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So What Do You Do, Ben Brantley?

The chief theater critic at The New York Times wields tremendous power over the Great White Way—and he's not afraid to use it.

- June 17, 2003

Since 1996, Ben Brantley has been the chief theater critic at The New York Times, a job that makes him undoubtedly among the most powerful men on the Great White Way. Of course, anyone in that gig is powerful, but Brantley's reviews have sometimes seemed to actively court controversy. At a time when producers are terrified too few people are interested in highbrow live theater, Brantley (whom they've unkindly dubbed "Big Ben") is often dismissive of the more commercial fare that's designed to attract an audience from beyond the Upper West Side and West Village. But Brantley acknowledges he likes being controversial, that the important part of reading a review is not necessarily to agree with it but rather to find its argument interesting and entertaining. Brantley spoke to mediabistro.com recently about being controversial, why it's fun, and how indulgent it feels to sometimes not be a critic.

Born: October 26, 1954
Hometown: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
First section of the Sunday Times: The front section or Metro

Right now you're arguably the most powerful theater journalist in the country. What was the career path that led to you being chief critic for the Times?
I joined the Times in 1993 as the second-string theater critic. Before that, I was a staff writer for The New Yorker and I was doing film reviews for Elle magazine, which is what ultimately captured the attention of editors at the Times. They had been looking for someone for a while, and Alex Witchell, who is married to Frank Rich and who had been my editor at Elle when we briefly overlapped, was familiar with my work. She pointed me out to her husband, and he threw my name into the hat, so to speak. I didn't expect anything to come of it.

And then at the Times?
Frank was still chief theater critic when I came on, but he moved to op-ed shortly after I arrived. David Richards—who had been the Sunday critic—became the chief critic, but not for very long. I think he stayed for about a year. Then there was Vincent Canby, who was the chief film critic and then was the Sunday theater critic. Next, he was the chief theater critic for a couple of years and, then, finally when he left in 1996, I stepped in.

What was the switch like, from writing about film to writing about theater?
I prefer theater because I think I have more of a natural affinity for it. It's something I grew up loving, which is something that is also true of film, but theater was a greater passion for me. I think everyone to some extent is a movie critic. There is a sense of privilege in being allowed to write about theater. It's not as much of a common dialogue, so you hope you're kind of opening a window for some people to look in on. There's never a time when I am not engaged by theater, even when it's bad or boring, but I can't say the same is true of films. I have found it is much easier to shut off during films, and leave that "reacting" mode, even when I have to review them.

Speaking of the different attention required: Theater is supposed to be an elite art, so how do you approach reviewing a show that doesn't really seem designed for an elite audience?
I think it's true that theater isn't always elite, but you have to remember it has always been a popular art form. In fact, it was the popular art of rather dubious reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries in this country. Broadway of late has certainly pandered out of a sense of desperation more than it used to, but if you look back to the theater reviews of the turn of the 20th century, you'll find a lot of the complaints made about Broadway then that are also being made today—that the shows we see are basically circuses or mere displays of technology. The so-called golden era of Broadway was actually pretty short-lived. We are always lamenting its decline and saying it is no good now, but I don't necessarily think that is anything new. Theater in general is certainly less glamorous than when I first came to New York as a kid, but I am also looking at it through adult eyes. I sit through some bad stuff, but when I get to sit through some of the good stuff, it is still rewarding like nothing else.

Are there certain critics that you look to as role models in your own criticism?
I more or less teethed on Pauline Kael growing up, because we subscribed to The New Yorker, so it was always around. She is not someone I necessarily agreed with about films, but that was when I first realized that agreement with readers should almost be irrelevant. What you really want is to enjoy the argument. I still read her before I go to bed sometimes. Another writer I certainly enjoyed was Kenneth Tynan. I liked his passion and the way he expressed his opinions. Moreover, I liked his wit, which rarely descended into preciousness.

You recently edited a collection of Times theater reviews from the past century. How was that?
It was great fun to go through that and sort of see how the critical voice had changed over the years. I developed a great respect for Brooks Atkinson, if for nothing else than for having held the job for as long as he did. I mean, he started off in the age of Show Boat and ended in the age of West Side Story and Waiting for Godot, and he kept his mind open. It was sort of a wonderful lesson to see that evolution. Frank Rich I enjoyed greatly long before I was at the Times, again for his passion and his polemical streak. He was able to generate excitement about the theater, which is something I think you ask of a critic of any discipline.

So what do you think of the "Butcher of Broadway" business?
I don't really understand that. If you go back and look at it, he wasn't really that harsh. I suppose there are a couple reviews that are much quoted that have assumed a kind of notorious afterlife, but I basically found that he was pretty measured. Anyone in our position, however, is going to get that epithet to some extent. The Times does have disproportionate power, which is a very different situation than in London. There, they not only have a much more active theater but also a far more active and wider pool of theater critics, making it impossible to respond to just one. But as far as Frank, I don't really think that the epithet sticks. I think, by and large, that he was a great booster for the theater.

You acknowledge the power the Times critic has. Does that influence the way you look at a show? Is it in the back of your mind that you could influence ticket sales or the longevity of the show?
You can't think in those terms. I realized that early on. You do have to be respectful, of course. That's just the sort of style of the Times. You can't just hurl abuse or gush unconditionally over something. As a critic, I do try to catch my most base instincts before they emerge. On the other hand, I don't want to muzzle myself all together, because, if I do, who is going to read what I have to say? So I sort of try to strike a balance. I think I have a certain mindset going in that I am going to write within a certain tone, but beyond that, I can't think of it.

Part of what's fun about keeping up with different critics is this sort of incessant back-and-forth between certain ones. Why do you think theater critics, more than other critics, have this sort of interplay?
While you wouldn't necessarily have this conversation about books, I think you might also see it with film. That's because I think you have some of the same obsessions with film as with theater. Of course, with movie criticism, there is just so much more to be considered that I don't think there is one particular work that captures the imagination to the same extent. With theater, I think that it does tend to attract fanatics for some reason. There are people who approach it as a religion. So when you have that level of engagement you are going to have pretty passionate discourse, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I am all for anything that generates interest.

Do you still find time to follow film?
Sure. I go to the movies. There hasn't been a whole lot I have felt I had to see recently, but it is a pleasure now to watch films. It has become an indulgence. I can just turn off my internal assessment machine—although I imagine you don't ever turn it off all together—but just to the point where I can enjoy something that is truly bad and not even think about it. I think that is one of the greatest luxuries there is.

Jennifer Baker is an editorial intern at mediabistro.com.



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