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Charles McNulty: A father writes to a critic who panned his son's play. The critic responds

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

I wish I could end this tale on an uplifting note, but the father wrote back to pursue his original point that my criticism wasn't at all "constructive." I might have replied that indicating what doesn't work can sometimes be as useful as pointing out what does, but I held back. He expressed relief that other critics had a different view of the play, but acknowledged, with what seemed to me a heavy paternal heart, that his son had yet to make any money from his plays.

I stood by what I wrote, but sincerely wished them both well again. I was writing about a play, but he was writing about his grown child. It was a reminder that the commentary I'm composing on deadline isn't happening on a plane of pure ideas. Vulnerable human beings — and their perhaps even more vulnerable loved ones — are on the receiving end.

Still, I contend that honesty is the only answer to this moral dilemma. That doesn't mean assuming the role of Alceste in Moliere's "The Misanthrope," the critic of society who calls out everyone's faults while remaining oblivious to his own.

The model for me is Jan Morris, the famed British travel writer who died last year at 94. I've long been devoted to Morris' books, enticed by the insouciant brilliance of her prose even when the place she was writing about held little interest for me.

I spent the worst of the pandemic going around the globe with her, reading a few pages a night of her anthology "The World: Life and Travel, 1950-2000." Her approach to her subject, while alert to history, geography and culture, was unapologetically impressionistic. Her prodigious literary output records her well-stocked, undogmatic and finely discriminating mind.

"I am by nature an outsider, by profession an onlooker, by inclination a loner, and I have spent my life looking at things and happenings, and observing their effect upon my particular sensibility," she writes in her introduction, connecting this writerly estrangement in part to her trans journey, becoming "Jan instead of James."

 

Morris' fierce independence, her refusal to censor her real opinions and her mischievous sense of humor inspire me as critic. But it was at the end of the book that she articulated the philosophy that runs throughout her writing like a spiritual spring. The great lesson she distilled through her explorations of world culture couldn't be simpler: "Be Kind."

She described her "rule of life" as "so straightforward that we all know what it means" and no theologians are needed to explain it to us. This article of faith, however, didn't water down the piquancy of her style or soften the often bracing nature of her social observations. She wasn't trying to win popularity contests in the cities and towns she captured in her bold literary brushwork.

Sharing one's perceptions can be a form of kindness too, especially if the larger picture is humanely kept in view. Morris companionably allowed us to join her on the peregrinations of her consciousness, never expecting that we'd follow her every step of the way, but glad for the company while it lasted.

I am similarly grateful for your presence on these expeditions of mine in the contemporary theater.

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