The New York Times is not as awful as say The New York Post, but that’s an unfair comparison. The Post stopped printing news a long time ago, and is owned by an evil megalomaniac who is destroying America. To its credit, The Times does still carry old-timey news stories written by actual correspondents in remote and sometimes dangerous parts of the world, and while it’s owned by a family prone to nepotism, they probably are not in league with Satan. However, every time The Times tries to do “lifestyle,” “arts” or anything other than straight news or quirky obits, I have to ask myself, “Who the hell do you think your audience is NY Times?”
I get it. A lot of this is playing to the aspirations and fantasies of readers. What New Yorker doesn’t enjoy lusting after spacious lofts she’ll never be able to afford in the real estate porn section? 6000 square feet. So big. Hmmm.
But when every non-news story seems to be written for the 1% of the 1%, it gets to be a little much.
What outrage was committed today? Just a line in Ben Brantley’s review of Wallace Shawn’s new play at the Public Theater, Grasses of a Thousand Colors. I am exactly the type of selective, quirky theater goer who might or might not go to see it. I could be persuaded to part with my limited designated arts dollars by a glowing review. Pareles’ review is glowing. What’s off-putting is his description of the character of Ben. Pareles writes, “You should also pay attention so that you can recognize his ilk the next time you meet someone like him in some fancy environment like Davos or the Four Seasons restaurant.”
Really, Ben? Am I the crazy one here? Am I the only one sitting in the audience at the Public Theater who’s never been to the World Economic Forum or even The Four Seasons? In fact, until I just looked it up, I didn’t even know the Four Seasons still existed. I’ll grant you, theater in the US has become an activity mostly for the few. Ticket prices are high enough to keep away the masses and our capitalist overlords work against government support for the arts. Tourists might go to see a musical spectacular on Broadway – a once or twice in a lifetime treat, but a serious play at the Public? There will probably be people in the audience who have met people exactly like Ben in the places where Ben would be. However, they won’t be all the people in the audience. They won’t even be the majority of people in the audience. Most of us will be more ordinary folk. Not poor, that’s true. But not Davos rich. Teachers, students, librarians, professionals, semi-professionals, artists of all types, retirees, etc. etc. An educated bunch for sure.
We are the ones keeping theater alive in this city. We are the ones sitting on our butts in the parking garage of Lincoln Center waiting for $20 rush tickets to the opera. We are the ones who know to go to the Play Express line at the TKTS booth, or what shows sell rush tickets and when.
If the play succeeds, it will succeed because Ben is not only the type one might run into in the highest circles, but because he shares at least some characteristics with people most of us are more likely to actually know. That doesn’t mean playwrights need to write exclusively about ordinary people, or people who are just like us. It means that in writing even about kings, the audience must see in them our common humanity.
Not having seen the play, going only by Brantley’s review, I understand it takes place in a rarefied atmosphere, but I have no idea whether a groundling like myself would even be capable of understanding it.
Possibly, Mr. Brantley was told to put something in to stroke the egos of the 1% of Times readers who do go to Davos and the Four Seasons. They’re the ones bringing in the advertisers that make even having a print edition possible. But is the aim of a good theater review to help bring in an audience, or is it to cater to a few wealthy patrons? If it’s the former, here’s an easy fix:
“You should also pay attention so that you can recognize his ilk the next time you meet come across someone like him in some fancy environment like Davos or the Four Seasons restaurant the lobby of the Public Theater or a New York Times sponsored event.”
(Marion Stein apologizes to Mr. Brantley if she misread, and he was just being humorous and too subtile for her. Possibly, she’s reached her Emily Latella years, in which case, nevermind. Also, she apologizes to Jon Pareles. Looking at the hardcopy as I wrote the blog, I initially misidentified him as the author. The error was pointed out by an astute commenter below. In any case, while you’re here feel free to look at some other posts or check this out.)