A Delicate Balance
Yet once again, o ye laurels! We open the season here in New York with another of those little surprises to which our society is given, those subtle seepages and shrinkings that mock the expanding walls. We have reached in a time of diversity, a sort of accidental monotheism in the theater: There is now only one influential daily critic, Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Times. It has generally been said In the theater that for a straight play only the Times “really matters.” The prestige and distribution of the Times conferred upon the critic, whoever he might be, extraordinary powers. But still there was the Herald-Tribune, perhaps put into second place because of its lesser economic strength, and yet clearly influential. It has always been atrocious that the theater should have been under the dominion of the immediate journalistic response—a tyranny both peculiar and unnecessary. None of the other literary arts has ever lain so submissively under the bones of its judges—or now, its judge. Daily reviews have appeared to be the only means of marketing the dramatic product and so gradually the fate of the whole enterprise has been entrusted to the shuffling goodwill of “the critics.” Producers, actors, and writers bend, saying with resignation: in their fitful taste is our salvation. A certain middle-ground project might fare well enough, and yet for other plays and productions the opinions of the daily press are of no consequence whatsoever. Nevertheless, the highest and the lowest have had to beseech, to hope.
The power of the Times is intolerable and this would be true if Walter Kerr were George Bernard Shaw, which he is not. Kerr’s taste, in the past, has been special: His impatience with experimental art is radical, his forbearance in the case of light comedies and genre pieces, such as The Subject Was Roses, is excessive. The theater will have to find some way to make the public aware of opinions other than those held by the daily press. Certain possibilities suggest themselves as a way to relieve the bondage to reviewers; the bondage is also one of the time. (Many things are gone, or crippled and abashed, before even the weekly press can offer a judgment.) During the previews, which seem to be universal now, showing among other things that apparently people will go to plays until they are told not to do so, the authors could invite the presence and solicit the opinions of those persons whose word might be relevant in forming the public taste. These short statements could be printed on opening day, in the advertisements, just as a publisher prints opinion on the back of books. Blurbs, of course, are not criticism and tend drastically toward the positive, the negative lying buried in dots. Still, they tell us something more important than most of the reviews the public relies upon: They tell…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.