A continuation of the speech given by THE FOUR OF US author, Itamar Moses, from his address at the International Association for Jewish Theater conference this past June…
A couple of years ago I was having dinner with Jonathan Lethem, not to drop names – if that even counts, some of your are like “Who is Jonathan Lethem?” – but I’m just trying to give credit where it’s due, since I’m about to quote something he said that night. A couple of other theatre artists and myself were about to begin adapting his novel Fortress of Solitude for the stage and so we were taking him out for a steak to celebrate him having given us permission to ruin his great book. One thing professional writers sometimes talk about when we get together, apart from writing, is reviews, because non-writers seem to think that complaining about your reviews means you’re not sufficiently grateful that the press is paying any attention to your work at all. Which is fair enough. So we were talking about reviews.
Brief sidebar: by reviews, of course, I mean Reviews, not Criticism. The problems with theatre reviewing-slash-criticism in this country are a subject for an entirely different speech, but, just very briefly, the purpose of theatre reviews, which is to say things that come out in daily or weekly papers, or in magazines, is to let the readership of that publication know whether a particular play is something they might enjoy enough to spend their money on. This isn’t a dig. Ask a reviewer what they are for and that is what they will tell you. “People have limited money to spend on things to see,” a theatre reviewer once told me, “and there’s lots to see in New York and I can help narrow it down for them.”
And while this is an important function it obviously has very very little to do with Criticism with a capital C in the sense of an attempt to understand an aesthetic object in depth. Again, this isn’t a dig. Given how much these people have to see and write about they can’t be expected to do real criticism. There just isn’t time. But what this means is that reviews, however useful they might be to potential ticket buyers, are almost always useless to the artist because they simply aren’t, by definition, engaging with the work in enough depth to be a serious contribution to the artistic conversation. Okay. But so then why do they upset us so much when we read them, or hear about them, or get sympathetic emails from our friends quoting them? It would be easy to dismiss that sting as a bruised ego, as over-sensitivity. But if that were the whole explanation our feelings would boil down to: writers like good reviews and hate bad reviews.
And that’s true, we do like good reviews and hate bad reviews. But that’s not the whole truth and it’s not really an important or interesting part of the truth. The important and interesting part, I think, is that we really like thoughtful and engaged reviews, positive or negative, and we really hate shallow and unengaged ones. In a way, an inane positive review is as upsetting as a dismissive negative review because your real concern as an artist in that moment isn’t, “Will this guy I’d never heard of until yesterday like my work?” because, really, honestly, who cares, it’s, “Am I having this conversation alone?”
That night, at dinner, we were also talking about politics, and the recurring fantasy, which I think a lot of people on the left have had, that, sometime after his presidency was over – this was while it was still going on – George W. Bush would, some late night in his Crawford, Texas ranch, start googling, or whatever, and reading about his own legacy, and stay up all night, reading more and more of the information that had been denied him by his inner circle for eight years, and have a kind of Greek High Tragic moment of recognition and reversal in which he suddenly sees himself some of us see him, as someone who badly damaged the idea of America. A fantasy destined to remain a fantasy because what is most frustrating about people like him, or people like how I imagine him to be, since obviously I don’t really know, is that they will never give you the satisfaction of seeing themselves, even for a moment, as you do. It occurred to me as we talked about this that this is precisely the same fantasy that artists often have about people who write reviews and I said something about how maybe that’s why bad critics make us so angry.
And Lethem said, here’s the quote, he said: “Right. Because it reminds us of something that matters.”
That morning, the morning after my opening in November, I was upset. Partly sure, because something I had worked very hard on had been very publicly chastised. That doesn’t feel good. But I was also upset about my encounter with the Hassidic man, which had not been in any way public. Or, you know, until now, when I just told it to all of you. On top of which a lot more of my ego is bound up with the question of whether or not I’m considered a good writer than whether or not I’m considered a good Jew. So why was I angry at this man at all? I was angry about his certainty that a book I was carrying, which he knew nothing about, was dangerous. I was angry about his certainty that the work I do, which he hadn’t truly investigated, was, I don’t know, depraved and base. These attitudes reminded me of something that matters and that something is these same attitudes applied from positions of genuine power.
