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Features Books Published 10 September 2015

John Lahr: A Long Term Engagement With Theatre

Veteran New Yorker critic John Lahr recently joined David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, in conversation. Verity Healey discusses his career, his approach to criticism, and "getting to the inconsolable."
Verity Healey

If you were throwing a dinner party for impassioned drama critics to rail against today’s theatre criticism world, John Lahr would surely be guest of honour. He hates the term “reviewer” and laments the kind of writing where the critic “makes the reader feel his opinion, but he doesn’t have the stylistic wherewithal to make the reader feel the play”. His passion for the form, for that both of theatre and writing about it, is more than the sum parts of the man who appears on the stage with David Lan at the Young Vic to discuss his new collection of reviews and profiles, Joy Ride.

“Bearing witness” could be one way to describe how John Lahr might term the role of writing about theatre. Living in London but working in New York (and for 21 years keeping to a formidable routine of spending a fortnight with his wife, first Anthea Manther, then Fawlty Towers actor Connie Booth, then flying across the pond for a fortnight of press nights) his tenure as senior drama critic at the New Yorker  since 1992 recently came to an end. He was born into Hollywood, the son of comedian Bert Lahr (best known for the Lion in the Wizard of Oz) and wrote a biography of him, Notes on a Cowardly Lion. And even after he began his career as a drama critic, he remained closely involved in both sides of the theatre world: he was the first drama critic to win a Tony Award in 2002, for his part constructing Elaine Stritch’s solo show, and was literary manager for the Lincoln Centre. Subsequently there have been other award winning books: Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh won him the eighth annual Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography.

Although he stopped reviewing for the New Yorker in 2013, his work has still thrown the gauntlet down to traditionally accepted ways of reviewing – the type you might read in the New York Times, or in imperilled print theatre criticism this side of the water, where broadsheet writers are imprisoned by limited word counts, and struggle to find outlets where they can be paid to write seriously about theatre in long form, rather than writing the brief starred reviews which can feel like a marketing mouthpiece for highly rated shows. John Lahr’s new book, now out in hardback, is a homage to the writer’s invention of a new form of theatre reviewing- the interview-review:  in depth pieces which reflect on the individuality of the artist and their “backstage” work, in tandem with a review of the production.

In conversation, he cites a famous example: his third review for the New Yorker, Angels in America. Backstage with Tony Kushner (because he asked to be) he was able to describe to readers a letter Tony Kushner pinned up on a board for the cast to see: “And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty?” it read. “If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain . . . and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst.” It’s interesting what this type of writing does to a review. Not only does it add all-important context and a sense of theatrical history, it also brings the reader up close and personal with all the sweat, the tears, the fears, the pain and sheer excitement that goes into making and putting on a show. This particular letter also makes that link between the art on stage and the lives of the people behind the art. It is as if the readers are actually there, united with the artists in their common endeavour.

“Writing from the green room” it certainly is and it should be so. For John Lahr, it is all about “getting to the inconsolable” – in other words, the artists themselves. His profiles, detailed in Joy Ride, on Mike Nichols and David Mamet- the hardest person to get to open up- are all “inconsolables”. It’s interesting then to consider why John Lahr writes in this way; and, as an artist himself, playwright and director David Lan brings up the idea of the ghosts of our fathers. But the connection between John Lahr’s father, who he readily talks about, and his own interest in artists who are “compelled” and “driven” to being creative because it is their way of survival, or the only way of attaining joy, speaks volumes. It is the tension between the artist on stage/or on canvas or on the page of a book and the individual themselves. The two are not the one and the same thing, though we might think they are or might wish they were, and this is where the idea of perfect poise comes in too (“perfect individualism is perfect poise” wrote Oscar Wilde).  John Lahr described to David Lan the difficulty of reconciling the almost two selves he saw in his own father- the ecstatic funny performer on stage “deflating” almost immediately into someone more depressed once off it. But looking at it merely from the audience’s point of view, with no personal knowledge of the artist, what they get is that “perfect poise”- something that someone like Meryl Streep in a performance for instance, will have taken five months to rehearse and perfect. In a sense what John Lahr does is to honour that perfect poise, but to try and reach into the individual at the same time- if he is allowed. It throws up its own question- of how artists can be great but also good, and not just  “walking megalomaniacs”.

But for John Lahr, theatre can also allow you “to be your best self.”  Writing about productions should be about seeking out the metaphor, to find out what it is the creatives are really trying to say- which of course, they may not know or do not know themselves, and “bear witness” to this, at the same time charting the creatives’ own inner worlds. Mischievously, David Lan gently counters by pointing out that that is the exact thing that reviewers do themselves- in writing about another’s work, they inevitably shine a light upon their own internal lives. John Lahr wholeheartedly agrees, and, reminding me of Mark Shenton, who once said that he never knows what he thinks about a show until he writes about it, concurs that he believes that reviewing, the act of writing about a production, is always about finding out what you feel. The act is self-defining.

This is what we need to remember, when writing about theatre. It’s inevitable that in writing about a production or reviewing any other art form, we’ll expose ourselves too. Press nights sometimes feel so polluted by the desire to please, and the changes shows and creatives undergo from preview to press night to mid run to last performance, which I experienced over and over in my time as an usher, are ignored by most critics. Theatres or PR companies often don’t give credence and therefore exposure to less glowing reviews, ones that offer a different viewpoint, or ones that, whilst failing to use flamboyant adjectives to entice in the public, seek to talk about the work in serious but nevertheless, passionate terms. Thus, it sometimes seems that only half a conversation is being heard and contributed to, at least from the public’s point of view. Some day, all well-considered reviews that seek to understand the metaphorical meaning behind a work rather than simply judge, even if those reviews are not 4 or 5 star ones (and really, the star system should go but that’s a whole other argument) will all be welcomed and made readily available on that theatre or production’s website for an interested public who may want to join in the debate. For it should be that all serious reflections and long term engagements like John Lahr’s are welcome and allowed to have a voice in what could be, what should be, great theatrical debates that don’t just happen in secret exclusive corners somewhere online.

But John Lahr must have the last few words (and I paraphrase, so if it’s wrong, I hope someone will correct me):  “the culture thing is best in the theatre.” As David Lan said, that should be projected above our theatres.

Joy Ride is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and will be out September 10th. Hardback £30.

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Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

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