Friday, March 25, 2011

What's all this then?

I decided to take a look at THE BUTTERFLY COLLECTION controversy. My Facebook buddy Liz gave me a heads-up to this transcript of Theresa Rebeck's speech at ART/NY Curtain Call on her blog. It's over a year old but still worth a look. Excerpt:
The play is called The Butterfly Collection. I wrote it in 1999. It is about a family of artists, and the tensions that rise between the father, who is a successful novelist, and his two sons, one of whom is a struggling actor, and the other who is an antiques dealer. Tim Sanford at Playwrights Horizons fell in love with this play and said he would produce it in the fall of 2000, and he talked to the guys who run South Coast Rep and they read it and included it in the new play festival that spring, so that we had a chance to work on it out there. The workshop was great, and we were the hit of the festival.

So Rebeck describes what she thinks the play is about. And she mentions it was well-liked. Except by Bruce Weber at the NYTimes:
When the New York Times published its review it was not what anyone expected. The reviewer, who shall remain nameless, dismissed the play - which was about art and family - as a feminist diatribe. He accused me of having a thinly veiled man-hating agenda, and in a truly bizarre paragraph at the end of the review, he expressed sympathy with the director because he had to work with someone as hideous as me.

I found the review in question in the NYTimes archives:
THEATER REVIEW; Like Father (a Writer), Like Son (an Actor), and Neither Is Likable
Published: October 4, 2000, Wednesday

Near the end of Theresa Rebeck's bilious new play "The Butterfly Collection," Sophie, a young woman who has spent several weeks as the assistant to a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, finally gives literal voice to the complaint that the play itself seeks not only to address but also to avenge.

"Why is it always about the man?" Sophie says, a response to what the novelist has said about her own short story, that it pointedly ignores the male character at the center of it. But of course she's also talking about the novelist himself, a bullying egomaniac (whom she has declined to sleep with) and about his son, another bullying egomaniac (with whom she has slept).

The father and son are the twin villains of this play, which opened yesterday at Playwrights Horizons. Their testosterone-fueled rivalry is portrayed as a cruel force that humiliates nicer people - that is, women - and churns up a family like a cyclone in a barnyard. Neither one cares much for Sophie, and they aren't really competing for her, but she is in their path, so she must get picked up, spun around and flung aside with the rest of the human detritus. In fact, Paul, the novelist father, and his son Ethan, an actor, are such awful guys in such predictably awful ways that if this weren't a contemporary domestic drama set in Connecticut, they'd be wearing black hats. This is a play that's about the men, all right, and Ms. Rebeck gives it to them good.

Ethan, 40 years old and in the throes of a self-created professional crisis - he's incensed that the small theater that wants him for a play is insisting that he audition - has arrived for a rare visit to his parents' country house at a time when his father is having a crisis of his own. Paul, long blocked, is late with a new novel, and his publisher has insisted that he produce a manuscript or return his substantial advance. It's a humiliating (and given that the play credits him with a Nobel, hardly credible) turn of events, and he's looking forward desperately to the arrival of a new assistant to help him push forward with his book.

That such an accomplished writer can work only with the constant feedback and sentence-massaging of a 20-something postgraduate student is preposterous, of course, but Ms. Rebeck's perspective here is that without their women, men are without resources. There are strong hints that Sophie ends up responsible for the breakthrough passages in the new book, just as Paul's wife, Margaret, deserves much of the credit for the Nobel winner.

Paul and Ethan spend the play braying at the moon and at each other, leaving the other characters feeling cowed and dismissed. In addition to Margaret and Sophie, the casualties are Laurie, the girlfriend Ethan has brought with him, and Ethan's brother, Frank, the soft-spoken and considerate owner of an antiques shop who, we're supposed to presume, is gay. It's supposed to chasten us when it turns out he's not; he is the playwright's paradigm of the right kind of man.

Agenda-based writing rarely does much for actors, and it's not surprising that the performances fall into two camps. In one are the noncharacters, the bad guys and their innocent pawn. Neither James Colby, as Ethan, nor Brian Murray, as Paul, ever reveals a scintilla of the charm the other characters keep saying they have. Mr. Colby is particularly gifted at landing Ethan's most repellent lines, but when he's supposed to be ingratiating he's a transparent wheedler, and he fails to make the slightest case that Ethan could attract either a solid and decent woman like Laurie or a randy young thing like Sophie.

