Art Critic to The Nation! Film Critic to TNR! As for Theater, Quit Dreaming

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Two years ago, in the heady time following Barack Obama’s election, I was asked to join a post-show panel coinciding with the Off-Broadway run of Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson’s play Too Much Memory (produced by Rising Phoenix Rep and Piece by Piece Productions), and then to serve as moderator for another panel one week later. Public events are fun for me and this was no exception: panelists for the first event included Katrina vanden Heuvel (editor, publisher, co-owner of The Nation), Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, actress Kathleen Chalfant, and me, with William vanden Heuvel (father of Katrina and a distinguished American ambassador) as moderator; panelists for the second event included Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, JoAnn Wypijewski of The Nation and Mother Jones magazine, and Jared Bernstein, then of the Economic Policy Institute but, in that moment, newly designated as Vice President Biden’s Chief Economist and Economic Policy Adviser. However high you go in life and whatever circles you travel in, if you’re blessed with any sense of humility, you look upon opportunities like the two described above and pinch yourself: “I get to be on a panel with them?” As I was transitioning out of my former full-time position, I also regarded the panels as an unparalleled networking opportunity: We were tackling such questions as “When the law is unjust, what options are available for the people to overcome it?” and “When is civil disobedience anarchy?” and “At what point does national security supersede civil liberties? and “In the face of change, how do you maintain the trust of the people?”

I was acutely aware before the panels, and intensely aware afterward, that The Nation hasn’t made use of a full-time, part-time or living theater critic in just about forever. A quick search on The Nation’s website of the cheesiest kind — the word “Broadway” — reveals a disturbing paucity of coverage that felt wildly unfortunate in late 2008 and equally depressing in January 2011. One review, in July 2007, of the play Frost/Nixon, and a smattering of other mentions does not seem fitting for a nation with the massive expanse, geographically and thematically, of the American stage. If you really dig deep into a search, you’ll find coverage of live theater almost off-handed in its attitude. Eric Alterman took his son to see American Idiot in April 2010 and wrote a blog post about the experience. That controversial new play about slavery by Thomas Bradshaw at the Goodman in Chicago or whatnot? Pffft.

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Well, that was my impetus, after the second panel, to approach Katrina vanden Heuvel and ask her directly, though diplomatically, why The Nation’s coverage of live theater — not just in New York, but in the U.S. — was so poor. And I think characterizing it as “poor” overstates the matter: it’s non-existent. Politically, I’m a fan of vanden Heuvel, though I don’t consider myself quite as knee-jerk liberal. Still, I felt that if there should be any place in American journalism for a rigorous, avid, even contrarian and wide-ranging engagement of the theater in our nation as it relates to our politics, it ought to be The Nation. In response, vanden heuvel couldn’t have been nicer, yet, with rapid dispatch, I was pawned off on The Nation’s literary editor, John Palattella, who told me in no uncertain terms that the economic dictates of the magazine, not to mention his own aesthetic predilections, meant that live theater had no place at The Nation. I found a great irony here: Too Much Memory — the play that spawned the post-show panels and lured Katrina vanden Heuvel into appearing on one — is a profoundly political, unstintingly liberal, distinctly antiwar adaptation of Antigone, and in the cast was none other than vanden Heuvel’s sister, Wendy, in a critical role. (She was very good, too.) So it’s not as if, I assume, Katrina vanden Heuvel knew nothing about the power of theater as a genre, knew nothing about the theater as an organic expression of political thought or couldn’t make at least the intellectual the leap that The Nation ought to devote a few column inches every, oh, decade or so to the topic. Americans, especially those toiling on the stage, tend to think we have no tradition of political theater. If you know what is going on in the American theater, you know this is so much horse-hockey.

So, my friends, why the slightly bitter-sounding trip down memory lane? I assure you it isn’t to wax a grievance against vanden Heuvel, Palattella or The Nation. In fact, I came to this conclusion: you don’t want incisive, insightful, debate-worthy culture coverage? Fine: plenty of online outlets will happily run circles around The Nation and, in so doing, will capitalize on The Nation’s bizarre insulation from humanity. Just two weeks ago, I had new reason to hope: The Nation said it was bringing on Doug Harvey, the former L.A. Weekly art critic, although this story made clear that he’s writing feature stories, not reviews. I’ll settle for compromise if it increases cultural coverage, even if it isn’t about the theater (as yet). At least I know that culture of some kind is back on the magazine’s radar. Hope springs eternal.

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Then there’s the other editorial warhorse for liberal thought, The New Republic. Like The Nation, it once had a sterling reputation for great theater criticism — Robert Brustein is still listed on the masthead as its critic, a position he has held since 1959. A search of TNR’s website doesn’t show Brustein byline for several years now, and frankly I can’t recall any TNR staffer or stringer attending any live theater production, Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway or regional, for years and years and years. (Here’s the answer to the question I suspect you’re asking: No, I don’t read TNR or The Nation with any regularity. Their antipathy toward culture coverage doesn’t encourage me to pick it up.)

Last week, meanwhile, TNR announced that it had appointed the distinguished cinema guru David Thomson to lead a new online section on movies. In a note to readers of the magazine, longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier extolled Thomson’s genius, and compared him most favorably with Stanley Kauffmann, who has served as TNR’s film critic since — well, the year before Brustein shimmied onto the masthead. Kauffmann, who turns 95 this year, doesn’t attend film screenings and some years ago stopped attending the theater, his first love. At his age and stage of the game, I wouldn’t chastise him for this, but for me, as a person taking great interest in theater criticism and cultural criticism as a whole, it feels very much like the vanden Heuvel/Palattella ostrich syndrome all over again. Is there no live theater anywhere in the U.S. that is worthy of coverage in TNR? I want to be clear that I don’t mean Broadway, or even New York, when I ask this question. I’m not advocating TNR rush a writer into Driving Miss Daisy to spotlight the plight of the American elderly or ponder how Mitt Romney might politicize the upcoming musical The Book of Mormon. But surely, with such an ongoing avalanche of new work being produce around the country there is something for someone to write at some time, isn’t there?

Ah, but underneath: Movies advertise. If only magazines were honest about what powers their editorial decisions.