The Magazine

Nightingale’s Song

The collected versatility of a ‘really good’ critic.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Drama critics come in all kinds, besides, of course, good and bad. There are those who regurgitate the plot and those who gallop off on hobby-horses. There are those with sound ideas but no style; those with impressive styles but no taste. Some tergiversate, even without a Janus face; others ride one point into the ground. Then there are the really good ones, like Britain’s Benedict Nightingale, whose song should be heard far beyond Berkeley Square.

Benedict Nightingale

Benedict Nightingale

James illman

And so it pointedly can be with this collection of new critical pieces, some of which are based on past reviews but go further and deeper than the contemporaneous notices I pleasurably read in the New York Times on Sundays during his all-too-brief incumbency from 1983-84. Stimulating they were, like his longtime reviews in the Times of London—and often also in the New Statesman, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Enjoyable, too, was his memoir of Sunday-critic life in New York, Fifth Row Center: A Critic’s Year On and Off Broadway (1986), but it is this broader and deeper new book that confirms his status as one of the best in a pullulating field.

The 103 little essays, each one centering on an important opening night, constitute a panorama that extends from The Oresteia of Aeschylus (458 b.c.) to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009 a.d.)—covering works and productions of just about every significant Anglophone dramatist, as well as those of a good many Europeans. The title’s “great moments” are a trifle misleading: These remarkable, compact pieces do not view “moments” as literal minute incidents, but as momentous events and achievements of lasting importance.

And not, usually, of single plays only. Generally, these moments lead to mature and incisive discussions of entire oeuvres and careers, little--known but piquant production details, spectacular or disastrous performances, backstage scandals and existential vicissitudes, gifted directors, stupid censors, and perceptive as well as comically inept critics. All this bolstered by fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits, wildly comic anecdotes, bizarre audience responses, and artistic, historic, and philosophical speculations that provide supplementary insights in wonderfully rounded, highly literate prose.

Not being 2,000-plus years old or geographically ubiquitous, Nightingale relies for early or distant opening nights on written accounts by others; but he manages to boil down exhaustive readings into vivid pages as pregnant and lively as firsthand reports. These can involve such instances as the 1849 war between England’s starry actor William Macready and America’s equally stellar Edwin Forrest. (The former was pelted in Philadelphia with rotten eggs and in Cincinnati with half a sheep, and the two of them performed rival Macbeths in nearby Manhattan theaters, eliciting 20,000 stone-throwing rioters, up to 30 corpses, and many wounded.) Or they transport us to 1868 in Moscow, where Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull tremblingly opens after a hissed fiasco in St. Petersburg that had the author escaping “with his overcoat collar hiding his face” and his health worsened.

But things really get rolling when we reach Nightingale’s personal involvement as spectator or reviewer, where, in two pages, he can leave us totally immersed, entertained, and enriched, whether we are dedicated theatergoers or merely interested readers.

Though these pieces are mostly laudatory, the author can be very funny in occasional mockery. Take the item about a show called Twang!!, in which he allows that picking the worst musical is tricky because of intense competition. He evokes the terrible Marilyn, with its chorus of purple-clad plumbers feting Monroe in her bubble bath. Or Fields of Ambrosia, with “a chorus of Southern belles celebrating the death of a young man strapped into an electric chair behind them.” He wonders: “Did I really hear a sadistic prison warden sing ‘Your ass is too good to fry’ before assaulting a German murderess called Gretchen,” or herself sing as she “prowled in her cage on Death Row .  .  . ‘Do it, boy, fry me while I’m hot’?” 

There are more, similar recollections, as Nightingale always provides pungent peripheral stuff before he gets to his main subject, here Twang!!, an absurd Robin Hood story about whose ludicrous rehearsals Nightingale is hilarious, ending with citing its “number in which medieval beauties begged for a locksmith to undo their chastity belts.” 

But how neat is this, about Mother Courage and Her Children and Bertolt Brecht’s undependable alienation effect?

The irony was that [the spectators] were moved in what Brecht thought was the wrong way. That they were stirred by the altruism of Kattrin, who had been left dumb and disfigured by violent soldiers was fine by him. But to see Mother Courage as a gallant survivor? That flouted his intentions—which was why Weigel, who was Brecht’s wife, had inserted business specifically but not quite successfully designed to desentimentalize her. 

Perhaps the quickest way to convey Nightingale’s aptitude is to cite evocations of great performances. Here he is about Kevin Spacey as the salesman Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh:

Such were his skills that today he’d be successfully running encounter groups or an evangelical cable channel or a sinister new cult. Joshing, eyeballing, taking his victims by their shoulders and stroking them like some fundamentalist healer, refusing to rise to their taunts or buy their excuses, Spacey radiated laid-back charm and smiling self-belief; yet there was a coldness behind the affable grin, a hollowness inside the steel, an unease below the confidence, a danger that surfaced when he outed himself as the most destructive pipe-dreamer of all.

Or take this, about Eileen Atkins, whom, perhaps even above his admired Barbara Jefford, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench, he celebrates at the climax of her Hannah in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana:

Throughout, she had managed to be astringent without becoming austere, rigorous but not cold, grave but not sententious, precise but not severe, unsmiling yet outgoing, emotionally generous and humane. But at this point she seemed to move into another dimension, her long, pale face shining in the moonlight as she said, and meant, that “nothing human disgusts me unless it is unkind or violent.” She had plumbed the depths, seen the darkness, and emerged with a hard-won charity and belief in endurance. The oddball mystery of the moment, seeming as it did to reconcile the two sides of Williams’s own divided psyche, held the first-night audience rapt. As it did me.

How aptly this unites the actress with the author, about whom the piece previously goes into poignant biographical and psychological details.

I wish I could reproduce here, as examples of that rare thing, an absolutely perfect critique—a couple of the numerous exemplary essays. One is of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, but extends into a discussion of that playwright’s (and human being’s) misery and grandeur, thus helping to rehabilitate a career that Kenneth Tynan and others had cruelly sabotaged. Or the piece about Quartermaine’s Terms and Simon Gray, whose plays 

burrow into the emotional interstices of people, examining the yearnings, griefs, treacheries, self-deceptions, cruelties, resentments, feelings of failure and (sometimes) clumsy kindnesses with humor and incisiveness, and a depth few modern British dramatists could touch.

Or what about the brilliant accounts of works by his beloved Chekhov and Brian Friel; or the four pieces each on various Hamlets and Macbeths, all different yet equally illuminating? And so much more.

Please do not assume that this praise is elicited by a very slight, long-past contact with Benedict Nightingale, or is an ultimate attempt to repossess a Dior umbrella forgotten in the trunk of the Nightingale car and not recovered despite repeatedly unheeded requests. Critics are notoriously consumed with petty rivalries, so excessive encomia for one another can compete in frequency with hens’ teeth and must represent overwhelming compulsion.

Nor am I in a rare, slavish agreement here with a kindred spirit. I do not countenance his high regard for America’s Living Theater, England’s Theatre de Complicite, or Canada’s Robert Lepage—or for that matter, share his enthusiasm for Harold Pinter, Federico García Lorca, or Arthur Miller. But such differences are finally irrelevant. I admire the man, who is happily still with us, and his pleasant voice, which, like the voices of Heraclitus’ nightingales in William Cory’s famous poem, not even Death could take away.

John Simon is an author and critic living in New York.