Of all the artists to come to prominence on Broadway in recent seasons, none has had more spectacular success than Ivo van Hove, a postmodern Belgian stage director who launched an American off-Broadway career in the ’90s. He moved uptown with revivals of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (2014) and The Crucible (2016) that received near-universal praise from the New York critics. Van Hove’s latest venture, a stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, has become an enormous commercial hit in part because it starred Bryan Cranston, lately of Breaking Bad, but also because the production received, as usual, general critical acclaim.
Having started out as an avant-garde minimalist, van Hove has since embraced increasingly elaborate modes of large-scale stage presentation. Early and late, though, he has always been a devoted practitioner of what is known in Europe as regietheater (director’s theater), in which it is taken for granted that the director of a play is co-equal in creative stature to the playwright. It is thus his invariable custom to superimpose slickly designed high directorial concepts on the shows he stages, regardless of whether they are relevant to what the author wrote.
Characteristic of van Hove’s directorial method was his production of A View from the Bridge, a play whose nominal setting is the Brooklyn waterfront. In van Hove’s staging, the action unfolded in the shadow of a huge charcoal-gray cube suspended over an ultra-simple playing area that was stripped of props and set pieces. The actors walked around the stage barefoot, accompanied by snippets of the Fauré Requiem played on an endless tape loop. A drum tapped at exasperatingly regular intervals to signify…what? Only, it seems, that van Hove was so determined to put a personal stamp on A View from the Bridge that he didn’t care whether any of his by now over-familiar avant-garde tricks were organically related to the script. Instead, they were ladled over Miller’s play like a thick, sour sauce.
Yet it is precisely van Hove’s insistence on subordinating the plays that he directs to his interpretations of them that most excites his critical admirers. The New York Times’s Ben Brantley, one of his most ardent advocates, called van Hove’s version of The Crucible “unsettlingly vivid.” “Mr. van Hove divests a historical work of period associations, the better to see its inhabitants as timelessly tragic and as close to you and me as the people in the seats next to us—or, if we’re honest, as our fallible selves.”
This review goes a long way toward putting van Hove’s success in perspective. For as immediately contemporary as his directorial style may seem to be, he is also a quintessential example of a familiar type of artist that has been with us ever since newspapers have been running theater reviews: the critics’ darling.
Time was when arts criticism typically articulated and refined established consensus views rather than deliberately cutting against their grain. Not until the coming of modernism did critics start functioning in earnest as advocates for truly difficult art, and even then, it was unusual for mainstream publications to hire “highbrow” critics, as the New York Herald Tribune did with Virgil Thomson and the New Yorker with Edmund Wilson. In any case, most American criticism was only modestly influential among the public at large, which was more likely to take its cues from (say) the reviewing panel of the Book of the Month Club than the back-of-the-book sections of Commentary or the Nation.
The chief exception to this rule was and is newspaper drama criticism, which has always had a noticeable effect on the bottom line of plays and musicals. The commercial importance of such criticism is partly due to its ubiquity—as late as 1970, New York still had a half-dozen critics whose collective opinion of a show could sway its performance at the box office—and partly because drama critics, unlike music critics, write about shows that are still running by the time that their reviews see print.
Needless to say, many drama critics have fit comfortably into the middlebrow camp, at times to the point of philistinism. Wolcott Gibbs, for instance, wrote with curt dismissiveness of the New York premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the sophisticated pages of the New Yorker (“I have seldom seen such meagre moonshine stated with such inordinate fuss”). But the city’s most influential critics, above all Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, usually did their best to engage with the coming of modernism to the postwar American stage.
When critics of Atkinson’s day crossed the line from thoughtful receptiveness to open advocacy, it tended to be not for “difficult” modern plays but for the work of a specific kind of performer, one whose characteristic qualities were well described in The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, William Goldman’s 1969 book about theater in New York. Singling out Carol Channing, Sandy Dennis, Beatrice Lillie, and Mary Martin for special mention, Goldman dubbed these four actresses “critics’ darlings,” a phrase that had long been in wider use—I have traced it as far back as 1944—but that he appears to have popularized.
Nor can Goldman’s definition of the term be bettered:
The thing that makes them critics’ darlings is, of course, simple and obvious: critics love them. All the time. Critics’ darlings are always praised, overpoweringly, regardless of the caliber of their work….Critics’ darlings all share this in common: extravagance of gesture. They gesticulate; they overdo. They are, in all ways, enormous. And they are all women.
