Critical I: Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

Welcome to Critical I, The Clyde Fitch Report’s interview series with cultural critics.

Our third Q&A is with Terry Teachout, drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and contributor to many other outlets and publications. Teachout is, further, a noted playwright: his Satchmo at the Waldorf, which finds the incomparable Louis Armstrong backstage in March 1971, opens Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre (407 W. 43rd St.) on March 4. (John Douglas Thompson portrays Armstrong — whose off-stage persona was not quite the same as his on-stage persona — as well as Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, and fellow trumpeter Miles Davis. Gordon Edelstein directs.)

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Photo by Ken Howard

Photo by Ken Howard

A word about this series. We live in a time in which it is fashionable to debate and assail the role of criticism in our culture. More and more this debate encompasses dueling, inexact and contradictory versions of what criticism is; who is and who is not a “critic”; who the audience is or ought to be for criticism; and what proper standards for comportment in a critic ought to be. Our view is that, whoever they are, critics must not be sidelined from these discussions. Our idea to ask critics — paid or not, full-time or freelance, traditional or new media — for their stories, and their views.

Which critic would you like to see profiled? Please email us at [email protected] and let us know.

Please provide a bio or personal statement of +/-150 words. Please begin with Terry Teachout is… You can list credits, wax philosophical, wax poetic, whatever you wish. But think of it like this: If someone met you for the first time, these are the +/-150 words you’d want them to know about you first.
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. His books include A Terry Teachout Reader, a collection of his essays, articles, and reviews, and biographies of Louis Armstrong, George Balanchine, Duke Ellington, and H.L. Mencken. He has also written a play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, and the libretti for three operas by Paul Moravec, The Letter, Danse Russe and The King’s Man. He served on the National Council on the Arts from 2004 to 2010 and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012. Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1956, he lived in Kansas City from 1975 to 1983, working as a jazz bassist and as a music critic for the Kansas City Star.

What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where is your favorite place on Earth?
I live in Manhattan. I grew up in Sikeston, a small town in southeast Missouri. These days, my favorite place on earth—other than on the aisle at a good show—is Florida’s Sanibel Island.

As a critic, what do your consider your main area(s) of expertise? How did you acquire that expertise?
I’m a generalist, not a specialist, but I was a professional musician before becoming a full-time writer, so I can claim a fair amount of hands-on expertise in that field. I played most kinds of music at one time or another: classical, jazz, rock, country, Celtic, pit bands, whatever. I started writing for the stage in 2009 and have since had four of my scripts professionally produced, so I guess that counts as expertise, too.

In what year was your first professional review published and what was the venue for that review?
1977, in the Kansas City Star. (For the record, it was a review of a classical violin recital.)

Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but would consider trying? Why?
Actually, I’ve always written about all of the arts, lively and otherwise. In addition to my drama column for the Journal, I write a biweekly column called “Sightings” in which I range much more widely, and I also contribute a monthly essay about the arts to Commentary. In recent months I’ve written essays about Sidney Bechet, Leonard Bernstein, Nora Ephron, John Gielgud, David Ives, Amy Herzog, Norman Mailer, Charlie Parker, Norman Rockwell, Barbara Stanwyck, and the history of animated cartoons, which will give you some idea of my interests.

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Can any person be a critic? Why or why not?
If you can get somebody to pay you to write about a given art form, then you’re a critic, or a reviewer, depending on what you prefer to be called. Getting paid doesn’t automatically make you any good, but it does make you a professional. On the other hand, you don’t have to get paid to be good, as countless bloggers have demonstrated throughout the past decade. Professional or not, you’re probably a good critic (though not necessarily) if people take what you say seriously.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I very much admired Frank Rich for his masterly use of the pulpit—he was one of the most effective drama critics who’s ever lived—and I envied John Simon’s extraordinary breadth of cultural knowledge. In other fields, Arlene Croce’s New Yorker reviews were instrumental in getting me to start looking at the dance, and I think that Alex Ross, that magazine’s classical music critic, is doing first-class work. The Rest Is Noise, his book about the history of 20th century music, is really exceptional.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
The critics of the modern era whom I admire most have tended as a rule to be the ones who had professional experience in the fields about which they wrote: Harold Clurman and Stark Young in theater, Edwin Denby in dance, Maurice Grosser and Fairfield Porter in painting, Virgil Thomson in classical music. In addition, I also think highly of Whitney Balliett, Otis Ferguson, Clement Greenberg, and Mary McCarthy. I believe that Brooks Atkinson was the best purely journalistic drama critic of the 20th century. He was no intellectual, but whenever I want to know what it felt like to see the first performance of a show that Atkinson covered for the New York Times, I turn to his review first, invariably with profit.

Perhaps I should add that I don’t share in the general tendency to fawn over Kenneth Tynan, though he was certainly a brilliant phrase-maker and a contagious enthusiast.

In hindsight, name one review in which you were dead wrong.
I saw Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato for the first time in 1995 and panned it in the New York Daily News. Seven years later I wrote a crow-eating column for the Journal called “This Performance Merits an Encore: The Contrite Critic” in which I belatedly confessed to having been “too dense to know a masterpiece when I saw it.” In drama, I thought Alan Bennett’s The History Boys to be fatally glib when I reviewed the Broadway transfer of the original production, but I changed my mind when I saw a different staging the following year at Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre.

In hindsight, name one case in which many critics were wrong and you were right.
So far as I know, I’m the only drama critic in New York who panned The Book of Mormon, and I’ve never had a second thought about that review. I also think I was right to suggest that August: Osage County would have been a better play if Tracy Letts had cut the entire first act (though I still liked it a lot).

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?
Since I do other things in addition to reviewing plays, I’d probably just spend more time working on them. I want to write at least one more full-length biography, for instance, and I hope I have a few more plays and opera libretti in me! Had I not decided to become a full-time critic in the first place, though, I expect I would have ended up playing jazz bass for a living. That would have been a mistake—I was a better writer than a musician—but a fun one.

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