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August 23, 2007


Steve On Broadway (SOB)

Just read your take on Isherwood. Having seen the jawdroppingly excellent "August: Osage County," it most definitely ranks as theatrical art of the first order. This is a modern masterpiece, and I feel fortunate to have seen it during its Steppenwolf run.

Perhaps Isherwood is paving the way for a Brantley pan?


Hello Steve. I don't think that's how this situation will shake out. I'm sure that Isherwood will review it on Broadway, at which point he'll either upgrade the play to a FAWA, or he'll downgrade it in the light of Broadway standards, whatever the hell they are. Politics are an inevitable part of any review. No critic writes in a vacuum. That includes everything from how a work of art relates to the general culture, theater history, the particular artist's history, but also how the critics positions him/herself politically, aesthetically and professionally. All critics want to discover the Next Big Thing, or they want to preemptively strike down something they suspect the rest of their colleagues will love but they simply don't. Or they don't understand. To call a new play a masterpiece is a big deal and not every critic is willing to go there. And if Colleague X loves a play, maybe you're more inclined to dislike it as a way of sending out the signal: X doesn't know what he's talking about. Not to be totally cynical, but theater reviewing is an ugly business in which the interests of the artists can be the last thing on the critic's mind. Indeed, ignorance of the industry and how artists work might be looked on as a prerequisite for objectivity by some of my less enlightened colleagues.


Wow David. Your above comment offers a disheartening insight into the world of the professional theatre critic.

Jason Zinoman

There's nothing I like better than a good David Cote rant, but this time, i wonder what you are getting so worked up about. Must critics always come down on one side of the crap/masterpiece divide? What's wrong with something being a great entertainment? One problem with Broadway, it seems to me, is that the stakes (and prices) are so high that weve lost the appetite for comedies that work, smart formula dramas and the excellently crafted middlebrow musical. What's wrong with seeing a great show that isnt Iceman Cometh? Movie critics, including AO Scott, are actually always praising entertaining films that don't approach art. Is that equivocation or just the reality that the vast majority of work actually falls in the middle. The crucial question you ask is: what's the difference between art and a fully achieved piece of entertainment? Each critic must answer that for himself, but for me, a good place to start is Pauline Kael's brilliant essay "Trash, Art and the Movies." She was always raving about commercial films that she would never insult with the term of "art." It was her way, i believe, of celebrating what she viewed as a very democratic form as well as maintaining high standards. By using the word sparingly, it's another way of saying that art matters. And when art and commerce mixed, like in, say, The Godfather, Kael was in heaven.


Hi Jason. Not having seen the play, I don't know whether I'd tick off the Art or Entertainment box, and no, I don't think every critic must. I'm actually against that sort of bureaucratic filing attitude toward the arts. Of course it's Charles's prerogative to decide for himself and share his decision. I just find his justifications for withholding the Art ribbon (a) unconvincing and (b) cryptically self-serving. It's like he has one eye on the work and the other on the history books. I'd rather have more deep analysis of the play and the issues it raises (the way a good, meaty Frank Rich review would) than all this tastemaker posturing about whether or not it is a fully-achieved work of art. I totally agree that the designation of Art or Masterpiece, inasmuch as it means anything anymore (what's the last Masterpiece you saw and knew it was such?) must be used sparingly. I guess I just perceived a rather transparent instance of a critic arrogating cultural power unto himself by bringing up the Executive Privilege of Designating Art. Since it comes from a critic like Isherwood, who has slagged off so many writers I think are worthy and championed mediocre tripe such as Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House and Eurydice, I'm even more on guard.


FYI: Gothamist linked this post to their post today on Isherwood and the new De La Guarda Show.

David Cote

Thanks for the heads up. Truth is, I was also bored and uncomfortable at this show (it really is brainless fun for twentysomething clubkids). But in my review (out next week) I did try at least to articulate what about the pseudo-edgy content bothers me.

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