by Addison DeWitt~
“I have no more pleasure in hearing a man attempting wit and failing, than in
seeing a man trying to leap over a ditch and tumbling into it.” – Samuel Johnson
My mother was a dear woman. Always tending to the concerns of others and doing her able best to guarantee that, no matter what the situation, whichever individual with whom she happened to be dealing at any given time would be left feeling validated and useful.
I, on the other hand, take after my father.
I remember one occurrence years ago in an early, slushy railroad flat in New York City (Manhattan, mind you, not the Brooklyn-esque/Queens-centric New York City of today’s unfortunate manifestation) when, during a visit from her southern homeland into the wilds of my Hell’s Kitchen environment and after a hellish time witnessing a disastrous opening of The Rink featuring the incomparable Chita Rivera and a recently cocaine-weaned, sluggish Liza Minnelli, we arrived back at my lean-to only to discover that a pipe in my tiny water closet had burst and filled the kitchen with murky spillage.
The superintendent appeared with a “capable” plumber, who also just happened to be a distant cousin of his wife, and, while I questioned the utilization of so much gaffer’s tape to block what was a sizable crack in the aforementioned pipe, he seemed to stymie the worst of it. One hour to the minute after his departure, while the mums and I were doing our best to enjoy the now somewhat soggy canape I’d left out as a treat après le théâtre, an explosion of unquestionably apocalyptic proportions blew the door off the water closet and sent us running outside to the comparative safety of West 52nd street and 9th Avenue.
My superintendent, after admitting to the obvious incompetence of his plumber-in-law which had resulted in an agonizing inconvenience for both my mother and myself, sheepishly apologized. I was decidedly unmoved in my reproach while my mother, gracefully shaking off the remaining droplets of goo-de-toilette from her southern ringlets and placing a comforting hand on my superintendent’s shoulder, twittered, “Well, at least he tried”. Upon my landlord’s departure, she hastened to add: “Which is more than I can say for Liza Minnelli”.
When I pay for admittance to a theatre I expect to have a theatrical experience based in professionalism on all levels from those involved. Once an opening night is announced and tickets have been sold, the practitioners enter into an unspoken agreement with their audiences that what is being exchanged for currency is supported by professional experience, vision and execution. While many productions often lack one or even two of these criteria, sometimes having only one of these requirements will leave an audience member feeling less than taken. (Which is, apparently, enough for the great unwashed mass of under-educated, slightly beaten audiences of today. Sigh.)
Every time I engage in conversation with theatre-goers, from the most active to the least invested, it’s a sure bet that after examining the various pros and cons of a particular production’s approach to a theatrical piece, some Nimrod is going to pipe in with “Well, at least they tried”. And while I am consistently struck dumb by this twaddling comment, mouth agape and staring, the general consensus seems to always be met with a general, head-nodding acquiescence from my peers. I’ve learned that it is at this point at which I must excuse myself, tossing back the remaining booze in my glass and heading for the nearest exit as the meat of the discussion has just been boiled down to pap.
As if the attempt were enough.
I believe this reaction to the arts is dangerous and wrong-headed. I assume it comes from the touchy-feelie approach to child-rearing my generation landed its foot in and cannot now scrape off its shoe. If all things are “good” (as the saying goes), what recourse is there for artistic examination other than to wither and die on a strangled vine of unrequired perspective? What need for theatrical review or analysis? If acceptability is now defined by the attempt, what standard is there for quality? Or dreck? Clearly, there would be or, assuming the worst has already occurred, is none.
Neither I nor the superintendent of my building were accepting of that plumber’s clear incompetence. (Needless to say, he was not paid.) Neither, truly, was my mother’s actually forgiving his inability to complete the job required of him any attempt on her part to excuse the poor execution. She was just doing her best to better a bad situation in attempting to make the person ultimately responsible for the mess feel a bit better. Which is fine, I suppose. If you’re nine years old. And perhaps that’s what people are doing when they offer the comment as it pertains to the arts. But we in the theatre are not, presumably, prepubescent. (Though an argument could easily be made countering that statement.) Besides, there is another major difference between the two disciplines. One is merely technique. The other relies on technique but is equally dependent on artistic vision. Where, frankly, nothing should be viewed as “all good”. And people’s feelings should be low on the list of criteria when discussing a work of art. It’s not about them. Or shouldn’t be, anyway.
“But, wait!” I hear you shriek. “What about Sturgeon’s Law?”
“What about it?” I ask back in a perfectly reasonable tone.
While I may agree with Sir Theodore that 90% of everything is “crap”, I hasten to point out that it is neither the success nor the failure of a particular offering with which I’m quibbling. My concern here lies with a viewer’s non-committal, rainbows-and-daisies approach to the critiquing of same. Of course 90% of everything is “crap”, in fact, I’d venture a guess that that percentage goes up sharply when applied to the vast majority of the artistic disciplines. But, regardless of the plentiful shite through which we all must plod on a daily basis, it is our duty as responsible artists, critics, viewers and paying audience members to call it out and demand more from our theatrical leaders than merely an attempt to be understood. To do otherwise, to soften the blow of critique with the goal of either protecting the artists’ feelings or, god help us, further securing our own socio-political goals through our commentary is to inflict irreparable damage on the very art we are hoping to assist.
So, by all means, embrace the attempt. But to dismiss any kind of legitimate criticism with a verbal wave of the hand is worthy of contempt and should be left to kindergarten classrooms and special education classes.
Dilettantes attempt. Artists aspire.