My colleagues at New York Stage Review have very kindly invited me to contribute a column once a month or so. I leave the reviewing of individual shows to them: Instead, these essay-columns will try to pull together some general reflections, linking the theater to the world outside, and linking our theater’s many diverse parts to each other. These two tasks are among a theater critic’s standard obligations, but in the everyday course of reviewing, we often don’t have time—or space—for them. We get preoccupied with the object at hand, and forget about the rest of reality.
As it happens, my sedentary life—sit at the theater, then sit at home writing about it—brought me a very strong taste this past summer of what an existence without theater reviewing might be like. In mid-June, I underwent open-heart surgery to replace a calcified aortic valve. From that day to this, I have not gone to the theater, or even ventured into the subway system that usually takes me there. So this debut column must deal with the absence of theatergoing experience instead of generalizing from what I find when I attend.
There are definite advantages to an enforced rest from theatergoing, especially when you’ve been scrutinizing the stage for nearly half a century. After coming out of the hospital, though I felt poorly much of the time, and often found myself short of breath on the daily walks that were my prescribed therapy, I also felt a great sense of peaceful irresponsibility. I kept up on the art; I kept lists of upcoming openings, making mental notes of shows I might want to attend in due time. When shows of notable interest opened, I sampled colleagues’ reviews—and found a surprising contentment in not having to voice agreement or disagreement with them in print. I also found, a little more dismayingly, that I could predict my stance on far too many shows based on the information I had about them from press releases and from colleagues. This worried me, but also supplied another justification for my enforced holiday: If my reactions were getting that predictable, maybe my staying away from the theater for a few months was all for the best, for both the theater’s sake and for my own.
I found that my situation brought other benefits too. While most shows give room for a range of opinions—you like this piece more than other critics, you dislike that one less—every season also provides a small selection of works foredoomed from the outset, performance events that only a deep-dyed masochist could love, shows for which only an academic’s pet parrot could find justification. I am not speaking of the willful experiments that knowledgeable and highly skilled theater people sometimes carry out; I have endured many of these, often with increasing impatience and irritation, but also with a sense, afterward, that my time had not been wasted. If I found the results troubling rather than gratifying, the trouble was of a kind that gave me hope. Experiments, after all, carry no guarantee of success; what they do offer is evidence that their makers are working purposefully and not foolishly.
But the unhappy pieces I mean are made without genuine purpose, by people who know no better. They can come dressed up in theoretical jargon, bearing scraps of misunderstood teaching, or—more often—they can come wrapped in the naked intention of making money or notoriety, with minimal regard for such artistry as they require. The vanity of human wishes is unending; the theater commandeers a substantial share of its sad results; and every so often, one such mishap raises enough noise among the misguided to compel critical attention, with results that do not delight the perpetrators.
A few such mishaps drifted into the reviewers’ orbit this past summer, and my unavailability to cover them caused me great clandestine joy. There are theater journalists who flock to such things as gapers do to train wrecks and multicar highway pileups, but I’m not among them. Once in a while, when someone of repute is caught in the misfortune, I will go, simply for practice at enduring the worst, but I try to keep such occasions to a minimum. Under my new situation, the minimum was zero, and when I contemplated those occasions, I was a very happy camper indeed.
How, you may be asking, did I fill my suddenly empty time in lieu of theatergoing? Well, I did things that people not afflicted with the theater bug do. I saw friends—not enough of them and not as often as I might have wished—but enough to remind me that a social life does not have to consist entirely of text messages saying “R u free 4 thtr Thurs nite?” Also, I read books—not new ones, but some of the aging tomes I had accumulated over the years—at a leisurely pace. I began going through my CD and DVD accumulations (some people collect; I accumulate), weeding out the unwanted and listening to or watching the previously unsampled. When you cover the theater regularly, there is little time for such diversions. Bernard Shaw used to compare his weekly reviewing to Don Quixote battling the windmill: Just as he picked himself up from dueling one blade, the next would roll around to knock him down again. (My weeding benefited the theater community as well, since much of what I weeded out ended up gracing various tables at the BC/EFA Flea Market on Sept. 30.)
Also, I discovered something meaningful at the core of my enforced abstinence from theatergoing—something far more gratifying than cultural objects of any sort. While recuperating from open-heart surgery, you are cautioned to move slowly, and especially to take your time when you shift from lying down to sitting or sitting to standing. Sudden movements can cause abrupt shifts in your blood pressure and make you briefly lose your sense of balance. Taking my time about such transitions, I found my time worth taking. These past weeks have included long moments when I simply sat on the edge of my bed and thought, or stood, motionless, beside my computer before sitting down to answer email and scroll through my Facebook news feed.
In these moments, I contemplated the chaos of my life, and the many ways I might improve it. A heart operation is a great turning point: It signals the end of one way of life and invites you to begin another. It compels you to think about why you have lasted this long and what entitles you to survive. I once directed a play about Edith Wharton, by the poet Richard Howard, in which the eminent novelist, reflecting on her marital experience, says, “A divorce is a great creator.” Open-heart surgery also creates a new life in place of the one you must put behind you, a life in which all your options are reopened, and you suddenly see that much of what you have lived with for decades can be set aside or thrown out. With a new life there always comes a general housecleaning, spiritual as well as material.
In my head, during these motionless moments, I often contemplated the theater—the day-to-day drudgery and excitement of working in it, of writing about it, of letting it take over my thoughts. Those of you who have enjoyed my reviews over the years will be glad to know that I concluded I could not do without it. The theater is an inescapable part of me, and as I start to rejoin my colleagues on their rounds, it will be an inescapable part of this column. But my extended holiday from it has done me no end of good; I will see every performance with fresh eyes, and the new effort of getting to and from it will make it seem more of a privilege than ever. All of us who partake—artists, behind-the-scenes workers, critics, audiences—need to be reminded that we share a great honor: This work has been made by and for us; we are there with it “in the room where it happens,” as the guy says in Hamilton. The specialness of our situation is too often and too easily overlooked. It takes fresh eyes, like those granted by an enforced absence, to remind you how greatly you have been blessed. As I write this, my mouth waters. I am thinking of the productions recently opened to which I need to find my way before they vanish. I have never seen Lillian Hellman’s Days to Come; its revival, I note with grim irony, will soon be gone. And in what remains of my days, it may never come again. Theater, like life, is evanescent; a renewed opportunity for the latter has given me a renewed zest for the former.