John Lahr reviewed New York theater for half a century, starting with a now-defunct Manhattan neighborhood weekly and ending as the longest-lasting chief drama critic for The New Yorker magazine.
He is also the son of Bert Lahr, best known as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, but with a long and stellar career on the New York stage. His mother Mildred Schroeder was a Ziegfeld Girl – also a theater person.
So I asked him what his family thought of theater critics.
This was during an interview with Lahr for DC Theatre Scene timed to the publication of his most recent books – “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” his acclaimed biography now out in paperback, and “Joy Ride,” his 20th book, a new selection of his profiles and reviews in the New Yorker.
Lahr largely sidestepped the question about his family’s view of theater critics – “Dad was a huge star; he always got good reviews” — although he did say that when he first became a critic, his parents “were worried about me. I was outspoken. They didn’t want me to offend people.”
When I wrote up the interview, I thought it more important to focus on his views of the great theater artists he’s profiled and reviewed — Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Stephen Sondheim, David Mamet, and Sarah Ruhl – all of whom are in the new collection.
I do include some of his comments about critics in the article – for example, how he became a critic in the first place (“I don’t think anybody sets out to be a drama critic”) and how he views the New York Times as the main guilty party in the “corrupt system” of reviewing.
But, while more specialized, his take on critics seems worth further detailing here.
I asked him why theater critics are often seen as the enemy – why there is so much hostility.
“It’s not undeserved,” he replied, because of the way criticism is done, “insofar as the coverage is very shallow; critics are ill-informed, write poorly, have no sense of theater history, just write the plot. Criticism is what the play is saying, and what it says in the context of theater history and the wider culture.” The faulty approach “is not necessarily because of the critics but because of the magazine owners.”
Lahr concedes that “nobody likes to be judged. I don’t like it when I get a bad review. If you hold yourself up, sometimes you get slapped.” But what theater artists don’t like about critics “are the cheap shots. Most of the people who talk in that nasty way have never made anything. If you’ve made anything, your voice has a different tone.
Criticism is a life without risk.”
Lahr says he personally has received no hostility from the people he’s reviewed. “My experience is even if you’re critical of the play, if they feel you’ve engaged with the play, and seen it, even if you can’t embrace it in its entirety — being taken seriously is enough for them.”
His view of critics is partly shaped by having been on the other side of the relationship. When he was literary manager of Lincoln Center, Lahr says, “the first production we did was Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, with Al Pacino.” He felt despondent the night that the critics attended. “I saw it as a totally botched performance. Tennessee arrived drunk. Al Pacino forgot the golden gloves
I wrote in my diary: This is a very sad night.
“7:30 the next morning, I get a call from Julius Irving,” the producing director of Lincoln Center theater. “He read the first paragraph of Clive Barnes’s review – a rave. Julius said: ‘Learn anything?’
“When you’re working in a theater, you get 50 reviews. Hardly any of them interpret the play. They tell you what the play was. They don’t tell you what it meant.”
The hostility to critics, he says, is specific to America. “In other theater cultures, the critic is seen as an essential part of the process. If you make a play or a book, you think you’ve done something, but a lot of writers I know don’t quite know what they’ve made. Critics are a bit like biofeedback. You need the eyes.”