“Force a writer to be brief and you force him to think clearly–if he can. No, I don’t think that War and Peace would have profited from being written in 140-character tweets. But I do think that our impatient age might just be getting the best out of a great many artists and thinkers who, left to their own devices, would never have learned how to cut to the chase…”
Archives for May 13, 2011
In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I rave about the New York transfer of A Minister’s Wife and say a few tepid words about the much-ballyhooed King Lear currently playing at Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey Theater. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
The most important new musical since “The Light in the Piazza” has come to New York. “A Minister’s Wife,” in which Austin Pendleton, Joshua Schmidt and Jan Levy Tranen took a classic play by George Bernard Shaw and made it better, opened two years ago at Chicago’s Writers’ Theatre, one of America’s half-dozen top regional companies. Now this exquisite musical version of “Candida” has transferred to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center Theater’s smaller downstairs house, in a production staged with immaculate grace by Michael Halberstam, who conceived the show and directed its original Chicago production. To say that you mustn’t miss it is to grossly understate the case.
Comparisons with “My Fair Lady,” the other Shaw musical, are interesting but irrelevant: “My Fair Lady” is a Broadway operetta, while “A Minister’s Wife” balances on a knife-edge between post-Sondheim musical comedy and full-fledged opera. A one-act show performed on a single set by five singing actors and accompanied by four virtuoso instrumentalists, it takes one of Shaw’s talkiest plays, a study of what in 1894 would have been called a “modern” marriage, and transfuses it with the hot blood of pure lyricism….
This has been a frightful year for new musicals, which makes the arrival of “A Minister’s Wife” all the more satisfying. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone, and especially not for those who judge a musical solely by its decibel level and sequin tonnage. If you belong in that category, stuff your wallet full of cash and head for Times Square. If, on the other hand, you believe that a musical can be as smart, poignant and provocative as a first-rate play, then “A Minister’s Wife” will thrill you to the marrow….
You can’t get into the Donmar Warehouse’s production of “King Lear,” whose entire run at Brooklyn’s BAM Harvey Theater is sold out. Don’t sweat it, though: This “Lear,” directed by Michael Grandage, is very good but by no means great, and Derek Jacobi’s performance of the towering title role is interesting, which is a polite way of saying odd. Mr. Jacobi’s take on the mad monarch is essentially comic, a now-flamboyant, now-whiny medley of hoots and squeaks such as might be emitted by a gifted character actor trying to play a role that’s two sizes too large for him. The production itself is direct to the point of baldness….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
In my “Sightings” column for today’s Wall Street Journal, I write in praise of shorter attention spans. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
Take a look at any TV sitcom of the ’50s and ’60s and compare it to modern-day televised fare. It’s startling to see how slow-moving those old shows were. The same thing is true of live theater. The leisurely expositions of yesteryear, it turns out, aren’t necessary: You can count on contemporary audiences to get the point and see where you’re headed, and they don’t want to wait around for you to catch up with them.
Does this mean that the discursive masterworks of the past are no longer accessible? Yes and no. A great work of art that is organically long, like “The Marriage of Figaro” or “Remembrance of Things Past,” will never lack for audiences. But just as most of Shakespeare’s plays can and should be cut in performance, so should today’s artists always keep in mind that most of us are too busy to watch as they circle the airport, looking for a place to land.
“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” the new Tony Kushner play that opened in New York last week, is three hours and 40 minutes long–a half-hour longer than the Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” that is currently playing in Brooklyn. Even if “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” were 15% better than “Lear,” Mr. Kushner’s play would still have profited from being stripped of its lengthy digressions and superfluous subplots, most of which serve only to obscure the play’s good parts.
Anyone who doubts the virtues of brevity should dip into Oxford University Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series, in which celebrated experts write with extreme concision about their areas of expertise. Each volume in the series is about 140 pages long and runs to roughly 35,000 words of text. (Most serious biographies, by contrast, run to between 150,000 and 200,000 words.)
How much can you say about a big subject in 35,000 words? Plenty, if you’re Harvey C. Mansfield writing about Alexis de Tocqueville or Kenneth Minogue writing about politics. These “Very Short Introductions” are models of their kind, crisp, clear and animated by a strong point of view. They are terse but not anonymous: Both men express themselves not in the blandly corporate tones of an encyclopedia entry but in their own distinctive voices….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
“I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.”
Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall