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A Critic Fawns

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in American Theatre, January 1998.


The proper study of theatre is Stephen Daldry. Or so Wendy Lesser, editor and publisher of the Threepenny Review, would have it in her ode to Daldry, A Director Calls. Reasoning but to err, whether she thinks too little, or too much, she has written, to paraphrase Pope, a chaos of thought and passion, in endless error hurled.


If American readers are familiar with Daldry, they know him from his 1994 Broadway production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, the inspiration for Lesser’s title. Upon seeing the play staged by Daldry in London, Lesser grew captivated with the director. She immersed herself in rehearsals, previews and openings in order to learn about Daldry’s creative process. She read production reviews, interviewed coworkers and fellow professionals. She grew enamored not only of Daldry’s leftist politics, she says, but of his ability to speak “through and with the writer’s voice” and lend the tone of Priestley’s play “the thrill and glamour of spectacle.”


Lesser’s central error is to confuse competence with excellence. She repeatedly cites qualities in Daldry’s directing that are not so rare as to deserve the degree of enthusiasm elicited. Daldry researches the play he’s working on! He discusses his vision for the play with designers while leaving them some autonomy! He guides actors while learning from them! He strives to make historical plays relevant to contemporary audiences! As hard as she tries, Lesser never makes a convincing argument that Daldry’s work is significantly better than that of his peers.


Part of Lesser’s fawning tone emanates from her own direct praise for Daldry, partly from the way she quotes, uncritically, Daldry’s collaborators, all of whom have the objectivity of, well, collaborators. The first sentence of the book, in Lesser’s acknowledgments, thanks Daldry for his “generosity and openness,” a note that is subsequently struck innumerable times by old friends, fellow directors, actors, and the critic herself. Without irony, humor, or purpose, Lesser cites insipid testimonies such as the following insight from a Royal Court “employee” who describes the impact An Inspector Calls and Machinal had on Daldry’s career: “… in the process [he] became world famous and changed the course of his own life and  that of the Royal Court. And it was all due to that chance arrangement. It’s like that Robert Frost poem-do you know it?-about the two roads in a yellow wood.”


Lesser’s tendency to refer to plays as “hot” or a “triumph” and her sue of phrases such as “confirmed wunderkind” to describe her hero make her prose sound more like People magazine than Threepenny Review. Occasional sections seem to aim at intellectual seriousness as they compare Daldry’s projects to, among others, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett. Yet she retreats from judgments when they are at odds with an audience: “If theatre doesn’t generate a response, it hasn’t succeeded as theatre,” she says, cautioning herself as much as her reader that “it does no good to blame the audience” for not appreciating a quality that she perceives. But since when does a critic decide the merits of a play based on the reactions of the people around her? Why should she? “Failure,” in Lesser’s lexicon, pertains only to box-office success and critical acclaim, not to her own judgment as a critic.


In tune with the populist tone of the book, Lesser puts far more stock in the audience’s reaction than the critics’. For Lesser, the critics’ less-than-enthusiastic response to Daldry’s production of Meredith Oakes’s The Editing Process proves that reviewing theatre is “essentially impossible” because critics have no perspective on new work and are “destined to remain oblivious to its sharpest points.” After this Calvinistic condemnation, Lesser describes her won approach with far more humility and awe. Having attended numerous rehearsals, a dress rehearsal and five performances, “each time I saw something new and different… and yet I cannot say I grasped the play completely.” What is this, the Talmud?


For whom did Lesser write A Director Calls, and why? To promote Daldry? I remember enjoying An Inspector Calls on Broadway, and yet Lesser’s froth cloys to the point of inspiring animosity for an undeserving object of worship. Lesser clearly harbors loftier, hubristic aims for the book-to create a “new form of criticism… with the intensity of a literary close-reading but… focused on an artwork which is in flux over time.” She seems to be unaware of other discussions of the collaborative, fluctuating nature of theatre-any reader yearning for a sense of how theatrical works develop would benefit far more by reading Stark Young’s The Theatre, Robert Edmond Jones’s The Dramatic Imagination, Laurence Shyer’s Robert Wilson and His Collaborators, or anthologies such as Directors on Directing or On Directing Shakespeare. Charles Marowitz’s Lear Log discusses the rehearsal process for a far more complex play, directed by Peter Brook, a far more accomplished director.


While it’s just about impossible to write about rehearsals and career advancement without capturing a few engaging anecdotes, Lesser offers little beyond a handful of good stories and falls far short of the standard she sets for herself.

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