Sarah Schulman Redux: The Delicate Balance of Criticism, I

My last blog entry on Sarah Schulman’s representation in the New York Times generated a bit of behind-the-scenes sturm und drang. I received an email from Sarah the day after I posted, in which she both appreciated my attempt to point out the excesses in Jesse Green’s feature story and took apart my own posting, objecting to my characterization of her and her work. I also received an email from a friend in New York who told me that Sarah, despite her objections to my post, had forwarded it to a number of people in the city with the subject line “Finally,” apparently using it as vindication for the critical lashing she typically receives.

The Times published two letters in response to Green’s article from other lesbian theatre folks: Lisa Kron, of the Five Lesbian Brothers and her own solo work fame, and Linda Chapman, the Associate Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop, which first produced Jonathan Larson’s Rent(see “Letters: Sarah Schulman,” New York Times, Sunday, November 13, 2005, Arts and Leisure Sec. 8). Kron’s letter pointed out that she, too, has shared Schulman’s “frustration at the marginalization of lesbian work,” and noted that many lesbian artists have been “under-recognized” by the mainstream press and industry. But Kron’s careful to acknowledge those artists who opened doors for her, like Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), Maria Irene Fornes (Mud), Jane Chambers (Last Summer at Bluefish Cove), and Claire Chafee (Why We Have a Body). She ends her letter by saying, “I applaud your success, Sarah. And I wanted you to know, you’re not alone.” The letter subtly underlines Schulman’s tendency, at least as quoted in Green’s piece, to point to her own exceptionalism, when in fact, most lesbian playwrights and performers have suffered the lack of notice she describes.

Linda Chapman’s letter tries to set the record straight, once and for all, on the Rent debacle, and in the process, offers some interesting information about Schulman’s tussle over the authorship of Larson’s musical. Chapman says she gave Larson Schulman’s novel, People in Trouble (which Schulman subsequently accused him of plagiarizing), after the “characters and indeed the setting and given circumstances of the work were well established.” She asks that Schulman and the media put this event behind them; New York Theatre Workshop and Chapman herself continue to support Schulman’s work.

Ultimately, I’m glad that the Times wrote about Schulman’s work, glad I wrote about it here, glad Schulman contacted me, and glad that Kron and Chapman followed up with letters to the Times. For a rare moment, lesbian theatre artists got some attention from the mainstream press, and prompted some healthy debate about what visibility means and to whom it’s accessible.

I was frankly caught up a bit short when I received Schulman’s email, an exchange that’s lead me to think, again, about a critic’s responsibility (more accurately, my responsibility) to the community of artists and critics and readers and spectators of which they’re a part. Is my job as a writer about theatre, performance, and the arts one of advocacy? Is it to simply get the word out about work by women, lesbians, people of color, and others to whom more visible venues don’t typically offer their space? I believe my job is to extend the conversation about art practices that aren’t as easily accessible in the mainstream media and to watchdog those outlets for how they portray the people they tend to marginalize.

But what are the ethics of participating in the conversation I want to so extend? Should I never “critique”? Should I not have written sometimes less than positively about, for instance, Oedipus at Palm Springs, with which I started this blog? Should I not have referred, in my last blog, to Schulman’s notorious reputation for being “difficult” because I don’t, as she noted in her email to me, have personal experience with this side of her personality? Even though I know that blogs are often places where people express themselves unfiltered to readers invited to listen pruriently to the writer’s “id,” I’d prefer that “The Feminist Spectator” always maintain an ethical relationship not just to readers but to the artists whose work I do indeed want to promote, in a thoughtful, if sometimes polemical, way.

After all these years, I still find myself debating just what it means to be a feminist critic. And I guess that’s a good thing.

Next month’s first blog entry (since I’ve clearly committed to bi-monthly postings here) will continue this conversation by looking at a recent essay in Theatre Topics, one of two journals published by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Lara Shalson’s article, “Creating Community, Constructing Criticism: The Women’s One World Festival, 1980-81,” addresses some of these very issues about feminist criticism, which I’ll take up again shortly. If you’re interested, the article is available at Theatre Topics 15.2 (2005) 221-239, and on-line from Project Muse at participating library sites.