There’s a couple of different things that this might mean. Staying for the moment inside the narrow purview of all of art and all of religion it means this: it wasn’t that this man in that moment could really harm my sense of myself as a Jew. Or that one review could really harm my sense of myself as an artist. It’s not the fragility of an artist anyone needs to be worried about. It’s the fragility of art. And if this man on 7th Ave. is worried about the future of Judaism, which is what I assume he’s worried about, then I wonder if he’s ever considered that what danger there is might be coming as much from his insistence on as narrow as possible a definition of what qualifies as a Jew or is appropriate for Jews to do as from the potential expansion of those definitions to include too many things. Granted, his definition of Judaism is older. “Orthodox Judaism” is a retronym. We didn’t need a word to modify “Judaism” until the existence of Reform Judaism made it necessary. But, in a way, so what? “Realism” is a retronym, too, made necessary by “Absurdism.”
And if the comparison is offensive because, well, religious rules are considered holy and unassailable by those who watch over them, well, then, I suggest you go back and read Beckett’s early reviews. Or Chekhov’s. Or Pinter’s. Or Brecht’s. Or Tony Kushner’s. The list is endless. When a critic walks into a play with certain biases and then walks out with those biases intact because to allow them to be truly challenged might cause a long dark night of the soul that calls into question his whole life’s work and as a result he sees in a play only what’s on the surface and so then accuses the play of being all surface in effect projecting his own shortcomings onto the artist, and, here’s the part that’s really infuriating, thus saving himself from precisely the kind of struggle the artist went through in order to create the work he’s just panned, which is to say staring straight into that kind of long dark night of the soul, for weeks and sometimes months on end… I mean, come on, say what you want about me or my work, but do I sound like the kind of person who is content to skim the surface of a subject? Or, if my play, like any play, necessarily skims the surface of certain things, might that not be because it’s actually delving deeply into certain other things?
Maybe what’s actually going on is that we disagree about what the “subject” of the play is, and, since I’m the person who selected the subject, maybe a more accurate way of saying this is that maybe the critic is incapable of correctly identifying a play’s subject, which, if you ask me, ought to be pretty basic requirement for the job. And but actually really maybe the most important thing is that both of these concerns, the health of the arts and of religion in themselves, are secondary, because both art and religion are themselves just reminding us of something else that matters, and that something is a pretty basic set of humanistic principles on which the survival of the species and of the planet seems ultimately to rest. It reminds us, in other words, that certainty is a slippery slope and our humanity often seems to be hanging by a thread.
Or: in a slightly different context “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish? You have the look.” becomes relatively creepy.
But okay. Yes. There is a very insidious trap lurking here for me and maybe you see it. It goes like this. Like the kids in my youth group, who treated the counselors like tyrants, getting themselves, in turn, treated like children – and of course there’s no difference, all tyrants are children, and all children are tyrants – it’s possible, to grow up to be everything you used to hate, as it were, by becoming, out of a desire to protect your work, for instance, or whatever it is you are most invested in protecting, so defended against and so angry at the adherents to the doctrine of unquestioning certainty that you become yourself unquestioningly certain that you’re completely right and they’re completely wrong.
Or, faced with certainty we are tempted to mirror certainty back and that’s a terrible mistake, as big a mistake as total surrender. So, I mean, who am I even calling an adherent to the doctrine of unquestioning certainty anyway? For all I know, this Hassidic guy is some kind of huge radical where he comes from. Maybe his sect believes that people like me aren’t even worth talking to and he’s going to go back to them and mention our encounter and his buddies are going to say, “Oh, Shlomo, there you go again, reaching out to the infidels. Just ignore them like we told you to.” Maybe, from where he’s standing, he’s in the exact center of his own spectrum of certainty and doubt.
