We are pleased to welcome noted theatre critic John Lahr back to Washington with this interview, conducted last week in New York.
John Lahr, preeminent biographer of Tennessee Williams, esteemed author of 20 books, award-winning theater artist, longest-lasting chief drama critic for The New Yorker magazine, grew up the son of uneducated parents: “Neither of them got past the seventh grade,” he says, as we dine in a French restaurant on the Upper West Side.
“When you asked them ‘Who was FDR?’ they’d say ‘we don’t know, ask your teacher, that’s why we send you to those good schools.’ When you’re a child, and they don’t have the information, it’s a scary place.”
But his folks nevertheless left him a priceless legacy. His mother Mildred Schroeder was a former Ziegfeld Girl – an actress and a dancer. His father, Bert Lahr, was one of the most beloved stage entertainers in New York, long before he became world famous as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” John Lahr grew up with Cole Porter as a neighbor and Groucho Marx as a family friend.
“Dad was a genius, a true genius,” says his son, who learned tons simply by observing him – “the work ethic, the obsession, and most importantly his goal of corrupting the audience with pleasure. That’s what I would like to do with my writing.”
Lahr is coming to D.C. this week to speak about and autograph his two most recent books, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” which has just come out in paperback, and the new “Joy Ride: Show People and their Shows,” a selection of his profiles of playwrights and directors, and reviews of productions, published in The New Yorker over the past two decades.
John Lahr will make two public appearances in DC:
Wed, Sept 23 at 7:30 p.m.
The Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital
921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE
sponsored by The Shakespeare Guild
Fri, Sept 25 at 7pm,
Politics and Prose,
5015 Connecticut Ave NW
Both appearances are free.
The New Yorker’s then-editor Tina Brown hired Lahr in 1992 “to write a new kind of criticism, theater from the inside,” he says. It would be a contrast to what he calls the more usual kind of “shallow,” “uninformed” reviews that focus on plot rather than on meaning. “I was critical, and remain critical, of the (New York) Times and how all hangs on them. It’s a corrupt system.”
The example he gives of his “reinvention” of the genre is his 1992 review of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the third review he ever wrote for The New Yorker, which is included in “Joy Ride” (along with a long profile of Kushner and a review of Caroline, or Change a dozen years later.) “I interviewed Tony before the show. I went to the show. And I went backstage afterwards. That review broke every rule of conventional reviewing. And if you really want to know what that show was like, that’s the review to read.”
Although Lahr was living in London, Brown agreed that he would not have to move. For 21 years, he spent two weeks out of every month in New York. At the end of 2012, the magazine’s current editor David Remnick gently informed Lahr that “they couldn’t afford my salary,” and that the highly unusual commuting arrangement was no longer workable for a magazine that, like many other print publications, was expanding to include daily online coverage.
“It worked out very well,” says Lahr, now 74. “I got my third act.”
A Well-Made Critic
While he continues to write profiles for the magazine, his retirement from reviewing marked the end of a long ride that he says began half a century ago on a lark.
Having returned to New York after graduating from Yale and spending a year at Oxford, he saw Marat/Sade on Broadway, wrote about it, and offered what he had written to a local giveaway (and now defunct) newspaper called Manhattan East. The editor liked the piece so much, according to Lahr, that he asked him to be the paper’s critic. “I don’t think anybody sets out to be a drama critic,” he says. “I didn’t see it as anything more than getting free tickets. I was writing a book, and I was making no money. This was 10 dollars a column, and I went for it.”
The book he was writing was a biography of his father, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion.” Published in 1969 (two years after his father’s death), its success helped guide Lahr’s subsequent career: The Village Voice hired him as a reviewer and, at the same time, Lincoln Center employed him as its literary manager.
It was a fervent time for theater, and Lahr was seen as a champion of a new generation of artists. “There’s a certain amount of luck in being a critic. Critics don’t make theater. They’re made by theater. My luck was catching the Off-Broadway wave.”
That wave seems to have subsided once he joined The New Yorker, judging from the preponderance of Broadway reviews in the new collection — even though Lahr says “there are not that many good plays that can be done on Broadway. That was always true. Because of the economics of Broadway, form follows marketing.”
The Mystery of Talent, The Cost of Fame
His biography of his father also set the themes that, he says, he explores in the pieces he writes about the theater and theater people – “the mystery of talent and the cost of fame.”
As an example of the cost of fame, he says “Al Pacino hasn’t been able to go to a delicatessen for decades. He knows that his presence anywhere spoils things for his children.”
But the themes originate closer to home. “I lived with a very mysterious man. He was …” Lahr pauses. “You couldn’t reach him. It was very powerful to see 2,000 people laughing while he cavorted on the stage. But the minute he hit the wings, he turned off. He was very solitary at home. It was confounding. If you have a talent, it’s hardest to both honor that talent and also honor your life.
“My father’s good reviews could fill this room. But they never got the essence of him. My goal, which I’m not sure I’ve completely accomplished, is to try to see the iconic figures in a more nuanced way. I want to bear witness to the theatricals,” he says, a term he uses frequently for show people. “I want to look closely at them.”
His effort “to merge criticism and biography” has its most high-profile recent expression in his biography of Tennessee Williams, which took Lahr 12 years to complete, a painstaking and convoluted process that he explains in the book itself. Why did he decide to take on the biography of a dramatist whom so many had written about already?
