I haven’t had anything to say in print about August Wilson’s death, and won’t, because it happens that I haven’t seen all that much of his work. I rarely sought it out before my midlife conversion to drama criticism–it never sounded like my sort of thing–and Gem of the Ocean, the only play of his I’ve had occasion to review for The Wall Street Journal, struck me at the time as “far too self-consciously poetic,” which for me is the kiss of dramatic death.
I wish I were in a stronger position to stick my oar in, since yesterday’s journalistic elegies for Wilson were (to put it mildly) fairly windy. If I had to guess, I’d say that my negative impression of his style, even though it’s only based on a couple of his plays, would probably be sustained were I to see five more of them in a row next week, and unlike many of my colleagues, I see nothing wrong with speaking ill of the recently dead, so long as you didn’t wait until they died to say what you really thought of them.
On the other hand, I also don’t believe in expressing broad-gauge opinions about artists based on insufficient experience of their art. To be sure, I’ve been around long enough to know that many, perhaps most artists are in some fundamental sense pretty much all of a piece. (If you don’t like one Clyfford Still painting, you probably won’t like any of them.) But I’ve also been known to change my mind about artists and works of art as I get to know them better–sometimes quite dramatically.
To quote from the essay to which I just linked:
I’ve changed my mind about art more than once, and I’ve learned that I not infrequently start by disliking something and end up liking it. Not always–sometimes I decide on closer acquaintance that a novel or painting isn’t as good as I’d thought. More often, though, I realize that it was necessary for me to grow into a fuller understanding of a work of art to which my powers of comprehension were not at first equal.
The music critic Hans Keller said something shrewd about this phenomenon: “As soon as I detest something, I ask myself why I like it.” I try to keep that in mind whenever I cover a premiere. I don’t mean to say that critics should be wishy-washy, but we should also remember that strong emotions sometimes masquerade as their opposite.
As I say, my guess is that I’m never going to end up liking August Wilson. I know my own taste well enough to suspect as much. But if he really was as good a playwright as his recent obituarists claim, then I’ll surely have plenty of opportunities to change my mind in the years to come.
And in the meantime? As Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” So I was.