And isn’t it kind of amazing, by the way, given the institutional limitations on what critics do, which are if anything more stultifying than those on playwrights, that there are so many thoughtful and engaged theatre reviews out there? That there are any at all? Some of the people who write reviews are obviously doing their best to strike this balance, too. Not all of them, maybe. But some. And, look, isn’t Shlomo’s suggestion that I put down the Sports Illustrated book and stop writing plays emerging from a genuine belief on his part that all of the decadence and suffering he sees in the world can be partly mitigated by altering the path of someone like me? Which is a fallacy, I know, just because an action emerges from a “genuine belief” doesn’t mean that it’s above reproach, but the point is, shouldn’t I examine my own beliefs with at least as much scrutiny? Who am I to say what the true subject of my play is, or ought to have been? Maybe what I delved deeply into was what I ought to have skimmed the surface of and maybe what I skimmed the surface of was the interesting and important part. Instead of asking, “Excuse me, sir, are you a critic?” should I just ask, “Do you have a minute for my play?” and leave it at that. Shouldn’t I even, for that matter, examine my belief that there’s something fruitful constantly examining my beliefs in this way?
I mean, it can’t all be accounted for by neurosis, I must in a way believe in it or I wouldn’t do it. And isn’t it possibly also just a great way never to commit to anything, like when someone asks you which character in the play is you and you dodge the question by saying, well, they all are, only I’m living my actual life that way? When I was a kid, I was really into science fiction and fantasy and one of my pet peeves was genre snobbery, people who would be like, “Oh I don’t read Science Fiction” and I’d be like, well, then you’re an idiot, because some of it is amazing, and even if most of it is bad, well, most of everything is bad. You know why? Because it’s really hard to make something good.
Most of literary fiction is bad, most movies are bad, god knows most theatre is bad, but there is a layer of greatness at the upper edge of every single platform for storytelling that there is. This kind of thing still bugs the shit out of me, actually. Every time I read some news article the peg of which is how surprising it is that someone has made a video game with substance I want to scream. Because it reminds me of something that matters. Video games are probably the most flexible and complete and potentially powerful storytelling platform ever invented, because they can contain every single other type of storytelling, and are interactive, and this is self-evident if you think about for it ten seconds, but people are genre snobs, and they don’t want to admit this information into their world view, and that drives me crazy. But so by now have I become a genre snob? About answers? Do I worship at an altar of uncertainty? Is there a perspective from which, “What is the meaning and purpose of my life?” is a much less important question than “How should I spend all of my time?” Like, the perspective from which actually doing things matters?
Not to mention the fact that, if I think science fiction and video games are so great, then why don’t I write video games and science fiction? I might actually just be a genre snob in general, my own self. And also if I’m willing to openly admit, like I just did, that most theatre is bad, then why blame this guy, or anybody, for entering the conversation with the assumption that my play, too, is probably bad?
And, while it’s obvious what this might mean from the perspective of the critic, from the perspective of the Hasid it might mean something like: your work doesn’t elevate us. It, at best, distracts us. The reason your orthodox friends are not allowed to play video games on Saturday, no matter how artfully constructed those games might be, is that it’s important to spend some time, in stillness and quiet contemplating God without the constant electronic interruptions of the modern world replacing thought every other minute, okay? And doesn’t he have a point? And, as this list of questions shows no sign of ending, ever, it occurs to me that what we’re talking about here is probably not a spectrum at all, but a circle, the way the political spectrum meets itself, with fascism on the right and communism on the left both devolving into totalitarianism off the edges of the map. The earth is round, not flat. Drift too far in any direction and you’re back where you started. The polar opposite of the religious fundamentalist would presumably be a kind of emotional and intellectual paralytic who is at every moment so aware of all of his or her choices that he or she makes no choices at all, ever, but it kind of seems like the guys at each extreme, the guy who is rigid with certainty on the one hand and the guy who is paralyzed by doubt on the other hand, are actually indistinguishable from one another. No one’s choosing anything. And that’s the trap.
And this trap is waiting not just, for instance, there on the street, for me, that morning, in the wake of an unfortunate encounter with a bizarre zealot whose opinion no one even asked for, and also with the thing that happened with the Hassidic guy, it’s there all the time. And avoiding it demands a more or less constant process of moving back and forth across that membrane, between certainty and doubt, an alternation between softening and hardening, or somehow getting those two things to embrace each other, double-helix-like, inside yourself, even though they repel each other, or even though, together, they’re radioactive, though maybe it’s that radioactivity, throwing off protons and neutrons like sparks, that is the source of creativity in the first place.
And in those moments when I feel most fulfilled, and useful and connected and like I matter, maybe it’s because I’ve, however briefly, struck a balance.
