In Praise of Robert Lowell

The Old Glory

by Robert Lowell, directed by Jonathan Miller
American Place Theater

Obviously, we cannot ask that reviewers from the Manhattan dailies know a great play from a bad one. Few people ever have managed that. How expect it of a man, largely untrained, who must rush to his office after a single performance and deliver sentence without time to think or question his feelings? It is probably too much, also, to ask that reviewers recognize great dramatic direction. That demands a conceptual and emotional grasp over a total work of art. How expect that from a man who has given his life to the socalled communication media—that is, to the control and prevention of anything exceptional (including excellence) in thought or feeling? I had hoped that we could demand the ability to discriminate great acting. Yet even a country boy like myself should have known they would either ignore it, or would praise it together with inferior work, so keeping the world safe for mediocrity.

My first response to the reviews of Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory—especially the reviews by Taubman and Kerr—was simply to shriek, “Foul!” But what could anyone have expected? To begin with, I am not sure that there was any need to invite the daily reviewers; the American Place Theater has both foundation support and a subscriber list. If such reviewers are invited unnecessarily, we can only attribute that to advanced masochism. If one is shocked by their reviews, we must attribute that to a delight in righteous indignation. Yet many worthy dramatic performances must invite these reviewers and ask their support; that may be the case here. Many have fared far worse than Lowell’s plays. Some have hoped that if we complain loudly enough, these reviewers would be replaced. Ridiculous. They are doing exactly what they are paid for. Almost every large organization in the culture is dedicated to enthroning and perpetuating mediocrity; this is true of armies, industries, universities, and most especially the communication media—they must control, by suggestion, a populace which has more freedom than it can use or bear. It is no surprise that this control becomes immediately a weapon to stomp out excellence and preserve the comfort and security of a mediocre public and its mediocre controllers. It would surprise us only if these media should pick reviewers who could encourage fresh perception, fresh ideas, an open competition of wits and insight. You can’t expect self-sacrifice.

Then let not thy heart be troubled. Expect your opponent to act after his nature, or you become victim to your own rage. If you must sit down by these people, bring the long spoon. You may get lucky and grow strong, whereupon they will come over and join you. Then you have got problems!

The Old Glory by Robert Lowell touches at least tangentially upon this. It consists of two plays: My Kinsman, Major Molineux, based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story; and Benito Cereno, based on Herman Melville’s novella. Their opening on November 1 was the first full-scale production by the American Place Theater—which was specifically…

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