What the Debate Over That “Big River” Review Really Means

Encores! producer Jack Viertel: Was his reaction wildly over the top? Photo: Joan Marcus.

It’s rare that a piece of theatre criticism kicks open debate in the way that the New York Times’ Feb. 9 review of the Encores! revival of Big River did. Although Laura Collins-Hughes gave a largely positive account of the 1985 Tony-winning musical, which is based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, she did note this:

It is hard, in a way that it wasn’t in 1985 — or even in 2003, when Deaf West Theater brought its stunning revival to Broadway — to watch a story that’s framed as the tale of Huck and Jim without being bothered by how sidelined Jim is, and how very white and male anyone who has a substantial role is: Huck, the con men, Tom Sawyer (Charlie Franklin).

That Collins-Hughes chose to think about Big River, and specifically the Black character of Jim, in the context of an America currently “plumbing its own soul over questions of privilege and belonging,” did not please Jack Viertel, the long-serving producer of Encores! In a hyperbolic, vitriolic response, Viertel characterised the review — which he acknowledged was positive — as “stunningly polarized, politicized, narrow-minded and unfailingly myopic.”

Reading the comments below the online version of the review (now at more than 50 and growing), it seems clear there are those siding with Viertel and those defending the critic and the Times. Which, in its own response to Viertel, declared that it will “stand by” Collins-Hughes but acknowledged “there’s room for disagreement.”

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“Room for disagreement” could also be the subtitle of America in 2017. What troubles me more than the (necessary) debate over the Collins-Hughes’ review is the manner in which this “disagreement” plays out. Indeed, many of the online comments reflect our collective inability on many questions to engage in clear and reasoned debate, whether we’re discussing a work of art or fulminating over the latest madcap ramblings of executive orders. Such comments attack the speaker — in this case, the critic — by presuming her ethnicity, background and class, and then using these presumptions either to defend or to criticise her so as to suit the commenter’s agenda.

One online comment on Collins-Hughes’ review reads as follows:

Even without searching her name, I’m willing to bet that Laura Collins-Hughes is a white woman, sheltered in academia…it’s these types that are always the most hysterical…

Another commenter references their own ethnicity and gender before, again, resorting to presumptions:

As an educated liberal white woman, I resent being lectured by well-meaning strangers (usually white) who insist that ‘talking trash’ with someone of a different race/ethnicity is offensive.

Granted, Internet comments aren’t known for providing the greatest breadth of reasoned responses. But I saw the same level of argument presented on my own social media. Some blatantly called out Collins-Hughes as having “no right” to make such remarks “as a white woman.” This diminishes her voice. It almost suggests that she had no right to think any other way but the way she did in her review. By suggesting that she is somehow conditioned by her own identity, her thoughts are rendered useless.

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Collins-Hughes’ review, Viertel’s response to it, and the Times’ response to Viertel are exceptionally interesting in terms of a wider conversation not only on race but on the act of reviving certain plays and musicals in a new era — and the responsibility of producers to justify new stagings. This debate should be encouraged and maintained, as older material that does have virtues in being revisited often also has baggage around gender, class, race and sexuality. This discourse should go further. It should include the license holders who protect the estates of artists. There should be an open discussion around the ability of producers to change, edit or respond to material to make it work in new contexts. Here in London, the recent off-West End revival of Promises, Promises was greeted by critical eye rolls at the inherent sexism in the material. Some critics were able to see past it and judge the show as a product of its 1960s creation. Other critics were not so kind, calling for the musical to be overhauled or left in the trunk.

Interviewing Glenda Jackson at the Critics’ Circle Awards earlier this month, I was struck by something she said about modern politics. Jackson, who left acting for 20 years to serve in Parliament, recently made headlines by returning to the stage in a gender-blind King Lear at the Old Vic — a production now eyeing a Broadway run for next season. Journalists were quick to ask her not about the state of theatre, but the state of politics — specifically, if President Donald Trump should be afforded a state visit to the UK. Jackson responded with this:

…one of things that is really depressing is that at a time of huge fundamental, almost tectonic shifts in how electorates are responding to their political structures… [we] seem to have lost the capacity to simply debate with people whose opinions we don’t share and who don’t share our opinions, and the ease with which people opt for being abusive or dismissive is not the way forward.

I find Jackson’s words to have strong resonance; they define much of where I see modern “debate” to be wallowing. The much-discussed “echo-chamber” of our own social media feeds has reduced thinking to a comfortable click, easier to block, unfollow and delete discourse that doesn’t complement our own.

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Being “allowed” to hold and express an opinion on certain topics is becoming, I fear, more fragile by the day. As a white, educated, London-living liberal (a self-boxing-in exercise I loathe), I’m increasingly made to feel aware of my relative “privilege” in both professional and academic constructs. Debate must now always be prefaced by asserting why a person holds their view, which then becomes almost more important than the view itself. In academic seminars, most points now are prefaced with an extraneous, identity-centered context: “as an American,” “as a Jew,” “as a white woman,” “as a member of the LGBT community.” Such loose rhetoric, rather than enlightening or furthering the discussion, is used instead to provide a full stop, a claim of ultimate authority. It’s a closing-down mechanism, which leads me to believe that Jackson has a point.

The Big River debate brings up an extraordinary level of important discourse on aging material in the theatre. But I found myself sidetracked by the method, or lack of, in the wider public response. To quote a lyric from a little-known, culturally insignificant show: “don’t modulate the key then not debate with me.” In this climate, we should not reduce debate to scrappy infighting. We should be willing to listen to views that don’t automatically correspond with our own, and to reject the knee-jerk reducing of our opponents to little more than products of their circumstance and situation.