Blending attributes of making and observing and respecting the art. This exercise in amalgamation is part of the journey I have been on over the past few years. Along the way I have found George Jean Nathan and Kenneth Tynan. Each provides to me invaluable lessons in reacting to the wonders of the stage.
From Nathan I absorb a deeply American respect for voice and clarity of analysis and taking your work seriously. From his Art of the Night, published in 1928, some words of wisdom (from a longer laundry list shared in a blog post earlier this year), in the form of “Advice to a Young Critic”, in the first chapter of this volume.
“The greatest weakness of the average critic is his wish to be more than a critic.”
“If you have violent prejudices, do not be afraid of them.”
“Take your work seriously, but not yourself.”
“Since you are an American, write like an American.”
“The chief fault with many critics is that they strive to divert to themselves the attention, if any, that their criticism should attract to itself.”
“A sound piece of criticism has never yet been spoiled by an injection of humor ….”
From Kenneth Tynan, I learn about erudite opinion making while having one’s own quirky favorites. In particular, I embraced Tynan when I came across his remarks printed in the The New Yorker (23 May 1959), pages 79 and 80, about Judy Garland’s May 1959 appearance at the old Metropolitan Opera House.
“Backed by a well-drilled revue company, Judy Garland sang in New York last week. The engagement, which is now over, was limited; the pleasure it gave was not.”
Succinct. Carefully crafted. Didactically but intriguingly constructed. Draws you in.
“Where else, as they say, but in America would you find Miss Garland at the Metropolitan Opera House while the Bolshoi Ballet was appearing at Madison Square Garden?”
Humor. The almost snide (but we love him anyway) reflection of a Brit at this time just visiting New York for a short engagement himself. Reflecting and opining freely from a certain remove. And he can be snarky and we don’t care …
“She had some pretty decor to enshrine her, and a couple of stout supporting performers to keep us amused whenever costume changes forced her offstage…. But the magnet was Judy, the buxom minstrel girl, singing — in a variety of costumes, some becoming, some dreadfully not — her repertory of songs about smiling, rejoicing, and suffering. Birds, naturally, flew over the rainbow, the trolley went clang-clang-clang, and the boy next door was just adored. We also heard Harold Arlen’s lament for ‘The Man That got Away;” “We’re a Couple of Swells,” in which Miss Garland’s hobo makeup lent her a beguiling resemblance to Dylan Thomas; and a cluster of those phony, unforgettable numbers — such as ‘Swanee” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” — that white composers used to write about the black South.”
Don’t you love it when people from countries other than America express opinions about the cultural history and race relations here? But you read on.
“Miss Garland is a squat woman now … “
Well, in 1959, there were some extra pounds yet truth be told, Garland’s 4 foot 11 inch frame did not allow for much extra.. but really, Ken, “squat”? Well, onward we go …
“… and it takes some effort of puckering and wrinkling for her face to achieve the hopeful, trusting smile that first transfixed us. but she can still do it, because she incarnates a dream. She embodies the persistence of youth so completely that we forbid her to develop, and permit her no maturity. Even in young middle age … “
[Note that Garland is just shy of 37 at the time of this May 1959 engagement.]
“… she must continue to sing about adolescence and all the pain and nostalgia that go with it. When the voice pours out as rich and pleading as ever, we know where, and how moved, we are — in the presence of a star, and embarrassed by tears.”
Well now. This is a man in command of his vocabulary and attuned to his critical faculties yet completely willing to give full sway to his fanaticism, his emotions. This is a writer willing to share his passions without censoring them, and allows us, if we’re willing, to go along the journey with him. To feel the live experience.
I learn from this, as a writer, as a researcher, as an observer, as a critic. Feel it, tell it, share it, express it fully. And bring your reader, your audience, with you into the room.
© Martha Wade Steketee (September 19, 2010)