Whether it is possible to separate the artist from the art is a question that has become more burning in recent years, as heinous behavior by men, particularly powerful white men, is no longer as easily tolerated as it had been for millennia.
In her new book “The Critic’s Daughter,” a memoir about her father, theater and literary critic Richard Gilman, Priscilla Gilman expands the discussion by considering whether it is possible to separate the critic from the critic.
She tries to honor the intellectual legacy of her father, who died in 2006, while painting a portrait of him that is both loving and penetrating about his strengths and shortcomings. The book is her story of a brilliant but deeply flawed father, and her motive for telling it seems to be in part self-therapy.
Ms. Gilman strives to capture its complexity in a memoir that is neither damning nor exculpatory. She includes excerpts from her brilliant writing, though without much context for her inclusion. But the biggest problem is that she doesn’t rigorously question her own worldview. The frame through which she views her father, a frame embedded with assumptions about money, class, and prestige, is not examined enough.
His sins are the sins of loving too much and in a way that is too self-sacrificing. The Cordelia of her father’s Lear is inevitably the sad and noble heroine of every anecdote she tells. But the narrow filial perspective treats a critic’s life as if he were a figure in a child’s doll’s house.
“To live is to fight the trolls in the heart and mind; writing is sitting down to judge oneself.” These words by playwright Henrik Ibsen were often quoted by his father in the classroom, and they diagnose precisely where his memories fall short.
I was apprehensive reading about Gilman’s ugly divorce with Lynn Nesbit, Ms. Gilman’s literary agent mother. Her daughter’s eager account of her fetish for dominatrix fantasies (a subject she does not shy away from in “Faith, Sex, Mystery,” her memoir of her conversion to Catholicism and subsequent departure from the church) made me feel as if I were invading the privacy of a family member or former therapist.
I am not related to Gilman and have never claimed to be a patient on his couch. However, I was her student for five years in the 1990s. (My name is included in the book’s acknowledgments with other alumni and colleagues.) Gilman was my advisor during my graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama, where she was co-chair of the department of playwriting and dramatic criticism. But more than that, he provided the intellectual foundation for my theater education.
His voice still resonates within me, urging me to hold fast to the artistic values he painstakingly articulated and promulgated to generations of students, who have come to share his conviction, as he writes in the foreword to his seminal book The Making of Modern Theatre. ”, that “great works can be as revealing of human existence as novels or poems”. A champion of drama as “a fountain of conscience,” Gilman challenged the entrenched anti-intellectualism of the American theater.
In a culture of fractured attention spans, devalued experience, and bullying groupthink, it’s healthy to remember the example of a critic whose allegiance was not to the commercial or ideological marketplace but to the art form it served. A dance critic was recently smeared with dog poop by a German ballet director upset by a bad review. Gilman understood “the need for destructive criticism,” the title of one of his indelible essays, in the same way that a gardener understands the need to weed. His work was not a branch of advertising, even as he sought to elevate the truly excellent from the meritorious.
An inveterate New York intellectual of the old school, Gilman spoke with the gruffness of a smoker, enjoyed a drink and carried himself like a rakish pirate in a jean jacket. He wasn’t the only Yale faculty member known to have had affairs with his graduate students, but his behavior had been fixed by the time I got to the school.
There is no defense for the sloppy ethics of the past. The Yale School of Drama, now the David Geffen School of Drama, is today a different institution, more egalitarian, less homogeneous, and much more conscious of maintaining order and security.
Students have more power and teachers are no longer considered demigods. This is all for the best, but I am nonetheless grateful to have been exposed to Gilman’s unadulterated critical sensibilities.
His pedagogy offered something not widely available elsewhere. She taught students to think. His critique workshops, a curriculum staple for budding critics and playwrights, were an experience of literary vivisection as he honed in on every cliché and confusing idea in that week’s student essay.
The blurry writing, he argued, was the result of confused thinking. The hyperbole offended him. Praise had to be earned in proportionate language. If he has feelings as strong as he claims, he must paint an honest picture and not resort to the breathless language of advertisements.
Gilman had made a name for himself as a critic in the Commonweal and served as a drama critic for Newsweek and then The Nation. His exacting prose style was forged in an era when small-circulation quarterlies still had a certain cachet. But the days of the Partisan Review were coming to an end, and while he recommended an editor at the Village Voice, where I found a publisher, he wasn’t preparing us for contemporary job fairs.
There were limits to his reach. He was against the theory at a time when graduate students in the arts and humanities could not afford to ignore Foucault, Derrida, and the army of capricious postmodernists. (My incorporation of queer theory into my dissertation put me on a thin layer of ice.) Jargon was the enemy, but grad students dreaming of tenure would have to look elsewhere in the university lest they be locked out of the discourse, a word he would no doubt use. have found lazy.
His name may no longer be widely recognized, but his legacy should not be underestimated. Gilman, along with Robert Brustein and Eric Bentley, created a space in American culture for serious dramatic criticism, aimed not at academic specialists or eager cultural consumers, but at educated readers hungry for a deeper aesthetic engagement with the theater.
By elucidating how Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov laid the foundations of modern drama, he opened his mind to the revolutionary achievements of Pirandello, Brecht, and Beckett. His philosophical orientation made him especially receptive to the avant-garde, but he admired professionalism, discipline, and skill above all else and had little patience for the self-deluding rhetoric and empty political gestures of theatrical cults.
As “Faith, Sex, Mystery” poignantly attests, Gilman was a seeker. The theater was part of his spiritual journey, but not in a dazzling way. The relationship between the material and spiritual realms paralleled for him the relationship between form and content in great works of art.
One of Gilman’s truisms is that a play like “Hamlet” cannot be paraphrased. A masterpiece cannot be reduced to a message. The form is not a container for the content. They work together to communicate what only drama in its full substance can convey. The biggest lesson to be drawn is that simple binaries, in art as in life, falsify reality.
The theatrical theme that most interested Gilman was being: consciousness, self-awareness, the experience of time, and the inescapable situation of radical uncertainty. As an art form in which human beings are embodied, drama is a natural conduit for metaphysics and ontology. Gilman recognized that what Sophocles was after in “Oedipus the King” and Shakespeare in “King Lear,” Chekhov was similarly exploring in “The Three Sisters” and Beckett in “Waiting For Godot”.
For Gilman, the life of an artist was always subordinated to the work. She disdained the biography mania. Criticism, in her opinion, takes us deeper into the mind of a playwright than a tale of bad marriages and career mishaps and triumphs. In her magnum opus, “The Plays of Chekhov: An Opening Into Eternity,” she locates the Russian playwright’s spiritual vision in the details and determination of his art.
It does not ignore man, but it prioritizes the part of him that endures, that is worth enduring. Reading Chekhov through Gilman is entering into communion not only with Chekhov’s soul but also with Gilman’s.
“The Critic’s Daughter” puts Gilman in the spotlight, but for reasons he probably would have found objectionable if the author hadn’t been his beloved daughter. Great writers transcend their personal misery. “We put our diseases on our books,” declares DH Lawrence. Gilman quotes these words in his Village Voice tribute to Jean Genet, and they apply equally well to her superlative critique.