Wendy Wasserstein died yesterday morning. I met her several years ago when I interviewed her for a story in Time about Central Park, a trilogy of one-act operas to which she had contributed a libretto. I liked her enormously–everybody did–and I was always pleased to run into her at New York City Ballet, which she frequented once upon a time. Then she dropped out of sight, had a baby, and more or less vanished from the theater world. Her plays were no longer being performed in New York by the time I became a drama critic, and it wasn’t until last October that I had occasion to write about her in The Wall Street Journal.
Alas, her last play wasn’t any good, and I said so. I hated to give Third a bad review, not least because I knew Wasserstein was sick, though I didn’t know she was dying. (One of the characters in the play had cancer.) In fact, I didn’t think much of any of Wasserstein’s plays, and I dreaded having to say so in print, since she was an exceedingly nice lady. I fudged the point in my review, calling her “one of our best theatrical journalists, a keen-eared social observer with a knack for summing up cultural watershed moments like the coming of age of the baby boomers and putting them on stage to memorable effect.” All true, and none of it incompatible with the fact that I considered her to be a glib, punch-pulling lightweight, a kind of feminist Neil Simon who never cut too close to the knuckle.
Needless to say, you won’t find such heretical sentiments in any of today’s obituaries. Even John Simon wrote affectionately about Wasserstein, making it clear that he liked her both as a writer and as a person. Might my own feelings about her work have been softened had I gotten to know her more than casually? It’s quite possible. George Orwell once wrote a letter to Stephen Spender in 1938 in which he made this wholly characteristic confession:
You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you….Even if when I met you I had not happened to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being & not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more.
It is partly for similar reasons that I don’t mix much in theatrical circles. In addition, The Wall Street Journal is extremely fussy about conflicts of interest (as it has to be, seeing as how it devotes so much of its space to financial affairs), so I mostly keep theater people at arm’s length. If I did otherwise, I’d be a different kind of critic–not better or worse, just different. There are many ways to be a critic. I write about theater as an interested spectator. I write about the visual arts as a connoisseur and collector. I write about music as an ex-practitioner. I write about writing as a working professional. It’s always me–everywhere you go, there you are–but it isn’t hard to tell which me has the floor at any given moment.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m feeling a little guilty about my review of Third, which is one of the risks an honest critic runs. It isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Criticism is a morally dangerous profession, and those who practice it without ever feeling guilty are…well, not very nice. As I wrote early in the life of this blog:
You don’t review a college opera production the same way you review the Met. That’s another reason why critics should ideally have hands-on experience in the areas about which they write: It teaches them proper respect for what Wilfrid Sheed calls “the simple miracle of getting the curtain up every night.” It’s hard to sing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, or to dance in Concerto Barocco. It’s scary to go out in front of a thousand people in a dumb-looking costume and put your heart and soul on the line. Unless you have some personal experience of what that feels like–of the problems, both psychological and practical, that stand in the way of getting the curtain up–then you may err on the side of an unrealistic perfectionism, and your reviews will be sterile and uncomprehending as a result.
None of this is to say that criticism should be bland and toothless. Sometimes it’s your duty–your responsibility–to drop the big one. But you shouldn’t enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can’t, even when you don’t think they do it very well.
That’s the hard part.