Wednesday, November 30, 2005

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