The Lynching of Charles Isherwood

The company of "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812"

Jason Grote, who I recently assigned to be profiled in the pages of Back Stage, has posted a piece called “Bring Me the Head of Charles Isherwood. Or Not.”
And I must say that I really like Jason’s take on the fracas because it aims to put the whole thing into some sort of respectable and intelligent macro-perspective. To wit:

“I’m a bit late on the Baitz essay, but (despite the fact that a half a dozen people emailed it to me), I didn’t feel compelled to comment, because (with all due respect to Baitz), he seems to be missing the point. Maybe he’s too nice. What really offended me about the Isherwood piece in question (that is, his plea for TV writers to return to the stage), is not that Isherwood’s own fire-breathing criticism makes him something of a hypocrite (though it does); but that playwrights who are writing television scripts for the stage should be in Hollywood making money and not writing plays because TV on stage is fucking boring. Now, I love a lot of TV, and clearly not every writer who pays the bills with TV writing is a hack. But why on earth would I pay anywhere between $20-$200 and drag my ass into midtown to see something I could get at home for free? When theater starts competing with television, it’s already lost….”

Jason goes to talk about why he trashes NYT’s theatre criticism and culture coverage on his blogs, but I would argue that he, along with Isaac (in his open letter to the Times) and even Matt Freeman, both of whom I greatly like and respect, nevertheless aren’t taking much in the way of action to force NYT to make whatever changes — not fully and specifically articulated, in my view — they desire.

Everybody seems to be interested in posting 100 sentences about theatre and 20 rules for writing about plays and 100 this and 100 that. How about somebody post 100 ways to improve theatre coverage in New York? How about somebody post 100 reasons why Isherwood and/or Brantley should be let go immediately? How about somebody post 100 other people that could replace them? How about somebody, somewhere, stop the whiny-bitchy-moaning and be fully specific about how to ameliorate the situation and end the immature lynching Charles Friggin’ Isherwood? The more you mock him, the more you rake him over the coals, the more you call him names, the more you assail his character, the more you write open letters to the Times that you know full well they’re not going to read because they lack any teeth, the more you ascribe power to the Times — the more that you give the Times precisely what it wants. How about getting some journalists in on the gig? How about putting your money where your mouths are? Jason Grote had the strength of character to create and circulate a petition against New York Theatre Workshop, signed by 939 people, when the workshop did that horrid job of explaining why Rachel Corrie was being postponed-slash-cancelled. Why not make it clear that Times advertisers will be boycotted if this and this and this and this isn’t changed immediately? Why not take some kind of really serious action against the Times if you don’t like what Isherwood is doing? Do you really believe a blog will affect change? If so, show me how it’s happening. I don’t think so — I don’t think the Times considers these blogs all that important.
And why does everybody continue to act like Isherwood is some wild renegade who writes whatever he wants without his editors, Rick Lyman and Sam Sifton and who knows who else, knowing anything about it? Are you all suggesting they’re not complicit in this mediocrity, if you believe he’s vile and vicious and mediocre?


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  • Mac

    Hi Leonard, it’s Mac Rogers. Can you elaborate on what a person should do to force the New York Times to make changes in its theater coverage? What do you mean by getting a journalist in on the gig? What do you do with the journalist once you have them?

    Also, why doesn’t writing in a public forum about something count as “doing something” about it?

  • Leonard Jacobs

    I added to my post to answer your questions.

  • Praxis Theatre

    That’s 101 sentences about theatre.

    ;-)

    I enjoy your blog and the often-spirited debate it inspires.

    I’d love to pipe in on this Charles Isherwood topic, but I’m really not up to speed on it.

    Thank you,

    Ian

  • Leonard Jacobs

    Hey Ian — sorry about that! LOL. Thank you for the compliment.

  • Jason Grote

    Hey Leonard,

    Thanks for the kind words, but I don’t really think the NYTW/Rachel Corrie comparison is accurate here. I’ve never actually bothered to appeal to the NYT itself, because, as we’ve both said, they’re a huge media corporation that’s largely indifferent to the actions of bloggers. NYTW, on the other hand, is a relatively small outfit that at least wants to be part of a community of artists and audience. I’m also frankly uncomfortable with trying to coerce any journalist or editor into doing anything, a position that I’m sure you’d understand.

    But I’m also not speaking to anyone at the New York Times, even though a few people with NYT IP addresses do read on occasion. I doubt that anything I say in any forum will have any immediate effect on the NYT, and that’s fine with me. Instead, I’ve chosen to speak to the general public. I don’t have power, but I do have what every blog potentially has, and that’s influence. Blogging is a great meritocracy, and while I have neither hope nor interest in getting Isherwood fired, what I can do is convince my readership – a steadily increasing group of about 200 people a day, many of them not theater artists – that the NYT is dull and middlebrow and not really to be trusted in matters of taste (really not much of a tough sell, anyway – they’re not called The Gray Lady for nothing). If that results in the NYT improving the quality of their coverage, great. If that results in more people looking elsewhere for reviews, that’s fine too. I’m largely indifferent to their success or failure as a newspaper (if anything, I’d like to see them succeed, because the family-owned newspaper is a dying breed, but I still find them so lame on so many levels).

    As far improving theater coverage in New York: I don’t see that as really necessary when there is already so much good coverage out there, Time Out being one of the sources I name. I even briefly contributed myself, as co-editor of The Brooklyn Rail’s theater section, tough that proved to be too time-consuming. New York Magazine and Variety are consistently excellent, and The New Yorker is usually pretty good. The Voice’s coverage is often great, though the rest of the paper has been so badly managed by New Times Media that they’ve sadly lost a great deal of their cultural presence in New York. And then there is your own publication, which obviously targets a narrower audience, but still does good work; the Back Stage review of 1001, while often rough on me, was much more intelligent and engaged than the NYT’s, and that’s all I ask for. Paul Menard might not have liked where my play eventually went, but at least he put in the effort to go there with it.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, and for that great feature article in Back Stage – a really thoughtful, substantive piece. Nice work.

    Jason

    PS – I don’t write or read those silly prescriptive lists. I have exactly one rule for theater artists, and that’s Do As Thou Wilt.

  • Jason Grote

    Oh yeah, and lynching? Really? I think I liked “Savaging” better, if you’re taking votes.

  • Freeman

    Hey. My list IS silly. That’s the whole point.

  • Leonard Jacobs

    The way everyone’s going after him? Total lynching. :-)

    But savaging, I suppose, has its pleasures.

    You know, I want to add that I appreciate everything you said. I disagree with some of it, but I do respect where you’re coming from.