On a personal note, my most recent book, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, has just been published (with a lovely cover) from the University of Michigan Press. I wrote the book to be accessible to a wide audience—it addresses the ways in which theatre and performance can provide a forum for ideas and experiences that inspire us all toward imagining (and for a moment, even, feeling) a better world. And it offers some examples of transcendent moments I’ve had recently at the theatre. I’ll try to figure out how to attach the cover art here in my next post.

Best wishes,
The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

2 thoughts on “Sarah Schulman Redux: The Delicate Balance of Criticism, I

  1. Dear Jill,

    I think that you misunderstood my letter to you, so let me comment directly on your blog-with the hope of more clarity.

    What frustrated me about your initial post was that you assumed that the NY Times’ summary of the plot and themes of my play were accurate, when they were not- so, I sent you the play to help you compare. My hope was that reading the play would give you more facts and enhance your understanding these recent media events.

    Let me just put this in a NY Theater context. The Times second string critic, Charles Isherwood, has not liked any new plays this season. This includes Rinne Grof’s RUBY SUNRISE at The Public, BACH AT LEIPZIG by Itamar Moses at NY Theater Workshop,JENNY CHOW by Rollin Jones at The Atlantic, MISTER MARMELADE by Noah Haidel at The Roundabout, and my play MANIC FLIGHT REACTION at Playwrights Horizons. In all cases, the themes of the plays were simplified or misrepresented. This is standard, and reviews should not be counted on as factual sources to determine what plays are like or about.
    The reason I used the word “finally” was because you discussed these media events as paradigmatic. Not because I agreed with what you said.

    Linda Chapman’s letter to the NY Times said that she personally gave Larson a copy of my novel in 1995 during a workshop of Rent. After the letter was published, I received a phone call from Dudley Saunders- the journalist who wrote about the case for The Voice and New York Magazine. He pointed out to me that Johnathan Larson told Michael Korie in 1994 that he was using my novel. I checked with Mr Korie and he confirmed that this conversation took place at The Richard Rodgers Awards Dinner in 1994, when Larson said to him, about my novel PEOPLE IN TROUBLE, “I am using it”. And, Mr Korie added- Larson had just won the award for a complete book and lyrics of Rent, so the material from PEOPLE IN TROUBLE had to have already been in the show for a while. So, when Linda gave him the book in 1995, he already had had it for over a year. Anyway, the Larson estate has already acknowleded twice in the NY Times that he used my materials but that this use is not copywritable, and it is not contested by them.

    Regarding Lisa Kron’s letter–Lisa Kron and I are working in fundamentally different art forms. And these forms have different histories. In terms of the inner workings of the NY Theater, these forms are treated differently. We are both entirely out of the closet personally, and we both use lesbian protagonists. And every major theater in this country has been paltry in their presentation of lesbian work. But, performative styles with direct address, solo work, and performers whose public identities form a fundamental part of their audiences’ perception of their characters come very directly from the rich tradition of “Performance Art” or “Performative Theater” (for lack of a better term). And in gay terms, there is also a great deal of influence of vaudeville, night club performance and stand-up.This kind of work follows a very different production trajectory than more traditional plays.
    Where I am working is in a different arena. I am writing multi-character plays in which the characters occupy an authorial universe in which they act on and change each other. They face each other. Often their universe is a closed, complete world. I work with actors whose personalities are often unknown to viewers, and whose art form is to fully inhabit “people” who they are not. This is more conservative, artistically, and it is viewed differently by programmers.