“Since he died [in 1983], 40 books have been written about him,” Lahr concedes. “But they don’t talk about his plays! They talk about his sex life. You see the plays in the context of no context.
“There was a critical job to be done on Williams that had to be done.
Here was a major writer whose work was largely unknown and disparaged: People who talk about Tennessee Williams have probably read four of his plays, maybe eight.” Many still accept the conventional wisdom that Williams’ creativity dried up with his last Broadway hit, The Night of the Iguana, in 1961, two decades before his death. “Once a narrative has been established, it’s just repeated; people are lazy.
That’s the critic’s job — to keep his voice, what he had to say about America, in the discussion.”
This year marks the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth, which will be celebrated with at least four revivals on New York stages alone. Lahr’s relatively brief 1999 profile of Miller (who died six years later) is the first in “Joy Ride,” and focuses on an odd fact about the playwright and his most celebrated work: Before he wrote Death of A Salesman – in order to write Death of a Salesman – Miller built a cabin from scratch in which to write it. “The best thing about my stuff I have ever read,” Miller wrote to Lahr afterwards, a note he has placed prominently on his mantel in his London home.
Lahr acknowledges that, like Williams, Miller lived past the period of his public adoration; “Both Miller and Williams kept writing.
“Miller’s position in society in the 50s and 60’s was as a public intellectual. It’s the position that Tony Kushner fills now. That may have alienated people after a while.”
What has happened since his death ten years ago, says Lahr, traces a “fluctuating graph of his popularity.”
With last week’s announcement that Denzel Washington will direct all 10 of August Wilson’s Twentieth Century Cycle plays for HBO over the next decade, there is some hope that Wilson will get more of what Lahr considers his due. “I think August is greatly underrated by the public at large. I think he’s far more influential than he’s given credit for, for what he did for African-American life and culture – and for white culture. His work is put on in a way that the white community and the black community can see it together, but in a different way, and they learn from one another.”
Lahr’s long 2001 profile of Wilson is most memorable for discovering that Wilson was a complete auto-didact, who had never seen a play before he wrote one. Lahr was most struck, he says, by Wilson’s “grandiosity” – his proclaiming his own genius in high school, and dropping out because the nuns didn’t believe he had written a school paper on his own. “He just got up and left school the next day.”
Lahr believes that three of Sondheim’s musicals will “endure,” as he puts it — Sweeney Todd (“a masterpiece”), Company, and A Little Night Music — and he includes articles about the first two in his new collection. But he says “I’m not a Sondheim die-hard.” For example: “Sunday in the Park with George has no second act. I don’t see how that won the Pulitzer Prize.” If that sounds like fighting words, his view has occasionally put him at odds with readers: “Somebody once phoned a death threat after I criticized Sondheim.”
He thinks Sondheim “has made the musical more mature,” and blazed an intellectual path, “but it’s not one that anyone else can go down. Song is enchantment – if you want to thrill, you can’t analyze. I’m not sure that a musical can carry the intellectual baggage.”
By contrast, he thinks Caroline, or Change “will be much more important,” and “I would have liked to come out of retirement to write about Hamilton.
I would have said it’s a watershed musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda actually understands the tradition of musical theater.”
Mamet’s famous ear for dialogue, Lahr writes in a 1997 profile included in “Joy Ride,” has its origins in the “threatening” dinner table conversation instigated by his parents when Mamet was a child. Mamet, Lahr says, was initially so hostile to him, that he considered abandoning the profile. Much of the information about his childhood was unearthed when Mamet compromised and told Lahr to talk to his sister.
It’s noteworthy that Lahr writes in the article that Mamet “belongs in the pantheon of this century’s great dramatists” and that “no other American playwright, except perhaps Tennessee Williams, has ranged so widely…”
With Mamet about to debut China Doll, his 11th play on Broadway (38 years after his first): Has Lahr’s view of Mamet changed in the 18 years since the profile was published?
“Mamet calls theater a young man’s game,” Lahr answers. “He’s still writing well for the movies. I don’t respond as much to the later plays. People change.
“These are snapshots in time. Generally speaking, there’s a kind of slacking off – not always though. People go on to do other work, some of which is good.”
Of the 16 theatrical profiles included in “Joy Ride” – 12 playwrights and four directors – only two are women. (Besides Sarah Ruhl, it’s the director Susan Stroman.) A comment by Ruhl in Lahr’s 2008 profile of her helps explain the title of the collection: “Lightness isn’t stupidity,” she says. “It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious…”
Lahr believes “we live in a Puritan culture that is confused when it comes to lightness and seriousness.
Camp, for example, is a very serous notion, presented in a very unserious way.”
Throughout the pages of his books, Lahr prides himself on getting the answers to “forbidden questions” that yield “singular revelations” providing a key to unlock at least some of the mystery of theatrical talent. He links Tony Kushner’s “heroic theatrical endeavor,” for example, to the “fierce frustrated artistic ambition of his mother.” But, in the spirit of lightness, it somehow seems more relevant that, before every opening night, as he told John Lahr, Kushner feels compelled to sing without misstep every verse of “Begin The Beguine.”