Theater Around The Bay: Creative Vilification

Our series of guest writers continues with Jeremy Cole telling us to tell it like it is- and then maybe twist the knife some more.

When I lived in Denver, I had a mutual admiration society going on with Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, In This Sign, and others. I would read all her books (The King’s Persons is my favorite), and she came to see all the plays I directed (I think Death of a Salesman was her favorite). I remember traveling a LONG way by bus to watch her tell stories in Gullah dialect (long story I’ll tell you some time) at a local charter school. I learned that she had sent her sons to that very school, and – dismayed by the prevalence of the F-word she kept hearing in the hallways – she offered to teach a class on creative vilification. What a delicious idea, I thought. Why simply drop an F-bomb on someone, she said, when you could zing them with “I should live long enough to bury you,” or better yet, “a hundred houses you should have, in every house a hundred rooms and in every room twenty beds, and may a delirious fever drive you from bed to bed.” These are Yiddish curses, and Joanne is a firm believer in Yiddish as the language of insult (q.v., my particular favorite: Er zol kakn mit blit un mit ayter – “He should crap blood and pus.”)

I’ll never forget Joanne on Merchant of Venice: “I hate that play. ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’  Oh, please:  hath a DOG not eyes? Stupid play.” (Joanne once memorized Hamlet, however, in its entirety.)

I’ll never forget Joanne on Merchant of Venice: “I hate that play. ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’ Oh, please: hath a DOG not eyes? Stupid play.” (Joanne once memorized Hamlet, however, in its entirety.)

I have to agree. We’ve become so banal in our criticisms, nowadays, that they hardly even register on our critical Richter scales. Political correctness, anger management and sensitivity training may all have their place, but at what cost? What happened to the days of the withering remark? The snarky aperçu? Where are our modern-day Alexander Woollcotts and Dorothy Parkers? He who once wrote “Number 7 opened last night. It was misnamed by five.” She, who once wrote of the play Give Me Yesterday: “Me, I should have given him twenty years to life.”

Do we hear such things today? Sadly, no. Not since 1986, when the New Yorker printed a one sentence review of Brighton Beach Memoirs that said “If you’ll believe Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey are Jewish, you’ll believe anything.” No, instead, we get pabulum: “Well…” (we hem, we haw) “It wasn’t to my taste” we say, or “I suppose it could have been better…” Balls. These are cop-outs. Case in point: I have no trouble admitting that I LOATHED the play Ghost Light. To say it wasn’t “my taste” would be disingenuous. I don’t merely want back the time I spent watching that travesty, I want all memory of it eradicated from my brain. I want restored to me the gray cells that committed suicide rather than take even one more minute of it. That is much closer to how I actually feel than simply saying “it needed work.” Please. The Autobahn needed work. The Pyramids needed work. That play needed a good paper shredder. So let’s get creative with our disdain. I don’t want someone to pull their punches when they don’t care for a performance, I want to hear their pain grow wings and take flight. If theater is meant to be an art-form, shouldn’t our discussion of it be an art, as well?

3 Jewish characters, 1 Jewish actor. I’ll give you three guesses…

3 Jewish characters, 1 Jewish actor. I’ll give you three guesses…

Let us put as much effort into our condemnations as we purport to put into our own work. If one’s problem with a given play is that the director didn’t understand the text, how can the complaint be taken seriously if it is uttered in a series of monosyllabic grunts? One of my favorite playwrights, Megan Cohen, never ceases to delight me with her originality. I honestly never know what’s coming next in her plays because she eschews formulas. She’s too smart for that, too uncompromising. Let us take a page out of her script the next time we have an unsatisfactory experience at the theater. Get out your thesaurus! Don’t say “bad” if “putrid” is nearer the mark. Don’t settle for “tepid” when “so boring I thought I was slipping into a coma” is more appropriate. Let us compare a plot riddled with gaping holes to the streets of San Francisco (no, not the old TV series, but the disastrous pot-holed nightmares that are this city’s streets). Next time we see lousy choreography, let us compare it to the chaos that is Critical Mass, or regale our rapt audience with tales of our first disastrous junior high dance. We are artists, dammit, and that should be apparent in every aspect of our lives. Not merely on our resumes, Facebook pages and blogs.

And speaking of blogs, have you been reading that one about Bay Area Theater? Child, you better turn your Hoover on, ‘cause I’ve got some dirt!

10 comments on “Theater Around The Bay: Creative Vilification

  1. This, Jeremy, is why I put a post-show FB quip of yours as one of my favourite quotes from last year.

  2. Years ago, when I was writing my opera column, “Tales of Tessi Tura” in the Bay Area Reporter, I had no qualms about headlining a review of the full-length opera house version of Porgy & Bess as “Big, Black and Uncut.”

    Similarly, I once reviewed a production of La Traviata by Spring Opera Theatre that was so incredibly misconceived and directed that I wrote that “I’ve seen more cohesive artistic products in hospital bed pans.”

    On a trip to Los Angeles,I had lunch with Martin Bernheimer, the Pulitzer Prize winning music critic from the Los Angeles Times who confided that he wished he could write stuff like that but that the strict editorial standards at the Los Angeles Times prevented him from doing so.

    “Well, the reason I can do that is because we have NO editorial standards!” was my reply.

    Those were the days.

    George Heymont

    • jereco1962 says:

      Amen. I don’t mind editorial standards, but I mind it when they completely neuter a writer from being able to say anything interesting. It makes their prose the written equivalent of beige. I draw the line (barely) at personal attacks, mind you. (I have an allergy, for example, to a critic picking on someone’s weight – though, if they are playing a character who should be emaciated from anorexia, then I find it appropriate to say they were “miscast.”)

  3. Chris Reber says:

    Jeremy, I once did a musical in NYC that a reviewer from Backstage called, “The theatrical equivalent to a punishment from God.” The entire cast had T-Shirts made.

    • Scott Baker says:

      Let’s see, my favorite bad reviews.

      “The worst thing to happen in a Chicago garage since the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

      “…is more than the artistic equivalent of talking with a full mouth. It’s the artistic equivalent of spitting out the food on the table and then passing out on top of the hostess.”

    • jereco1962 says:

      Nice. I worked on an evening of one-acts for Amnesty International once and the Westword critic wrote that “by producing an evening of one-acts, Amnesty International has broken its own by-laws. This evening is bound to make innocent people suffer needlessly.”

  4. Burt says:

    My favorite Yiddish curse was always, “Ah chubdyer in bud” or “I’ve got you in the bathtub.” I always figured it was something about Marat.

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