The question in the headline above popped into my mind as I waded happily into “Joy Ride,” a collection of interviews, essays and reviews by former New Yorker theater critic John Lahr. (It’s from Norton; $29.95.)
The shows he’s writing about go back 22 years and stop at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Death of a Salesman” three years ago. I enjoyed Lahr’s writing in the magazine and have read much of his first-rate biography “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” (After a while, I leafed past Williams’ sexual encounters to get to the plays, the way one skips technical chapters about whaling in “Moby Dick.”)
In “Joy Ride,” Lahr intersperses profiles of playwrights (Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Shakespeare) with reviews of productions of their work. Then he devotes a section to shows that stand alone. He ends with analyses of directors (Ingmar Bergman, Mike Nichols), along with comments about productions they’ve helmed.
As I’ve been reading, a thought has recurred to me: Why read reviews after the play is over, usually long over?
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The first reason, perhaps, is confirmation of my own opinion. I saw Ralph Fiennes’ two-dimensional Hamlet on Broadway in 1995, though I can’t remember it well, and I might feel a little jolt of self-importance if a critic I respect confirms my opinions.
The second reason is information. I never saw Hoffman’s Willy Loman, though I have seen other people play him and have read the script multiple times. Perhaps, as Lahr analyzes one of my favorite plays, I’ll get new ideas for the next time I see it.
The third reason is a sense of discovery. I’m lukewarm about Harold Pinter. (I know, he’s universally acclaimed as a Nobel-winning master.) Sometimes, as in “The Birthday Party,” he seems keenly insightful. Often, as in “Homecoming,” I take hardly anything away from his work. By reading a review, I may find a way to approach an author who often baffles me.
The fourth reason – and the most crucial, I think – is to get a deeper understanding of who I am. When I see a play such as Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” which is reviewed in this book, I’m rocked to the core. (I pondered it through a two-hour train ride immediately afterward.)
I don’t go away thinking about the performances or the direction or the design. I ask myself what I’ve learned about the qualities that make us human, the things we feel and believe. A great critic can put those concepts into words with which I connect, even if I have never seen the production he’s assessing.
Lahr called this book “Joy Ride” because, as he says in his introduction, “Part of the theater’s big magic is to exhilarate; it has the power to put us beside ourselves, to banish gravity, to call out of us our most buried feelings, to make the moment unforgettable, to kill Time.”
When any critic (myself included) has those sensations, it’s his job to convey them. When he does, he’s worth reading decades after the show itself has turned to dust.