By now, you’ve probably heard the news that a Guthrie-produced play—Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures —is finally bound for Broadway (sometime in 2010, it appears)—and that the Guthrie “disinvited” theater critics from New York and Chicago from seeing the play, presumably because it’s not yet the work of art Kushner wants it to be.
So far, the focus in this kerfuffle has been on matters of form and protocol. Having invited national critics to a show that’s been hyped relentlessly for months, is it wise to ask them (after they have purchased plane tickets, no less) to stay away? And if you are a critic—specifically, if you are Ben Brantley of the New York Times —is it journalistically responsible (or at least a little gutless, as David Brauer suggests) to accede to the wishes of Tony Kushner and the Guthrie (which Brantley did). Or, is it merely the polite thing to do?
After all, if you are a New York Times subscriber, think how much fun it would be to read about the adventures of a theater critic who wouldn’t take no for an answer—and, in order to get past the Guthrie’s airtight security, had to dress up as a 55-year-old society matron from Wayzata. (Just try to find size 13 heels in this backward town!)
But no, the world will have to wait for Brantley’s verdict on The Intelligent Homosexual . That is a shame, as well as an inevitable result of having far too much critical power concentrated on one person—namely, whoever is reviewing for the New York Times . When Frank Rich was on the theater beat, he used to strike terror into the hearts of Broadway producers because the neural firings in his frontal cortex could make or break a show. His opinion was the only one that “mattered,” because people didn’t just read Rich, they decided whether to buy tickets to a show based on what he wrote. Kushner himself benefited enormously from Rich’s raves about Angels in America , which, at seven hours long, is not something most people would choose to see unless they have been assured by someone they trust that it’s worth their time. But it was the lash of Rich's pen that the New York theaterati truly dreaded.
Most critics do not wield this much power. No one does, in fact, because Frank Rich was a singular phenomenon. But Brantley is the Times ’ top theater critic at the moment, and, having been roasted on the spit of journalistic opinion before, Kushner is understandably skittish about allowing a man with that much power to write about an unfinished play. No one wants to go to a party half-dressed, right?
The smudgy gray territory in this debate has to do with what happens when art becomes a product, a commodity, a thing people are paying for with an expectation of something in return—in this case, entertainment. We live in a consumer society, so the temptation is to think about theater in terms of basic product-development: When you start charging people for it, the thing ought to be finished. Or, if it’s not, you should at least be able to complain about it.
But plays are not products, they are unwieldy beasts borne of a messy collaborative process that is as brutal to manage as it is difficult to predict. It’s a testimony to the professionalism of theaters like the Guthrie that they make it seem so effortless, because nothing could be further from the truth. Making plays is hard, grueling creative work, even when the playwright isn’t re-writing scenes in his hotel room every night. Furthermore, all new plays go through a gestation period, particularly new plays by Tony Kushner, whose creative process includes a tremendous amount of re-writing, re-thinking, and re-working. Genius though he may be, Kushner is not the sort of Mozartian artist who produces perfect gem-like work in the first draft. Rather, he thinks, chisels, and polishes—and getting it right takes time. Anyone who thought The Intelligent Homosexual was going to be finished by the time it opened—or even by the end of its run here—hasn't been paying attention. No one, particularly Kushner, ever claimed it would be—it was always considered a work in progress.
And this, I think, is where the Guthrie and Kushner may have missed a remarkable opportunity. Instead of keeping the country’s most influential critics at bay, they could have invited them out, explained that the play is still taking shape (as they did here, where most of “criticism” simply noted that the play is mixed bag of things that work and things that don’t), and perhaps taken one small step toward educating (and maybe even interesting) people around the country in Kushner’s playwriting process, if not the larger “celebration” of Kushner’s work and the unique collection of resources available at the Guthrie for making such an experiment possible. And who knows: Having heard about the play in its production phase, maybe New Yorkers would be more inclined to see it on Broadway, no matter what the critics have to say about the final version of the show.
Instead, people are treating Kushner like a sausage-maker who is behind because he had to feed Stephen Spielberg a script about Abraham Lincoln before he could start working on the Guthrie’s order. But The Intelligent Homosexual isn’t sausage, it’s art (or at least it aspires to be), and it might be healthy now and then to remind a public weaned on customer service and instant gratification that greatness does not always follow the laws of supply and demand, no matter how hard the artist tries, or how loudly the critics bray.
Kushner and the Guthrie clearly weighed the risks. A Broadway premiere is no small thing to sabotage, and any new Tony Kushner play comes freighted with intimidatingly high expectations. The local reviews were mixed, so they decided to err on the side of caution. It's understandable. It's just unfortunate that we live in a world where potentially enlightening discussions of the creative process are squelched by fear of what people might say. And when there's so much on the line, it's hard to know when you've crossed it.