In the last episode of “Kelly and Me,” I wrote about an exchange via twitter with the Globe and Mail theater critic J. Kelly Nestruck, in which he expressed his disappointment in me for supposing that we might not have the full story of what happened on 9/11. That was over a month ago. I would have followed up sooner, but I felt I should pause to give Mr. Nestruck time to defend the orthodox position on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. We conspiracy theorists are everywhere these days; a rational man’s work is never done.
Perhaps J. Kelly will be glad to know I have no position on the Shakespeare authorship issue. That’s because I have not looked into it. I have, however, looked extensively into the matter of 9/11, which has led me, along with a whole lot of other people, including the 2000+ architects and engineers I mentioned last time, to suppose that what we nutters like to call “the official story” is about as likely as the one Rob Ford offered about his drug-taking habits a few months ago. Nestruck apparently hasn’t looked into 9/11 much, but he’s pretty sure we’re full of it.
Fair enough. As I said last time, I’m not interested in debating the subject. I am, though, interested in the turn of mind which reflexively rejects challenges to the status quo, and whether that can possibly be a good thing in a critic whom I otherwise admire.
The three greatest theatre critics I have read — Harold Clurman, Kenneth Tynan, and Robert Brustein — were all serious kickers at the status quo. (Brustein still is.) That’s not to say a radical turn of mind is inherently a good thing, or a necessary part of the job. The greatest critic-qua-critic of my lifetime, Pauline Kael, while she embraced the adventurist filmmakers of the 1970s, was a traditionalist at heart. She was never as much a shill for the studios as Roger Ebert, but she was also never more rhapsodically eloquent than when she was extolling the virtues of, say, Steven Spielberg movies, which she loved — when she loved them — for their old-school values. (E.T. put her in mind of Meet Me in St. Louis.)
Nor does the urge to kick shit have much to do with a critic’s politics. Tynan may have been a champagne socialist and Clurman a “left wing aristocrat,” as he styled himself, but Brustein is constantly getting into trouble for criticizing fashionable liberal positions. (It took his famous, extended debate with playwright August Wilson, who had adopted a fundamentalist view of racial politics by the end of his life, to finally make Brustein look progressive.) But, of course, arguing contrarian views in the largely lefty world of theatre is itself a radical thing to do.
What all three had/have in common as critics is that they are, by nature, disrupters. I once watched Clurman, at the O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut, listen to his old pal and colleague Arthur Miller expound to young playwrights and actors from under some leafy tree. After awhile, Clurman began to do an odd little dance behind Miller; think of an old man moving like Natalie Merchant and you’ll get the idea. At the time I thought it was just competitiveness and vanity — Miller was getting all the attention, and Clurman didn’t like it. Now I think maybe he was signalling to us not to take any establishment figure too seriously — even Arthur Miller.
Their disruptiveness may have something to do with the fact that all three were also creators, Clurman successfully so, Tynan and Brustein spottily. I suppose one could argue that all writing is creative, hence all critics are creators, too, but I think I’ll let somebody else make that argument. At any rate, all three understood that to really get anywhere in an art form, you had to begin by stirring things up a little. What they did not do is invite the still waters of the status quo to close over any hint of controversy, as Mr. Nestruck seems inclined to do.
You may ask, what could it possibly matter if J. Kelly Nestruck does or doesn’t think 9/11 was an inside job? (By the way, I don’t think 9/11 was an inside job; I don’t even know what that means.) And you may be right: It probably doesn’t, not much. It matters when his colleagues in more powerful, influential positions in journalism use their powerful, influential positions to discourage inquiry into such events, and it matters if Nestruck aspires to go the way of Brustein and Frank Rich and comment on more than theatre someday, but in the great scheme of things, what a theatre critic has to say, or not say, doesn’t matter much outside the little halo of light he and I and other votaries of the form occupy.
But as one inside that circle, who thinks good theatre criticism leads to better theatre, and who’d like to see Canada have a worthy successor to Nathan Cohen someday (speaking of grade-A disrupters), it’s disappointing to learn that Nestruck is, well, conventionally-minded. There are worse things, I suppose. Except perhaps in a theatre critic.
By the way, this being the week of the 50th-anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I should mention that there are some people who think we don’t yet have the full story of that one, either. Quite a few people actually. I know — crazy! It looks like Mr. Nestruck has his work cut out for him.
Stanley Kauffmann wrote the most brilliant theater criticism in this country in the 20 the century. Tynan was great, Kael hyperbolic, Brustein too conservative, Clurman superb. Don’t forget Eric Bentley. A great theater critic was Penelope Gilliatt at the London Observer. Her reviews, brilliant and progressive, led to death threats against her and her child, for defending the work of, among others, Edward Bond. In the end, Kael’s work is largely shallow. But nobody wrote about theater with the cogency, probity, insight, and more, than Stanley Kauffmann. That he was equally brilliant as a film critic is no surprise. Same for Gilliatt. As time goes on, these will be the names that rise to the top of serious theater and film criticism. Not the loudest voices.