The Magazine

Nightingale’s Song

The collected versatility of a ‘really good’ critic.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By JOHN SIMON
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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.