It’s Open War on Critics! Or At Least It Ought to Be

When it comes to critics, I’m with Nathan Lane. Then again, I’m not. Mr. Lane doesn’t like critics one bit, and I can certainly sympathize with that. Critics are the kind of people who would send Hedda Gabler to a marriage counselor. Not me, of course. The other critics. Mr. Lane would like to send critics to the moon. Unless, that is, his latest incarnation as Sheridan Whiteside, the caricature of Alexander Woollcott in The Man Who Came to Dinner , has the critical fraternity rolling in the aisles with helpless laughter. In which case, our Nathan will suddenly adore every critic in the land.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles, as Wittgenstein said over tea. What brings us to the revolting subject of drama critics, however, is Mr. Lane’s outburst in last week’s Observer (“The Man Who Came To Bubby’s: Nathan Lane Takes On His Critics”). I had just finished enjoying my own column when I turned to read Mr. Lane announcing rather endearingly that the critics have “very small penises.” Not me, of course. The other critics. Well! Methinks the boy projects too much.

I care not whether it’s actually true that Nathan Lane has the teeniest pee-pee on the planet, but one thing is certain. He’s sure got a big mouth. On the other hand, who on earth wants to be criticized ? Who wants to be judged? Not me, not you. Not our Nathan.

No one who works in theater ever remembers a good review, only a bad one. As a general rule, we call this paranoia. But it’s understandable. Suppose you went to a party, only to be told the next day that you dazzled absolutely everyone-except for one person who hated you. It follows that you will no doubt be offended a little. You will be indignant. You will be upset. And before you know it, you will be tossing and turning sleeplessly at night, forgetting your dazzling self and wishing to kill the critic.

So it goes with the actor, only more so. “The worst review I ever got,” Mr. Lane told The Observer , recalling no positive reviews, “was by Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, who wrote: ‘Nathan Lane is a rank amateur who should never be allowed on the stage.’ The second-worst notice came from that barrel of fun, Robert Brustein [of The New Republic ]: ‘Nathan Lane is an irrepressible actor who should be forcibly repressed.’”

It is never a shrewd idea for an actor to remind the public of his bad reviews, but it’s no use saying to the irrepressible Mr. Lane, “But Nathan, you’re a star now. Get over it!” As the wise remark attributed to Orson Welles goes: “Every actor in his heart believes everything bad that’s printed about him.”

It’s no good trying to comfort Mr. Lane, then, by saying, “What’s the loss of a few tail feathers to an eagle?”

He will only reply, “I don’t feel like an eagle. I feel like a Teletubby.”

Cruel and witty things have been said, of course, by theater people about those well-known eunuchs in a whorehouse called critics. Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson were the leading critics of their day. At the recent memorial service for David Merrick, who was the last of the flamboyant Broadway producers, veteran drama critic Clive Barnes brought down the house when he recalled Merrick telling him of a wonderful dream he’d just had in which Walter Kerr died of a heart attack on the way to Brooks Atkinson’s funeral.

As Samuel Goldwyn put it: “Don’t pay any attention to the critics-don’t even ignore them.”

Oscar Wilde predictably declared his own superiority to all critics (and all other dramatists) when he described them as “Mediocrity weighing mediocrity in the balance, and incompetence applauding its brother.” Then again, the mighty Kenneth Tynan revealed a self-flagellating touch when he wrote, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” That’s true, though Tom Stoppard began as a critic, Bertolt Brecht would have made a good one and George Bernard Shaw was a renowned one. In every artist is a critic. Audiences make pretty good critics, too, provided you like the same things they do.

A critic is no more or less than an advocate in his right mind. He supports certain views, asking: “Do you agree?” This is not quite so exciting as it may seem. For night work is arduous, and one tends to hug the shadows lest one bump into Nathan Lane. It’s a shame that critics are seen as the Enemy. I don’t see myself that way. I see myself as a secret pyromaniac. I like to light fires, fan flames-what’s it to you? Occasionally, duty compels me to douse the dying embers with a bucket of water. But let’s not drift into bitterness. I am for uproar at the theater. I am with all those who are for honest, fierce debate and occasional hand-to-hand-combat.

The only violent incident I can recall between a performer and a critic happened years ago when Sylvia Miles threw a plate of pasta over John Simon’s head-to which the general response was to inquire whether that was the best she could do.

I would like to see Nathan Lane organize his opposition to critics better than he is. I have in mind a New York version of the renowned British Playwrights Mafia that was founded in the mid-60′s by the iconoclast and rebel playwright John Osborne to hit back at critics by any means necessary. Osborne was never too keen on the “treacherous parasites” at the best of times. “They should be regularly exposed,” he wrote, “like faulty sewage systems.” But when a new play of his at the National Theatre was savaged, he declared open war.

Anyone could join the British Playwrights Mafia, which had a club tie (a quill pen crossed with a bloody dagger). Anonymous postcards were fired off to nervous critics. “Watch out, fatty. We’re coming to get you” was sent to Sheridan Morley. The Daily Mail critic, a timid commuter, was threatened with being pushed under his morning train. It got so nasty that any critic who didn’t receive a death threat felt a miserable failure. The current Times of London critic, Benedict Nightingale, then a young man reviewing theater for the New Statesman , was threatened with what he describes as some kind of “exemplary thumping” and was told it would be better for his health if he avoided downtown Chichester. Suspecting a bizarre humiliation awaited him at the theater, Mr. Nightingale armed himself with a cream cake that went rancid in his raincoat.

The pleasure in silliness-a lark-is, of course, a very English trait. But for a while, the London theater seemed more fun, more brimming with possibilities and more alive than usual.

Well, I’m off now to see Nathan Lane in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s The Man Who Came to Dinner , while keeping an open mind, as always. Naturally, we wish Mr. Lane the best of luck, and hope that George S. Kaufman’s own devastating critique of another Broadway show doesn’t apply: “I saw the play at a disadvantage. The curtain was up.”