what I’d write about drama and theatre now, these many years later, and sometimes I’m curious as to what I’d say. But a tip of my hat to Megan, who reminded me that once I had a great deal to say indeed.

Categorized as Theater

My past comes back to haunt me

I must have started this blog about twenty years go. I began it in the quaint delusion that I might one day carve out some kind of career in the theatre, either as a playwright or as a critic, perhaps both; about ten years ago I dropped all this, however, for a number of reasons both good and bad. I was reminded of this early ambition when I recently received word that Megan Vaughan’s book Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture is scheduled to be published by Methuen next February. Some time ago Megan interviewed me for the book, a pleasurable experience; a more amusing experience was to find recently that in the promotional material for the book Methuen wrote:

The work of prominent and influential early adopters such as Encore Theatre Magazine and Chris Goode in London; George Hunka and Laura Axelrod in New York; Jill Dolan at Princeton University and Alison Croggon in Melbourne is featured and considered alongside those who followed them.

That I had followers of any kind produced a bemused smile. I suppose I was sort of prominent at the time — the blog led to a stint as a freelance theatre reviewer for The New York Times and theatre essayist for The Guardian — but influential? This produced more a laugh than a smile.

As I said earlier, I haven’t been going to the theatre for a while. But when I did, I was most impressed by the work of Richard Foreman, and my blog featured quite a bit of writing about the avant-garde playwright and director. Like myself, Foreman’s been away from the theatre for more than a decade now, though he continues to work in film. (Some of his recent activity, along with his films, can be found here.) I’ve collected most, but far from all, of my writing about Richard’s work here, for the sake of the archive. Richard was truly prominent and influential, and his work continues to be the most powerful I was privileged to see and write about during those theatre years of mine. I haven’t had the opportunity to polish, organize, update, or revise any of this writing — 12,000 words of it, apparently — but as a reminder of my checkered past I thought it appropriate at least to keep it all in a safe place.

(I should mention two recent Foreman-related publications here as well. Plays for the Public, a collection of Richard’s last plays, will be published by TCG next month. And Neal Swettenham’s 2017 Richard Foreman: An American (Partly) in Paris discusses Foreman as a quasi-European artist.)

Coming in 2020: 1776

1776 at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, c. 1968. Forty-seven years later, Hamilton would also open on Broadway there (the theater had been renamed the Richard Rodgers Theatre by then).

I was delighted to hear a few weeks ago that the 1968 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776, will be revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater in 2020 in a production directed by Diane Paulus. I first became familiar with the show through the 1972 film version, which I saw when I was ten years old, and I’ve been an enthusiast for early American history as a result since then. It helped that I spent much of my youth and young adulthood in Philadelphia, living not far from Independence Hall (indeed, I was born only a few blocks from it, at Pennsylvania Hospital). Although the film was not shot on location, it was very hard for me to walk through that neighborhood later without remembering the musical and the story that it told. Perhaps the time has come around for 1776 again; the threat of tyranny in America, it seems, has never really gone away.

1776, as a musical about American history, has been somewhat overshadowed by the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and I’m not sure that many critics — or audiences — would agree with me in giving 1776 the edge. No matter; but I’d like to direct your attention to this conversation with Miranda and William Daniels, who played John Adams in both the Broadway premiere and the film of 1776, in which they discuss the salutary influence of 1776 on Miranda’s own work. Said Miranda: “1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books — if not the best — ever written for musical theatre … ” There are a few interesting parallels between the shows (see the caption for the photo at the top of this post, for example), and, though you wouldn’t think it a controversial show, 1776 also ran afoul of then-President Richard Nixon, as Daniels discusses.

You can find the full interview here.