Friday, September 12, 2008

metaDRAMA: Big Ben Strikes Twelve

Tip o' the hat to Rob Kendt for pointing out Ben Brantley's self-written bio for the Times "topics" page (a sort of high-society Wiki). While I don't doubt that Ben loves the theater--I've found myself sitting near him before--and I agree with Rob that "we love the theater not wisely but too well" (and with Isaac that there's a Fred Armisen look to that photo: "Ay, dios mio!"), I wanted to call attention to one small thing.

It’s nowhere near as intense as what I imagine an actor experiences backstage, but I feel a fluttering nervousness before a curtain goes up on a play. I mean, any play, anywhere – on Broadway or the Bowery or in a church basement.

That’s because theater is as live and in-person as art gets. Whether you like it or not, a performance’s triumphs and belly flops come to seem excruciatingly intimate, as if you were somehow partly responsible for them.

This too, may be true, and it's important to remember that he's been professionally writing since '75, and focused on theater since '94 or so, but there's a huge divide between the sort of theater Ben now covers regularly for The New York Times and the sort of theater I go to. I don't think that South Pacific is anywhere near "as live and in-person as art gets." Actually, I find that there's usually a very well-maintained divide between the audience and the artists, a chasm, if you will, that generally grows even greater when we encourage stunt casting, with all the built-in otherness of celebrity (which is not to say that I'm not looking forward to Equus all the same).

I don't think Ben takes flak from the blogosphere because they think he hates theater: it's because he, and many top-tier critics, seem to shy away from the muddy roots of that organism they so adore and admire. When was the last time Brantley reviewed a show that was on the Bowery or in a basement? (Well, okay, Arias with a Twist.) Fuerzabruta, which made a point out of really being as "live and in-person as art gets" was skewered by Brantley's colleague, Isherwood, and every time I see someone fawning over a pretty piece of puff, like Rafta, Rafta, or confusing Reasons To Be Pretty for art, I long to see Brantley get down in the trenches with Jason Zinoman or Helen Shaw.

I can understand if Ben's editors or publishers want him to focus on the big money shows, but as the lead drama critic, really, of New York City, I only hope that he will find a way -- just as the artists he so admires do -- to cover a wider, wilder range of material, so that we don't forget how much he loves "the excruciatingly intimate" theater.


Seth said...

I have to wonder if Brantley's been afraid to cover more "downtown" material since the Squonk scandal.

TheBotanist said...

As lead drama critic for the Times, Brantley is paid about about $200K a year, maybe more. I think there's a class resistance as well to attending theater in cheap basements. His perception of his own social and economic status is intimately bound up with his aesthetic judgements and how he uses his media influence. Just sayin'.