And, but wait, hold on. Because isn’t this trap even waiting there, too, inside that balance? Because the moment you think to yourself, ah, yes, I have now struck the perfect balance in my life between doubt and certainty, I am so proud, let me share this great discovery, oops, there it is again, it’s got you. Here it is, right now, happening now, on this stage, this trap, in a speech about how to avoid it, and you’re the congregation and I’m the Rabbi and my fear is that I’m just standing here telling you something, something I’m obviously barely able to articulate myself, but something, and but my hope is, what I hope is, is that what I’ve managed to do, rather, is simply to invite into the room some third party to be here among us. Some story about who we are that we can now discuss.
Do you feel it?
Is it here?
I’m almost done.
One thing that distinguishes theatre from nearly every other art form is that theatre is happening now. And this is true in the sense, of course, that the actors are physically in the room with you, enacting the story as you watch it unfold, but it’s also true in a slightly subtler way, maybe with the emphasis on happening rather than on now. Theatre is happening now but the audience is not engaged unless it is also happening now. Unless something is happening. One word for this is “stakes.” We ask our students when a scene they’ve written sort of lies there on the page, well, what is at stake here? And as a playwright you know you’ve really done your job when an entire audience is riveted by a silence.
Sure, landing a big laugh is very satisfying, but it’s not nearly as exciting as that feeling of a full silence because the full silence means that there are truly stakes. And how to achieve that, well, that’s the craft, and it’s always a little different, each situation has it’s own demands, maybe you even start by for instance saying something like, “I have never done this before. And Edward Einhorn gave me very vague instructions.” But, whatever it is, you have to do something to make the audience feel, this is happening now, it has never happened before, and it will never happen again, and I am invested in the outcome. Those moments on stage feel like they’re balanced on a razor. Radioactive, and therefore unstable, temporary. The characters, the situations, these things have left the prison of certainty and the swamp of doubt, which remember might actually be the same thing, and have risen up, at least for a little while, above them, still tethered to both, buffeted by the wind, and free.
And what is at stake is not just what the outcome of this moment might mean for the fictional characters in the play not least because we must know in some way it’s not real. No, the real stakes rest on the fact that, in the theatre, in the ritual space of a theatre, the small stands in for the large. It just does this, it doesn’t have to try, it doesn’t require a character in the play to gives a speech about how what’s happening is a microcosm of something more universal, it’s just the case that the stakes of a silence on stage are also about what is at stake for us, in the audience. In other words, what’s happening on stage isn’t real. But it is reminding us of something that matters.
And, of course, something that reminds us of something that matters is, itself, something that matters.
So let me close with an anecdote that did not really happen. After I leave here, having finished this speech, I get on the subway and go back to Park Slope. And on 7th ave. I pass the same man, the same Hassidic man I saw in November, his bible tucked under his arm, hurrying off to somewhere. And I stop him. And I say, “Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?” And he says, “Yes.” And I say, “You have the look.” And I say, “Tell me, where did you get that book?” And he says, “It was given to me at my synagogue.” And what I’d like to say, given what happened the last time is, “Oh, it’s better than I feared, it was given to you, but let me say, this book has many problems, chronology that doesn’t make sense, and internal contradictions, and doesn’t really jibe in a lot of places with the scientific evidence, and what I suggest is you put it down and divorce yourself from, and you also might wish to consider a new line of work…it’s not ideal.” But maybe instead what happens is I say:
Listen. My friend Gabe, who I’ve known my whole life, is getting married next month. His fiancé isn’t Jewish. And they’re getting married on a campsite in the Santa Cruz mountains, and so everybody, other friends I’ve known my whole life, everyone is going to camp there for the weekend, and one morning everyone is supposed to meet in the big tent to do Yoga together, and, why don’t you come? And he does. And as we stand there in woodlands of Northern California, which, if I may say, might just be the most beautiful place on earth, watching the ceremony, a silence falls at the pivotal moment, just before my friend and his soon-to-be wife exchange their vows, probably ones they wrote themselves, and the only sound are the birds and the wind and maybe the faint whistling of a Frisbee in the distance, and I turn to him and challenge him to tell me that God’s not here. And there are tears in his eyes.
Thanks so much.