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.

6 thoughts on “Salad days”

  1. I wholly agree with your evaluation of the death of theatre blogging being caused by a combination of burnout and social media, especially Twitter. Long-form blogging required a more fully drawn argument that required actual thought, because one always knew that any holes in your writing would immediately be recognized and critiqued. I wrote my dissertation about the effect of Lionel Trilling and the Partisan Review writers on Robert Brustein, so when (with your encouragement!) I entered the fray with Theatre Ideas, I felt as if I’d found the 21st century version of that august publication. Twitter, on the other hand, is about quips, and while quips can sometimes be effective, they were not going to threaten the theatrical powers-that-be, who as I found when I was asked to join a group of “national theater leaders” for a meeting with Rocco Landesman at the NEA following the “supply and demand” controversy, those leaders were REALLY angry about bloggers. (I remember arching my eyebrow when one of them demanded to know who the hell this guy was who was always talking about NYLACHI.) I haven’t yet read Megan’s book, but the Second Generation of bloggers (of whom I consider myself to be one) could never have added to the scene without David Dower, who brought so many into the conversation. I agree with Megan’s assessment of the importance of y’all. As far as what to write about theatre now, I am easing up on starting to write on Theatre Ideas now that I’m retired. However, I think the focus will be more like Superfluities than my old blog: writing about plays and ideas that I’ve loved. Anyway, I miss you, Laura, and the rest of them (except for that one guy whose name I’ve forgotten who claimed to be a Buddhist while simultaneously beating the tar out of me in my comments. Haha.)

    1. Haha indeed. Good to hear from you, Scott, and yes, those were the days.

      I haven’t written about or for the theater in years and I don’t think I’ll be going back to it, but the other day my 11-year-old daughter, who’s taking acting classes at the Lee Strasberg School, came across one of my old plays and started reading it out loud. Talk about your cognitive dissonance. But I think I’ll leave theater to my daughter from now on.

      1. Now that I’m retired, my heart is healing a bit, and I find I have a few things left I want to say. You’re a good man, George, and while we didn’t always agree (ahem), well, we had both worked for Bonnie and Gautam and so had a shared bond!

        1. Indeed! You’re a good man as well, Scott, and good people can disagree, even if the disagreement becomes heated at times. Godspeed.

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