Chris Rawson, Theater Critic, On Honoring August Wilson

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August Wilson and Chris Rawson, be-tuxed and beaming, at the Broadway opening of King Hedley II in 2001. Photo: Bill Wade.

It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. The debate questions what criticism is and who is and is not a critic, challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be, and considers proper critical comportment. We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from the debate. In our occasional series Critical I, critics tell their own stories and offer their own views of criticism. Our latest interview in this series is with critic and professor Christopher Rawson.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words.

Chris Rawson is a newspaper critic, a college teacher and a lover of theater who thinks writing is hard and therefore worth doing well.

What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?

I’ve lived nearly a half-century in Pittsburgh, which I love, mixed with frustration and sometimes anger as love affairs are. I grew up in Providence, RI and along the RI shore. The shore remains my favorite place and London my favorite city, the only place I might rather live year-round than Pittsburgh.

As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?

I think of myself as mainly a teacher. I became a critic only after getting my doctorate and 15 years teaching college literature (Shakespeare, 18th century and satire). I’ve never given up my college position through 35 years as a reviewer/critic (a distinction worth making). I grew up a passionate theater fan — the father I hardly knew, Richard Hart, was a well-known Broadway/Hollywood actor who died young, so that certainly had something to do with it. Then in college and after, I did a good bit of student/semi-semi-pro acting. So when I started writing about theater, I had a sympathetic insider’s view of what it involves. I’d also spent years discussing how literature works, and I think that’s still at the heart of my reviewing: trying to entertain and educate, as teachers do.

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In what year was your first professional review published? What was the publication?

I started doing reviews on Pittsburgh’s NPR station about 1980. The arts editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette heard me and recruited me as his backup. They published my first review in 1983, and I soon became the full-time theater critic/theater editor (though still teaching on the side), writing six to 10 theater-related pieces a week — the full range of reviews, features, news stories, obits. Now I’m the “senior theater critic,” writing only a few reviews a month, although I’m still the go-to guy on August Wilson.

What part of your career as a critic are you proudest of?

I’m glad you asked. I became the theater critic of Pittsburgh’s morning (and now only surviving) paper in 1983, and August Wilson made his Broadway debut in 1984. I met him then, outside a Broadway theater — a couple of Pittsburghers in the Big Apple — and I have covered his career and legacy closely since. I kept my distance for some years, as we as critics are told we should do, and then I reasoned I had this opportunity to get to know one of the four or five greatest American playwrights, so I said the hell with objectivity, and we became friends. I’d travel to see his plays elsewhere than NYC (I still do); I co-wrote a book on his Pittsburgh context (August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in his Life & Plays); I lead a program honoring the theaters (now 14 and growing) who have completed his 10-play cycle; and I’m an officer on the board of directors of his childhood home, restoring it as a community arts center and a national celebration of his life and works.

Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?

None. I’m a theater critic. Of course, I’ve written the odd movie, opera, baseball or book review, as one does, treating them as drama, but I never wanted to be more than a theater critic.

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Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?

Anyone can be a critic who knows something (the more the better) about theater, enjoys writing and does it at least passably well — the better the better — and is passionate about both things, theater and writing. No burnout allowed!

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

I read around everywhere. No one is perfect. The Brits are too brief, Ben Brantley [of The New York Times] is too long and uses “ravishing” twice a week, Hilton Als [of The New Yorker] is often too arcane, Chris Jones [of the Chicago Tribune] makes me jealous, but they’re all good, as are many of my American Theatre Critics Association colleagues. I love reading film critics, since I don’t get to see most of the films. The majority of people read reviews so they won’t have to see the film/play, etc., or rather, because they won’t — at least I do; it’s a way of keeping up, like reading the news. I generally like The New York Times and The New Yorker film critics, especially when I disagree with them.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?

Northrup Frye is the greatest critic in my lifetime, a seminal force in the way I consider just about everything. There are others, but he’s the top. Someone with a great influence on my writing (I shudder to realize it’s less and less visible) is an even earlier great critic, Samuel Johnson.

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Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.

I’m always dead wrong, usually in something I left out, something that I knew but didn’t take time to say right, or perhaps even held back out of weak-willed kindness. Although I do believe in kindness, getting older as I am.

I didn’t much like Jersey Boys, but I was right. I once panned a college Grease (I know, who could do such a thing?!), but I always use that as an example of breaking Rawson’s Rule, which is, “If something seems wrong about the show, explore it — it may be the key to something important.” One of the corollaries is, “Boredom is usually something else.”

Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.

There was a lot of stupidity in responses to August Wilson, like complaining that Ma Rainey didn’t seem to be the central character in her own play, or not understanding that Aunt Ester (in Gem of the Ocean) is a hereditary sage, her age always dating her back to 1619, for a good reason, which I seem to have been the first to point out (except in Two Trains Running, which is an exception I can explain).

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?

Well, I’m a teacher. And as a critic I’m also a teacher, or hope to be, when I’m writing well. After pontificating about criticism/reviewing, I have to point out that I’m describing what I hope to do, which I achieve only one-third or so of the time.

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What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?

Too few platforms, i.e., stable newspapers. Too many platforms, i.e. digital. I suppose criticism is wrong only in the ways that it has been for centuries: nobody knows anything, fads are worshiped too easily, decline in standards, blah, blah, blah.

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?

Too many platforms, lots of people trying their hands at it, as people always did, but now it’s easier. Otherwise, the best trend is the mingling of aesthetic and political, but is that a trend? Didn’t it always happen?

In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.

Rawson thinks he knows more than he does, or maybe he just fakes it well, but sometimes he actually does know something as a New England-bred WASP Ph.D., college English teacher with some stage experience. And we can never discount his theatrically smart wife, so he probably steals from her, as well. He actually knows how to punctuate, never a small thing. He once wrote a review of The Changeling as a debate in blank verse between Newt Gingrich and Mario Cuomo, and what’s more, convinced his paper to publish it. Maybe he’s too prone to herald his hometown heroes (Billy Porter, George F. Kaufman, Stephen Flaherty, Gene Kelly, and of course August Wilson), but no one’s perfect. He usually refuses to give standing ovations except for Laurence Olivier, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente and August Wilson, and they are all unfortunately dead. Note how baseball slips in there?

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.

Prefers vivid description and thoughtful interpretation to obsessive evaluation.

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Martha Steketee
Martha Wade Steketee has worked as a court researcher, policy analyst, editor, theater critic, and dramaturg. Voting member of theater awards committees (Jeff in Chicago, Drama Desk in New York), and dramaturg who reviews scripts for theaters and festivals and collaborates with playwrights and authors on new works. Member of American Theatre Critics Association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and League of Professional Theatre Women. Contributor to a range of theater publications including HowlRound, TDF Stages, Theater Pizzazz, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Her site Urban Excavations focuses on live and filmed performance. Steketee lives in New York City.
  • Martha Garvey

    Before he wrote for the Post-Gazette, Chris wrote (paid) (professional) reviews for the University Times, the University of Pittsburgh’s staff and faculty newspaper. That job began after I agreed to share *my* critic’s slot at the University Times with him (at his suggestion).