Jon Robin Baitz — “JRB” — Responds


What Mr. Baitz is doing home on a Saturday night, I don’t know. Me, I’m getting over a cold and waiting for Ken to get home from Mexico. Flight delays, yadda yadda. Cognac helps cold. Mmm, me like-ee.

Anyway, to my shock, Mr. Baitz posted a response to my post inspired by Moxie’s response to Rebeck’s response to Baitz’s response to Isherwood’s story. So now, in the spirit of high-octane Ionesco, I am responding to Baitz’s response to my response to Moxie’s response to Rebeck’s response to Baitz’s response to Isherwood’s story.

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In the spirit of fairness, the response was posted anonymously. But at the end of the post, the person wrote “JRB,” so I’m making a big scary leap here and assuming it was him. Of course, now I have a dilemma: do I write a mash note or mash his notes? Here goes:

Jon Robin Baitz writes:

“I remember Walter Kerr rather well, and you, sir, are the prisoner of a verbal machine. I would have thought we were “on the same side”, which actually, we are — you just don’t realize it. And you seem to have given a lot of thought to this, which perhaps is flattering, but reveals a slew of predjudices mingled with..oh never mind. But go ahead and talk about 13 year old profiles -my point to Isherwood was simply that as smart as he is, there is a measure of venom which seems to me somewhat — well – I shrug about it. Anyway, it was the timing of his piece also, and his apparent lack of understanding about the results of the WGA strike on many struggling writers. I know it’s useless to respond to these things, but exactly what is it about reminding a critic from the paper of record to be mindful is offensive to you? It seems churlish . And again — I would ask you to identify exactly where I claim to be one of the Times “victims”????I make no such claim. I am all for being slammed, but at least slam me for what I do write. As for Rich, he championed a lot of people, and he was cruel too. But I never had the sense that he was enduring a tenure as critic — that’s my point. Wow. JRB”

And you, sir, are a victim of your own…oh never mind, indeed. Look, please understand that someone might not reflexively agree with you, or agree with certain specific things you wrote or approaches you took or analyses you presented. And that verbal machine you refer to me being trapped inside-I mean, isn’t that rather R.U.R. of you?-is cranked up because your own verbal machinery looped around a bit in your Huffington Post huff-and-puff; you yourself admitted you shouldn’t have taken that swipe at Will Eno, for heaven’s sake.

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And yes, I will absolutely talk about 13-year-old profiles because you know perfectly well, Mr. Baitz, what an important moment that was to gay people, including yours very truly. You know perfectly well how everybody woke up and couldn’t believe the Times had at last done a lifestyle piece of substance on a prominent gay couple. Whatever you might think of that piece today, it was a direct, unmistakable signal of hope for many of us back in that weird, conservative-ascendent 1994 landscape; it was proof that the potential of public societal recognition existed for all of the rest of us. And you know perfectly well what that seal of approval, or endorsement, or whatever you’d want to call it, meant to your career as a result of being in the Times. When you attack the Times institutionally, therefore-and hey, who doesn’t, it’s the blogosphere’s blood sport-it’s really a little disingenuous on your part. That is, unless you’re suggesting that the piece did not benefit you or your career at all or, in fact, injured it in some way, which I think most people would find hard to believe. In your response to my post, you wrote “But go ahead and talk about 13-year-old profiles” because what I wrote clearly stung. Sorry. But that wasn’t a run-of-the-mill profile and you know it. So the Times has been good to you. That doesn’t mean do a dance of hagiography, but it just seems to me that for people at your stage of the career game, things do tend to cut both ways when convenient.

Anyway, is Isherwood’s venom any more poisonous than that of anyone else at the Times? Do you honestly believe that a Brantley pan is less withering? Really? I mean, does the fact that John Simon was finally knocked down a few pegs and booted from New York magazine at all mitigate the fact that he was, and may forever be, the most poisonous snake of them all? Or are we back to the omnipotence of the Times again? (More on that anon.)

Yes, the timing of Isherwood’s piece was, shall we say, unfortunate, but are you suggesting he’s some renegade writer that the Times just publishes without second thought, without editorial oversight? Either way, here enters your criticism of the Times institutionally: if Isherwood’s editors knew nothing of the piece, that’s institutional neglect; if Isherwood’s editors felt it was a good, strong, smart, timely piece for him to pen, I can see why that, too, might upset you. But then you’ve really got to hurl invective at the Times institutionally, and with more specificity and precision, not as a mere afterthought at the bottom of a rant-slash-essay.

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I find nothing offensive about cautioning Isherwood to be mindful. What I find offensive — more like sad — is how you blithely dismiss all the other critics in New York City (of which I am one, but no one cares about that) as if their voices mean nothing, add nothing, do nothing. That’s old school thinking, and I’ll go to the mat on that one because, sir, the scene is fast changing — and it has been changing for a long time. I won’t blather on about this again because I did so in my earlier post. But that’s what I believe. I think it’s provable statistically, and I think it’s being proved every day in the…ugh, awful word…zeitgeist.

Moreover, by dint of writing what you wrote, by dint of hurling curare-tipped arrows where you did, are you not conferring that power to the Times?

Moving on. You write,

“I would ask you to identify exactly where I claim to be one of the Times ‘victims’???? I make no such claim. I am all for being slammed, but at least slam me for what I do write,”

but this confuses me. Unless you’re not an American playwright (I’m not referring to your birthplace), when you mention the struggle of American playwrights “against aging and monochromatic audiences, subscribers who arrive bleary and distracted, and jaded New Yorkers,” I assumed you would include yourself among the list of dramatists who must rally against such distressing demographic disasters. Yes, you do refer to the plight of the “serious young playwright,” but surely you’re not exempt from those same concerns, or are you?

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You noted you “went to do my TV show so as to never have to worry about that problem” — the problem being that Isherwood, et. al., needlessly complicate “the already tendentious struggle that playwrights face in trying to make a life in the theater.” Surely we must believe, then, that you, too, have been victimized (strong word) by the Times’ tyranny, or at least the icicles of Isherwood, as you see it.

At the end of the day, Mr. Baitz, I do realize that we largely agree. Indeed, I noted at the top of my post that I had been debating what to write in response to your Huffington huff-and-puff, if anything. You know, it also occurs to me that most New York playwrights, critics and writers aren’t exactly afforded the opportunities to contribute to venues such as the Huffington Post anyway, so perhaps that is where some of the “slew of prejudices” you smell are coming from. I’d be more inclined, however, not to call it a slew. It’s more like a drip.

To cut to the chase: you’re Jon Robin Baitz. You knew full well that writing that post would get you attention, which it did; you knew full well that it would start dialogues and discussions and debates; artists of your provenance, recognition and acclaim ought to be doing such things. But then you have to be able to handle it when someone argues slightly different positions, and, as you noted, takes the time to sharpen the arguments. You’re flattered that I wrote my essay. To be honest, I’m flattered you responded to my post. Assuming you don’t think I’m the enemy, I’d like someday to shake your hand.

With respect (for own commonalities and differences), LJ