Maggie Lacey, a young actress who is making her Off Broadway debut as Sophie, has her moments. But she's unfortunately saddled with some terribly cliched scenes that call for her to be flustered, and she must also deliver the monologues that open and close the play and that provide it with its precious title. As for Mr. Murray, he plays Great Writer in the Hemingway-clone mode, quick to bellow, quick to insult, quick to defend the grandiosity of the artistic pursuit. It's a shallow portrayal, shrill even (odd to say for an actor of Mr. Murray's girth and vocal sonority), but then it's a shallow part.

On the other hand, the characters who have the playwright's sympathy have real roles, and they are all well handled. Reed Birney, as the sweet-tempered Frank, gives a lovely performance as an introvert who takes pleasure in tranquillity and beauty but still rues his inability to swagger. Laurie, a woman stunned by the realization of the kind of man she's fallen for, is given an aptly wounded and dignified reading by Betsy Aidem.

And Marian Seldes, as Margaret, finds a full palette of colors in a woman who sees her own life's worth in her difficult family. Acerbic, wry, palliating, disapproving and subtly, desperately loving, Ms. Seldes shows us a character who is both thrilled and saddened by her lot. Her work is reason enough to see the show.

Considering the circumstances, the director, Bartlett Sher, accomplishes much. He provides the play with a graceful and fluid pace on a set by Andrew Jackness that suggests the most spartan, least inviting country house in New England; it's very uncoziness is undoubtedly the point. Mr. Sher wrings particular tension from scenes in which characters pass through already occupied rooms not knowing what the other characters know. You have to wonder, though, how he managed to get his good work done with the playwright so ready to resent him.

So I read the play. I didn't especially like it, I thought it was a bit of a soap opera and if the play is about a father and sons, as Rebeck says, well I didn't find that struggle especially compelling. And it is a bit of a cliche, this father/son struggle. So what makes Bruce Weber so apoplectic? Is it really because a 20-something college student makes a brief bit of possibly feminist critique? Could that really be all there is to it?

Looking at several of the reviews of the production, I didn't see any others that detected this misandry that Weber claims.

And Ethan especially is not a true villain. Weber complains that the play shows that "Paul's wife, Margaret, deserves much of the credit for the Nobel winner." But it is Ethan who is the one who gives her the credit. Although they are neither nice people, the father and Ethan are very different. And even if you think they are uniformly, unrealistically evil, at the very least one of the three males in the play is not evil. If Rebeck was bent on a man-hating screed wouldn't she have made all the men hateful? But Weber doesn't even give her credit for being only 66% misandrist.

No, Weber's views are not justified by the characters or their interactions. I think this passage is what prompted the hissyfit:

Oh, come on! You know what I'm talking about! John Updike has never written a believable woman in his life. Thomas Wolfe? Hardly. Saul Bellow, Brodkey, your friend Mr. Mailer, let's face it, the whole twentieth century -


Oh really?


Chock full of misogynist creeps. Conrad, Lawrence, even Fitzgerald, Daisy notwithstanding, surprisingly Hemingway actually does better than he's given credit for, when he takes a shot at it - but overall - not to say they're not geniuses, but really. Half the human race. Don't you think it should be considered a limitation if you can't imagine what it means to be human for half the human race?

I think that Weber reacted to this as sacrilege. A female character attacking Great Men of the Arts. And then later Rebeck references the Brecht co-author controversy, this time through the "good-wife" doormat Margaret character:
Drafting is different from writing and it happens much more than you know. Brecht? It doesn't take away from his genius, mind you, but he didn't write all those plays. No indeed. He slept with some very smart women, that one.

I can't imagine that Weber would go so far as to deny the reality that throughout most of the twentieth century women were indeed absolutely, unquestioningly subordinate to men. Women served men, men did the real work, the important work, and men got all the credit. No I think that Weber was mad that Rebeck would have the bad taste and poor manners to bring up such issues in the middle of a traditionalist father-son drama dynamic.

While I don't think the set-up works artistically Weber's attack truly is over the top.

