Two things happened this week that made me think about returning to the cultural criticism I wrote for ten years in this blog: Terrence McNally died of the coronavirus at 81, and Julia Miles died of a long illness at 90. These two titans of the American theatre represent pioneering work by a theatre producer determined to proliferate women’s voices on stage (Miles) and by a playwright who brought white gay men into more fulsome live representation, before and during another global health crisis (of course, HIV/AIDS).
Miles and McNally’s recent deaths let me take the long view on my own career as a feminist theatre critic. As an upstart scholar in the early 80s, I derided Miles’ vision for the Women’s Project Theatre—which she founded as a platform for women playwrights—as collaborationist and liberal, just another way to get privileged women through the door of existing systems of power. My scorched-earth criticism bespoke, at the time, my own commitment to what I saw as more radical modes of production and representation, in which American theatre itself, as we knew it then, would be transformed. In my 20s and 30s, I’d yet to learn “yes/and”; I could only imagine either/or. Now, in my 60s—and especially now, as live art and culture have been put on indefinite hold by Covid-19—I see the urgency of promoting, advocating for, and insisting on all sorts of forms and contents in all sorts of venues and forums.
On Facebook today, I read Holly Hughes’ lovely elegy to McNally, who she said was one of the few mainstream gay playwrights who was kind and supportive during the years in which she was publicly vilified as one of the NEA Four. Hughes’ work couldn’t be more different from McNally’s; her words always evoked the dark underbelly of being queer and marginalized in America, while his often tried to make gayness familiar, normal. But Holly wrote of McNally’s generosity and kindness, the critical acumen he shared when he came to see her perform.
These binaries—downtown/uptown, radical/liberal, high/low, experimental/mainstream—were always more porous than I was willing to admit, early in my own career. We so need the bigger tent of engagement, across identities, politics, forms, styles, cultural capitals, to support the continuing necessity that we chip away at representational hegemony. The work isn’t done yet; far from it. I’m grateful and indebted to Miles and McNally both; holding their memories and their work in the light and in my heart.
I’ve been preoccupied working as a dean at Princeton for the last five years, overseeing the undergraduate academic experience. But the Covid-19 pandemic, perversely, might provide some time for reflection on the ever-increasing amount of watching and reading now available at home. It’s nice to contemplate sharing thoughts about culture and representation once again, while hoping we all survive . . .