Even for those who never saw Channing on stage, Al Hirschfeld’s numerous caricatures of her give a good working definition of the term. All hair and mouth and saucer-sized eyes, Hirschfeld’s Channing exemplifies Goldman’s acerbic remark that critics’ darlings are “people that never breathed on this or any other planet. It is not possible that anybody ever met anyone like Carol Channing on the street.”
Such birds of paradise have always been with us—though, in truth, not all of them were women. Indeed, Alexander Woollcott may have invented the category when he reviewed I’ll Say She Is, the 1924 show in which the Marx Brothers made their Broadway debut, describing Harpo Marx as “that sly, unexpected, magnificent comic….Surely there should be dancing in the streets when a great clown comes to town.”
What accounts for the willingness of drama critics to praise such artists in terms so overblown as to call into question their own objectivity? A character in Anthony Powell’s Temporary Kings remarks in passing that “very intensive womanizing” sometimes leads to “special tastes” (in this particular case, voyeurism). Much the same thing can happen to critics who have reviewed the same plays and musicals too often to remain fully responsive to their undeniable virtues. Noel Coward’s Private Lives is a comic masterpiece, but how often can one think of new things to say about it?
Far easier to fix on a flamboyant actor and evoke his excesses with the verbal equivalent of Hirschfeld’s swooping pen strokes—especially since most critics long for nothing more than a good reason to toss their hats in the air and join in the chorus of praise for a great performer. To spend one’s days and nights panning second-rate shows and doling out carefully measured compliments, even when such responses are wholly appropriate, cannot help but shrivel the soul.
But critics’ darlings are by definition few and far between. Scarcely any can be found on Broadway today, though Patti LuPone fits the mold much better than passably. Bette Midler’s performance in the title role of the 2017 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! was at least as good an example, despite the fact that her virtues were invisible and inaudible to those who, like me, are unresponsive to her brassy charms. To such benighted folk, the lavish praise of New York’s other critics (Ben Brantley described her performance as “barn-side broad and needlepoint precise”) made no sense at all.
It may be, however, that the enthusiasm with which Midler’s Dolly Levi was greeted was in part a response to the fact that her breed now runs so thin on the ground. While there is no shortage of outstandingly gifted young actors on and off Broadway—Laura Benanti, Carrie Coon, and Zoe Kazan come to mind—only one with the potential to become a full-fledged critics’ darling has appeared on the scene since I started reviewing theater in 2003. That is Nina Arianda, whose stage debut in David Ives’s Venus in Fur was greeted nine years ago with an explosion of critical ecstasy. But she has failed so far to live up to the great expectations aroused by her performance in that show.
Part of the problem is that today’s stage actors spend much of their time earning a living working in TV, a naturalistic medium in which larger-than-life performers like Channing invariably come across as implausibly exaggerated. This may well be responsible for the gradual disappearance of critics’ darlings, whose native habitat is the stage. Whatever the reason, though, something is militating against the continuing emergence of such artists.
It makes sense, then, that frustrated critics searching in vain for a new star on whom to heap their compliments might well be shifting their attention to directors of broadly similar inclination. If so, then Ivo van Hove’s ornately mannered, self-consciously spectacular stagings of such surefire midcentury chestnuts as The Crucible and A Streetcar Named Desire would seem to be ideally suited to the purpose.
Indeed, van Hove’s revivals go the critics’ darlings of days gone by one better, for in addition to being exercises in self-caricature writ immensely large, they are also left-of-center political statements of the most blatant kind. This was true even in his off-Broadway days. The first show of his that I saw was a 2010 revival of The Little Foxes in whose finale the character of Alexandra was shown on a video screen, escaping from the rapaciously evil capitalism of her money-hungry mother by boarding a plane to somewhere else—anywhere else—while John Lennon’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” played stridently in the background.
Such is van Hove’s now-accustomed modus operandi: He supplies the big-ticket scenic effects for which playgoers hunger, heavily frosted with the standard-issue political content that relieves them of the need to feel guilty for relishing such extravagance in the Age of Trump.
In the wake of the commercial success of his glossy stage version of Network, it is no surprise whatsoever to learn that van Hove is now planning to mount a Broadway revival of West Side Story, which will doubtless be slathered with a thick coating of progressive ideology in the manner of Daniel Fish’s fashionably “woke” revival of Oklahoma! For if we cannot have our own Carol Channings or Ethel Mermans, then at the very least we can have costly regietheater revivals of the great musicals of the past, rendered politically correct in order to make them safe for consumption by touchy millennial viewers. Indeed, one can all but hear their director-to-be muttering “I am big—it’s the divas that got small!”