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Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for “The New York Times,” 1980–1993 by Frank Rich 1998: Random House.

Weighing in at a presumptuous three-plus pounds and one-thousand-plus pages, Frank Rich’s Hot Seat is nonetheless only a “selection” from his thirteen years of reviewing for the New York Times, meaning there’s more where that came from—a show-stopping thought if ever there was one. Here he resurrects his “300-odd pieces” representing “barely a quarter” of his almost daily effusions between 1980 and 1993. George Jean Nathan in New York and James Agate in London used to collect their reviews annually in discrete little volumes, easy to heft if not always edifying to read; others, including Joseph Wood Krutch, John Mason Brown (why did American critics so frequently sport tripartite monikers?), and the Times’ own Brooks Atkinson, also came up with manageable volumes, the latter confining his thirty years on the paper to a different kind of book, Broadway, a 484-page chronicle of the scene between 1900 and 1970. Of the popular journalist-reviewers, none was more witty or passionately committed to the international scene than Kenneth Tynan, yet his collection, Curtains, an indispensable reference for anyone wanting to feel some of the heat cast off by Brecht and Olivier in performance, is only ten pages longer than Atkinson’s book.

So what might we make of Rich’s apparent grandiosity? First, to be fair—and it’s always wise to practice fairness on critics—he can’t be entirely to blame. Publishers are bonkers these days, either slashing their poets (Oxford University Press recently) or growing their biographers (all the rest). Evidently forgetting that Tolstoy and Proust, among others, may well have earned their bulk, they’ve been foisting elephantiasis on us for the past twenty years. Biographers, especially, are encouraged to account for every hiccup on the road to a mewling, puking seventh age, only occasionally pausing to catch a breath or two over the subject’s work. If I didn’t know any better, I might conclude that publishers are the true size queens in this world.

Second, however, it’s only fair to admit that they couldn’t get away with all this unwieldy nonsense without a little help from their complicit friends, the writers. Rich should quite simply know better. He admits, for a start, that only “stagestruck kids like I once was” would read such a collection “from start to finish.” But then, even that admission calls his judgment into question, since he doesn’t seem to have noticed that stagestruck kids don’t read anymore, though it ought to be said that, with so many of them working out at the gym every day, the book could always serve as a substitute dumbbell.

So why did he do it? Well, to try fairness again, he’s right to steer us away from the guilt we might feel by merely browsing through the index; more than that, he’s right to suggest that he’s representing a period that needs every historical reference point it can find, one that he describes acutely as a time (the eighties) when “Broadway lost whatever claim it still had as a source for the American theater.” If not him, who else?

The first-string Times reviewer is always the best-placed witness to an era: even if, as is likely, he doesn’t know all, he sees all and tells all, and in such a collection he’s reminding us continually of who did what and when. In 1980 he catches up with Edward Albee’s Virginia Woolf at the Long Wharf Theater in a production with Mike Nichols and Elaine May that was evidently a laugh a minute, managing to [End Page 131] compare it to the original 1962 production with Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen, which he accounts for as an “exhausting, lacerating, and, for many, shocking night of the theater,” even though he was only thirteen years old at the time, thus calling us back to that same stagestruck kid—a hint, perhaps, that it’s his puppy-love enthusiasm that sustains him through those...

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pp. 131-133
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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