(photograph by Eric Y. Exit)
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. But if you’re an ambitious, challenging new play, it may be the second impression that counts.
Critic Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wrote a mixed review of Rebecca Gilman’s A True History of the Johnstown Flood, playing now at the Goodman Theatre. Though respectful of the play’s scope, Jones writes, “There is so much that this single play wants and needs to support, its own internal dam eventually bursts, washing away the clarity of its narrative track.”
But then things get interesting. A few days pass, and in a reconsideration of the play, Jones says, “I’ve been lying in bed at night, pondering the darn thing. I can’t get it out of my head… And now that I’ve stared at the ceiling for a few nights, well … I suggest you go and see what all the fuss is about.”
To Jones, the sincerity of the play’s ambition is what makes it both difficult and necessary: “When other writers approach such an epic theme, they do so with a glancing blow, piecing together little Brechtian scenes, carefully distancing themselves from being forced into too much of a thematic corner. Not Gilman. She takes on the task of writing a massive play about an epic disaster with no such erudite defense mechanisms. She writes with emotion. Realistic heart. She rolls the dice.”
Zev Valancy takes this fascinating critical revision and runs with it on his blog, On Chicago Theatre. Referencing the controversial themes of the recently published Outrageous Fortune, Valancy asks how a theatre can balance the embrace of risky new work with the need to present finished plays of sure quality.
The comments on Valancy’s blog, and on both of Jones’ pieces, reveal the wide and fascinating difference of opinion on this tension between risk and quality, and of the play itself. Regardless of where you fall on that divide, a second question emerges: how do we allow critical opinion to evolve when our first impression doesn’t last?
The history of theatre is rife with these critical about faces: most recently, the reevaluation of Sarah Kane’s Blasted from “disgusting piece of filth” rejection to a near canonical embrace. Often it takes a significant second production to make the value of a groundbreaking play clear, as was the case with Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
But when the playwright in question is not established, their work may not receive a second chance. This is especially true in a time where criticism itself is under siege, and like Virginia Woolf’s famous quote, plays pass “in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether…”
Some critics are taking note: Ethan Stanislawski of the blog Tynan’s Anger recently posted his resolve to review more slowly, giving each show greater context and consideration, hoping to avoid “rushed, lazy opinions”.
Whether this change in critical metabolism occurs in the blogs or the papers, a theatre risking new ground needs a criticism willing to take the time to travel there. So here’s to the second impression – long may it be revised.
Your Two Cents: Have you ever significantly changed your opinion on a play? If so, which plays and why?
By day, Gus is the mild-mannered Circulation and Customer Service Manager at TCG. By night, he transforms into August Schulenburg: playwright, actor, director, and Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble. His produced plays include Riding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, Other Bodies, Rue, The Lesser Seductions of History, and Jacob’s House.