    Today, there is very little work in this traditional play style that is situated within a lesbian perspective produced by the country’s best theaters. No traditional playwrights with openly lesbian content have the same opportunities or careers as Tony Kushner, Robbie Baitz, Craig Lucas, Terrence McNally, Richard Greenberg etc. To break that glass ceiling is what I am trying to achieve. So are other openly lesbian traditional playwrights with lesbian content. None of us have achieved it.
    The aesthetic differences wouldn’t matter except that these two distinct and equally valuable art forms are treated differently by the powers that be. Plays are seen as the province of men with gravitas because of the way realism is understood and positioned culturally. Critics and theater producers are often hostile to “Realism” or “Naturalism” from a lesbian point of view because it challenges their sense of their own perspective as objective and neutral. Historically, people without rights (like Jews and Blacks) have had more sucess and approval working in performative forms (like stand-up, and vaudeville) because it doesn’t assume the right to objectivity. White Gay men entered directly into the power arena in the American Theater because the American Theater is a patriarchy, and so they have been allowed to own objectivity.

    My playwrighting has a great deal in common with many straight and gay women playwrights who are also trying to re-position realism in traditional plays. I’m thinking of people like Kia Corthron, Jessica Hagedorn, Gina Gionfriddo, Jessica Goldberg, Rinne Groff, Jackie Reingold, Lucy Thurber (an exciting lesbian playwright who is out in her work)Neeena Beeber and many others. Many of us are having similar experiences trying to break into the man’s territory- the traditional drama.
    I hope that clarifies the distinctions that I feel and understand to be true. It is best, in general, to not use hostile interviews or hostile profiles as sources for the subject’s experiences or visions.
    In short, all of this is very specific and complex. The Times article obscured that, and hopefully we know from experience not to rely on them for information from which to make assumptions.

    Yours, SS

  2. Sarah, thanks for your comment here. I appreciate your smart critical explication of the differences between performance art and conventional playwrighting. I teach courses on both forms, and find that people often aren’t aware of these important genre differences. I also appreciate your comment on the ways in which solo performance, stand-up comedy, and other “performative” genres have been more open to people marginalized by gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity, often because, as you point out, the “powers that be” find these forums less important and “serious.” And certainly you’re right that white men (and some gay men) who use more conventional forms like realism are granted more social authority. I applaud your effort to break what does indeed remain a glass ceiling in traditional theatre.

    But as someone who has studied and commented on lesbian theatre and performance for as long as you’ve been creating it, I think “conventional” lesbian playwrighting (like yours, as you say) has more in common with performance art like Lisa Kron’s than you admit in your post. (Interesting, too, that Lisa’s play, Well, opens on Broadway this March. Some lesbian artists use these forms in ways that are perhaps starting to breakdown the distinctions between them.) Differences of form, structure, genre, and context aside, it seems to me that thematically and politically, you’re after similar things, presenting lesbian relationships and concerns that haven’t been scrutinized in wide public forums in quite these ways before. The women Lisa credits with influencing her work are all playwrights, after all, some who work in “realism” (Jane Chambers) and some whose forms are more poetic, less linear, more Brechtian (Fornes, Chafee, Vogel). I assume that lesbians writing for various performance forms are mutually influential, since these worlds are ultimately so small.

    By commenting on published features, profiles, or reviews, I certainly don’t mean to take them as “truth.” I’m fully aware of their partiality and biases, and pointing out some of the ones in Jesse Green’s article indeed motivated my initial posting. I certainly don’t take the word of any reviewer as “truth” about the work they’re addressing. But I do think writing—especially in powerful papers like the New York Times—demands response and discussion, agreement and dissent. I’m still looking forward to reading your play and to writing about it (and apologize that I haven’t been able to do so yet this month), but I know that when I do, whatever I say will carry no more weight of truth than any other commentator’s thoughts. This blog isn’t about setting the record straight, as it were, about anything, from your experience with Rent to the appropriate form or contents for lesbian or any other kind of performance or representation. I’m most interested in proliferating critical discourse, rather than trying to assert one final “right” line of thinking.

    Thanks for posting, Sarah. I really appreciate the engagement, as I believe that it’s in thinking together in public that real change happens.

    My best, jd

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