If you were throwing a dinner party for passionate, self defining drama critics who rile against today’s theatre criticism world where the critic ‘makes the reader feel his opinion, but he doesn’t have the stylistic wherewithal to make the reader feel the play’ John Lahr would surely be top of the guest list. His passion for the form, for that both of theatre and writing about it, is more than the sum parts of the man who appears on the stage with David Lan at the Young Vic to discuss his latest publication Joy Ride.
‘Bearing witness’ could be one way to describe how John Lahr might term the role of writing about theatre: living in London but working in New York, his tenure as senior drama critic at the New Yorker since 1992 recently came to an end; son of comedian Bert Lahr (best known for the Lion in the Wizard of Oz) he wrote a biography of him ‘Notes on a Cowardly Lion’, he won a Tony Award in 2002 and was literary manager for the Lincoln Centre, subsequently there have been other award winning books, his ‘Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh’ won him the eighth annual Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography. Although he stopped reviewing for the New Yorker in 2013 he has, perhaps unknowingly, thrown the gauntlet down to now traditionally accepted ways of ‘reviewing’- the type you might read in the New York Times for instance; and definitely so, to our own rather limited form of criticism this side of the water, where some of our best writers are imprisoned by a 500 word count and struggle to find outlets where one can ‘write’ seriously about theatre in long form rather than often serving as a marketing mouthpiece for a particular show and get paid for doing so. John Lahr’s new book, now out in hard back, is a homage to the writer’s invention of a new form of theatre reviewing- the interview-review: in depth pieces which reflect on the individuality of the artist and their ‘back stage’ work, in tandem with a review of the production. In conversation, he cites a famous example, his third review for the New Yorker, Angels in America. Backstage with Tony Kushner (because he asked to be) he was able to describe to readers a letter Tony Kushner pinned up on a board for the cast to see: ‘“and how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty?” it read. “If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain . . . And the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst.”’ It’s interesting what this type of writing does for a review. Not only does it add the all important context (I believe that Michael Billington is of similar view, that context matters and this writer at least, can only agree) not only does it give the reader a sense of theatrical history, tradition, a sense of where the play or production sits within the theatrical canon and, outside of it, in history, in real life on the street, it also brings the reader up close and personal with all the sweat, the tears, the fears, the pain and sheer excitement that goes into making and putting on a show. This particular letter also makes that link between the art on stage and the lives of the people behind the art. It is as though the readers are actually there, united with the artists in their common endeavour.
‘writing from the green room’ it certainly is and it should be so. For John Lahr, it is all about ‘getting to the inconsolable’ - in other words, the artists themselves. His profiles, detailed in Joy Ride, on Mike Nichols and David Mamet- the hardest person to get to open up- are all 'inconsolables'. It’s interesting then to consider why John Lahr writes in this way; and, as if he is an artist himself, which indeed he is, David Lan brings up the idea of the ghosts of our fathers. But the connection between John Lahr’s father, of whom he readily talks about, and his own interest in artists who are ‘compelled’ and ‘driven’ to being creative because it is their way of survival, or the only way of attaining joy, perhaps speaks volumes. It is the tension and/ or the discrepancy between the artist on stage/or on canvas or on the page of a book etc and the individual themselves. The two are not one and the same thing, though we might think they are or might wish they were, and this is where the idea of perfect poise comes in too (‘perfect individualism is perfect poise’ Oscar Wilde). John Lahr described to David Lan and to us, the difficulty of reconciling the almost two selves he saw in his own father- the ecstatic funny performer on stage ‘deflating’ almost immediately into someone more depressed once off it. But looking at it merely from the audience’s point of view, with no personal knowledge of the artist, what they get is that ‘perfect poise’- something that someone like Meryl Streep in a performance for instance, will have taken five months to rehearse and perfect. In a sense what John Lahr does is to honour that perfect poise, but to try to reach into the individual at the same time- if he is allowed. It throws up its own question- how artists can be great but also good, and not just 'walking megalomaniacs’.
Nonetheless, for John Lahr, theatre can also allow you ‘to be your best self.’ Writing about productions should be about seeking out the metaphor, to find out what it is the creatives are really trying to say- which of course, they may not know or do not know themselves, and ‘bear witness’ to this, at the same time charting the creatives’ own inner worlds. Mischievously, David Lan gently counters by pointing out that is the exact thing that reviewers do themselves- in writing about another’s work, they inevitably shine a light upon their own internal lives. John Lahr whole heartedly agrees, and, reminding me of Mark Shenton, who once said that he never knows what he thinks about a show until he writes about it, concurs that he believes that reviewing, the act of writing about a production, is always about finding out what you feel. The act is self defining.
This is what we need to remember, when writing about theatre. It’s inevitable that in writing about a production or reviewing any other art form, the self will always be exposed too. It’s not possible not to do if one wants to really try to understand the work. And as director Ian Rickson said recently, it makes such a difference when the reviewer really tries to do just that- ‘it buoys up’ the creatives and he at least, thinks that ‘people need to write about theatre in this way, because it is so important’. Theatre reviewing seems to have a bad name- slightly- in this country. However, it’s no wonder. Press nights sometimes feel so polluted by the desire to please, rather than them being a celebration of a culmination of all the work so far, a celebration of the creatives' joy and achievements. The changes shows and creatives undergo from preview to press night to mid run to last performance, experienced by myself over and over in my time as an usher, are ignored by most critics. Theatres or PR companies often don’t give credence and therefore exposure to less glowing reviews, ones that offer a different viewpoint, or ones that, whilst failing to use flamboyant adjectives to entice in the public, seek to talk about the work in serious but nevertheless, passionate terms. Thus, it sometimes seems that only half a conversation is being heard and contributed to, at least from the public’s point of view. Some day, all well considered reviews that seek to understand the metaphorical meaning behind a work rather than simply judge, even if those reviews are not 4 or 5 star ones (and really, the star system should go but that’s a whole other argument) will all be welcomed and made readily available on that theatre or production’s website for an interested public who may want to join in the debate. It should be that all serious reflections and engagements are welcome and allowed to have a voice in what could be, what should be, great theatrical debates that don't just happen in secret exclusive corners somewhere online.
But John Lahr must have the last few words (and I paraphrase, so if it’s wrong, I hope someone will correct me): ‘the culture thing is best in the theatre.’ As David Lan said, that should be projected above our theatres.