Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Pleasures and Perils of Length

It took me two attempts to make it all the way through Geoffrey O’Brien’s review, in the New York Review of Books, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer season in New York (which included Julius Caesar, King Lear and The Winter’s Tale). I don’t think I’d previously seen a theatre article of this length that could still call itself a review, and I was excited to get out of my New Yorker/New York Times theater review rut. But the first time through, I gave up in impatience; at 3700+ words to my ~750, the piece seemed to dither, languish, belabor. Why was it taking so long to get to the point? But then a loyal reader encouraged me to give it a second try, by saying that piece reminded him of my writing. Eep! Could my writing be so rambling?

I’m so glad I took a second stab at it, though. I still feel the article suffers from a touch of listy-ness; after a while, devoting an entire paragraph to each actor in King Lear starts to feel formulaic, a matter more of obligation than of passion, essential as each surely was to the finished product. And at a low point in my self-justifying criticism, I wondered if it was indulgent to allow a writer so much space to sort out his thoughts. Does not the iron fist of a maximum word count impose critical and argumentative rigor? (She asked, hypocritically, as her blog entry stretched ever downward, plumbing the infinite bottom of a Word document.)

My second read showed me that rigor, while very much a part of this piece, need not be the chief end of all theater criticism. O’Brien aims more to let a production sit with him for a while (the review appeared over a month after the RSC’s season concluded), to contemplate it, and then to present his experience of it in fuller and richer detail than most other critics could ever dream of. This room, this freedom to think and grapple with an artistic experience, allows him the chance to coin gems normally stifled by word counts and deadlines. On the general difficulties of performing Shakespeare:

Actors must make glances and inflections serve for footnotes; directors must, or at least generally think they must, use design choreography, and music to make visible unimagined subtexts (whether historical or political or folkloric) and keep the audience from going astray in syntactic mazes. But if the text is not an unbroken skein—a continuous telling—the play has been lost among the bric-a-brac.

Or, on The Winter’s Tale’s Leontes:

Ezra Pound once summed up his understanding of Confucian philosophy in a single phrase: “Avoid twisty thoughts.” Leontes is a man with thoughts so twisty that they have looped around him and drawn him into himself without hope of extrication, so that Shakespeare must invent a new grammar to catch their whiplash bends and sudden cavernous gaps.

More practically, the temporal and physical space lets O’Brien criticize the criticism. He can survey everything else that’s been written about the production before typing a word. He can escape the pressure of providing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, of furnishing a pull quote, of serving as critic cum recommender. Instead, he mediates between the reviewers and history, seizing the privileged final word on a show, predicting its and the critics’ legacies before the discourse on it at last gets archived.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this experience is that different theater essays demand a different kind of reading. I shouldn’t have dove into this NYRB article expecting a single, strong statement of opinion that gets gradually fleshed out, elaborated upon, restated, wrapped up. There are pleasures in that, in already knowing where an article will go and just enjoying the accretion of observations that prove the assertion. But that’s not the only way an article can satisfy. Some pieces can’t be read with one eye always on the last paragraph. They require a good long sit. The eye must feel free to glance out the window or turn inward, to veer in and out of the “task” at hand at the slightest provocation. In short, they demand you tap into a different mental space—one that I don’t inhabit often enough.

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