Pulitzer Implosion: Hey, Mr. McNulty, I’m Talking to You, Sir

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UPDATE:

I received some excellent background and clarification on the composition and history of the Pulitzer drama jury from Christopher Rawson, senior critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. For those of you who did not read my original post, below, Charles McNulty, chair of this year’s drama Pulitzer jury and theater critic of the L.A. Times, railed against this year’s winner in a recent column — and I’ve suggested he ought to resign in protest. Thus begetting Rawson’s very helpful and welcome backgrounder.

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I should add that ATCA’s new website is not only improved but has terrific content on this issue as well. Check it out.

Rawson wrote:

The Pulitzer drama jury is reappointed afresh each year — which is not to say that certain critics haven’t reappeared on it often, especially back in the days when it was pretty much all New York. (That was loosened up when some well-known ATCA critics lobbied the board.) I imagine that Charles’ fine column already lessens the chance he’ll be reappointed.

Originally, a jury of three critics made one recommendation, which the Board took or didn’t. When overruled in 1934, one panelist wrote, “They don’t want dramatic experts any more. They want office boys. No self-respecting, intelligent critic would serve on such a jury.” All three 1934 panelists refused reappointment the following year. Thereafter, the jury was told to submit a ranked list of three, and most recently, an unranked list, from which the board could pick the one they liked, or, as this year, ignore. Shockingly, there has been no drama Pulitzer at all about 15 times, usually because of its old morals clause which some years ruled out Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, etc. Frustration with the Pulitzers led to the 1935 founding of the New York Drama Critics Circle, to give its own awards, although those are limited to NYC, while the Pulitzers claim to be national — although they rarely are. A show still running on Broadway has an advantage, because even board members who don’t go to the theater can rush to see it at the last minute before voting.

To sum up, all along there’s been gradual erosion of the critics’ role and a tendency to blandness in the drama Pulitzer. To make the best of that, let’s say that theater is a lively, in-your-face art that stirs up controversy, one about which even amateurs know what they like, or think they do.

Given Rawson’s information, we can at least assume McNulty won’t be reappointed. So much for my fall-0n-your-sword and-resign idea.

Then again, isn’t the point that critics should stand by their word?

Therefore, my original piece:

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The days of courtly, gentleman-like smiles all around among theater critics — in New York, anyway — may be bumping, like Gypsy Rose Lee before a hormonal crowd, up against reality. Or perhaps humping and bumping. The 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to the Broadway musical Next to Normal on Monday, and oh, the shock, the outrage, the moaning, the head-scratching, the fire-ants-in-the-pants jumping up and down are all underway. Everything but the Patriot Act to incarcerate those disagreeing with the Pulitzer board, which chose to overrule the recommendations of the Pulitzer jury, which is headed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty.

Well, McNulty ain’t havin’ none of it. In a scathing piece in yesterday’s Times, he formally blasted the “mandarins at Columbia University’s journalism school” for ignoring “the advice of its drama jury in favor of its own sentiments.”

This is a particularly ouch-worthy passage:

In an era in which important new dramatic works rarely get their start in New York, the board’s geographical myopia, a vision of the American theater that starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away is especially disheartening. Does anyone really believe that “Next to Normal” would have been chosen had it been submitted when it was at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.?

Here’s the problem: While McNulty can rail against the insularity and myopia of a Pulitzer board that “doesn’t have members who are better able to distinguish the merits of a production from the merits of a dramatic work,” he himself apparently doesn’t plan to absent himself from the process going forward. There is this thing called resigning, called ethics, called standards, called putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. If the Pulitzer board is so Gotham-centric, so clouded by a vision of “American theater starts in Times Square and ends just a short taxi ride away,” why bother?

McNulty address that:

I’ll grant you it’s a strange job, but what’s the point of having it if you can’t advocate for finalists as talented as Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play”?

With all due respect to Mr. McNulty, whose insight and analysis I enjoy without reservation, there is no point in such advocacy if those with final say are beyond reach, as would be implied. How do you wake them up? Fall on your sword, man. State out loud, publicly: “Enough!” Don’t scurry back to your critic’s notebook while clutching on to a position for dear life. I respect McNulty’s broadside against the Pulitzer board — it’s brave, it’s honest, a mark of valor. But I could respect him much more if he stepped down. Then at least the American theater would know he truly meant it.

CATEGORIES: Rants, Theater

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