The kind of male-dominated literature that Sophie disparages was discussed recently on the blog Tiger Beatdown as "Fond Memories of Vagina." I think this is both funny and apt:
Fond Memories of Vagina is a book that has been written over and over again. A few months ago I picked up Fury by Salman Rushdie at a thrift store. I knew this was Fond Memories of Vagina on the first page. All of the descriptions of people are based on a specious understanding of contemporary pop culture: It's written in the way older male authors try to imitate youth culture (GAWWWWD Tom Wolfe), shoehorning in references to THE LATEST TECHNOLOGIES which make them seem even more clueless than ever. (Your main character has a MYSPACE account? What is this, the War of 1812?)

The main characters of these books are all the same guy. He spends three hundred pages aggrandizing or belittling himself, but is ultimately the only fit judge of his self-worth and life. He is usually embattled, defending himself against the intrusion of silly, feminine interpretations of his behavior, lest he start making decisions based on the lives and feelings of others rather than his own childish needs. He blames everyone else for his problems, he is able to take women’s measurements on sight with eerie precision, but he’s not very good at sex. The decline of his libido is always a metaphor for death. ALWAYS. You get the picture.

And who are these women? Take your pick from the treasure trove of stock characters that the male sexual fantasy complex has fed us. There are high-powered, but emotionally brittle female psychiatrists, tragic young ingenues, naive female poets, the occasional innocent farm girl — her cow milking a not too subtle metaphor for what the protagonist wants her to do to his well-read, internationally acclaimed boner — with the smell of tulips about her. Let me ask you something, Older Male Authors of a Certain Generation: Have you ever been near a cow?

Both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Updike went underage, which is revolting. They were largely shielded from criticism by the male apologists of high art, who reject critical interpretations of literature that expect the writer to take his head out of his own ass once in a while and decide against loving descriptions of pedophilia. In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the ninety-year-old protagonist begins the book by ordering a young virgin on the telephone. Updike's character in Toward the End of Time begins molesting a young girl for money. There seems to be a suspension of sexual morality in these books, built as they are on a rapidly deflating, and therefore desperately adhered to, sense that they are chasing HIGHER IDEALS. These ideals include the assumption that Fond Memories of Vagina is a book that needs to be written. Otherwise, we might forget that older men lust after younger women.

Let us call these books what they are: high-minded pornography. They are a way for Older Men of a Certain Generation to read a book about how sexy they are, how normal their neurotic tendencies are, and how easy it is to get young women to have sex with them. But they should not be labeled “universal,” as literature so often is. I am NOT talking about censorship. I am talking about the fact that these books won’t appeal to more than half of the population, and yet are marketed as if they written for everyone. If I decided to write a book about all the sex I wish I was having, I would have the sense to name it McKinley from “Wet Hot American Summer” Sends Garland a Sext or The Night Shia LaBeouf Didn’t Ruin It By Talking, not The Silent Quickening of Thomas Dupree. That would be misleading.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Rebeck was attacking. And this kind of thing is sacred to men of Bruce Weber's generation. The impious will suffer the mighty thunderbolts of NYTimes critics hurled from Olympus. And please note, Weber's review was written right at the twilight of the Updike age, just before any upstart feminist could blog disrespectful things about Great Men of the Arts any time of the day or night for a potentially large and international audience.

And then it's quite possible, given the literary-arts field is small and inbred that one or more of those great men listed by Rebeck were personal friends of Weber.

So how badly did Weber's review harm this play? Well any bad review in the NYTimes will harm a play's prospects, it is universally agreed. I'm not sure that it matters why Weber hated it. None of the other critics loved it. It's not a great play. But it does serve as an interesting contrast to the critical reception to OLEANNA, from ten years earlier, a play in which a shadowy, scheming Group uses a not-very-bright college girl to maneuver a college professor into a corner in which he either has to submit to their dastardly demands to censor his work, or have his life destroyed through a false rape charge.

Critics didn't find this situation ridiculous or over-the-top at all. They thought it was an honest and brave take on the horrors being visited on society through political correctness. They adored OLEANNA. I suspect Bruce Weber did too.

These days Weber writes obituaries for the Times - for actual dead people, not playwrights careers - and can't do too much harm anymore. Unless Rebeck dies before him.

FUN FACT: I just saw Maggie Lacey, who played Sophie in THE BUTTERFLY COLLECTION, last night in THE MILK TRUCK DOESN'T STOP HERE ANY MORE.