Whether it is possible to separate the artist from the art is a question that has become more acute in recent years, as the horrific behavior of men—powerful white men, in particular—is no longer as readily condoned as it has been for millennia.
In her new book The Critic’s Daughter, a memoir about her father, literary and theater critic Richard Gilman, Priscilla Gilman expands the debate by considering whether it is possible to separate the critic from the review.
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 funny about his virtues and shortcomings. The book is her story of a brilliant but deeply flawed parent, and her motivation for telling it seems to be partly self-healing.
Ms. Gilman takes pains to capture its complexity in a memoir that is neither judgmental nor exculpatory. It includes excerpts from his brilliant writing, though with no particular context for their inclusion. But the biggest problem is that she doesn’t rigorously interrogate her own worldview. The context through which she views her father—a context embedded with assumptions about money, class, and prestige—has been underexamined.
Her sins are the sins of loving too much and in an overly self-deprecating way. Cordelia in her father’s Lear is inevitably the sad, noble heroine of every joke she tells. But the close friendly perspective treats a critic’s life as if it were a figure in a children’s dollhouse.
“To live is to fight trolls in heart and mind. to write is to judge yourself’. These words by playwright Henrik Ibsen were often quoted by her father in class — and they diagnose exactly where her memoir falls short.
I felt terrible reading about Gilman’s nasty divorce from Lynn Nesbitt, Mrs. Gilman’s hard-boiled literary mother. His daughter’s unsettling account of his fetish for domination fantasies (a theme he doesn’t shy away from in Faith, Sex, Mystery, his memoir about his conversion to Catholicism and subsequent departure from the church) with it made me feel like I was invading the privacy of a relative or former therapist.
I am not related to Gilman and have never pretended to be the patient on his couch. But I was his student for five years in the 1990s. (My name is listed in the book’s acknowledgments with other former students and colleagues.) Gilman served as my advisor during my graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama, where he was co-chair of the dramaturgy and drama criticism department. But more than that, it provided the intellectual foundation for my theater training.
His voice still echoes within me, urging me to hold fast to the artistic values he painstakingly formulated and passed on to generations of students who have come to share his conviction, as he writes in the preface to his seminal book, The Making of Modern Drama. , that “great works can be as revealing of human existence as novels or poems.” A champion of drama as a “source of consciousness,” Gilman challenged the entrenched anti-intellectualism of the American theater.
In a culture of fractured attention spans, undervalued expertise, and bullying groupthink, it is helpful to remember the example of a critic whose loyalty was not to the commercial or ideological market but to the art form he served. A dance critic was recently dog-poked by a German ballet director, undeterred by a bad review. Gilman understood “the necessity of destructive criticism,” the title of one of his indelible essays, the way a gardener understands the necessity of weeding. His work was not a branch of publicity, even if it sought to elevate the truly excellent from the worthy.
A hard-nosed New York intellectual of the old stripe, Gilman chatted with a chain-smoking rap, enjoyed a drink and turned into a scruffy pirate in a jean jacket. He wasn’t the only member of the Yale faculty known to have affairs with alumni, but his behavior had become clear by the time I arrived at 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 a different institution today, more egalitarian, less homogenous, and considerably more conscientious about maintaining order and security.
Students have more power and faculty members are no longer considered demigods. All of this is for the best, but I am nonetheless grateful to have been exposed to Gilman’s unadulterated critical sensibility.
His pedagogy offered something not widely available elsewhere. Teach students how to think. His criticism workshops, a core curriculum for budding critics and playwrights, were an experience in literary biotomy as he spotted every cliché and hairy idea in that week’s student essay.
Unclear writing, he argued, was the result of unclear thinking. The exaggeration offended him. Praise had to be earned in language that was commensurate. If you feel as strongly as you claim, you should paint an honest picture and not resort to the language of breathless smears.
Gilman had made a name for himself as a critic at Commonweal and served as a theater critic for Newsweek and then the Nation. His exacting prose style was forged at a time when small-circulation quarterlies still had some buzz. But the days of the Partisan Review were dwindling, and although he introduced me to an editor at the Village Voice, where I found a publishing home, he did not prepare us for modern job fairs.
There were limits to its scope. He was antitheoretical at a time when graduate students in the arts and humanities could not afford to ignore Foucault, Derrida, and the army of modern postmodernists. (My incorporation of queer theory into my dissertation put me on thin ice.) Phrasing was the enemy, but graduate students dreaming of tenure would have to look elsewhere at the university to avoid being shut out of the conversation, a word that no doubt would do 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 anxious cultural consumers but at educated readers thirsting for a deeper aesthetic engagement with the theater.
Elucidating how Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov laid the foundations of modern drama, he opened the mind to the revolutionary achievements of Pirandello, Brecht and Beckett. His philosophical orientation made him particularly receptive to vanguardism, but he admired above all else professionalism, discipline and skill, and had little patience for the self-deluded rhetoric and empty political gestures of theatrical cults.
As “Faith, Sex, Mystery” poignantly affirms, Gilman was a seeker. Theater was part of his spiritual journey, but not in any woo-woo way. The relationship between the material and the intellectual realm paralleled for him the relationship between form and content in great works of art.
One of Gilman’s truisms is that a work like “Hamlet” cannot be paraphrased. You can’t reduce a masterpiece to a message. The form is not a container for content. They work in parallel to communicate what only drama in its full essence can convey. The biggest lesson to be learned is that simple binaries, both in art and in life, distort reality.
The theatrical theme that most interested Gilman was consciousness, self-awareness, the experience of time, and the inescapable state 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 pursued in Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare in King Lear, Chekhov explored in The Three Sisters and Beckett in Waiting for Godot.
For Gilman, an artist’s life has always been subordinate to the work. He despised the craze for biography. Criticism, in his view, brings us deeper into the mind of a playwright than a narrative of bad marriages and professional failures and triumphs. In his magnum opus, Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening to Eternity, he traces the Russian playwright’s spiritual vision to the details and decisions of his art.
She does not ignore the man, but prioritizes the part of him that endures — that is worth enduring. To read Chekhov through Gilman is to communicate not only with Chekhov’s soul but also with Gilman’s soul.
“The Critic’s Daughter” puts Gilman front and center, but for reasons he would likely find objectionable if the author were anyone other than his beloved daughter. Great writers overcome their personal impoverishment. “We relegate our ills to our books,” declares DH Lawrence. Gilman quotes these words in his Village Voice tribute to Jean Genet — and they apply just as well to his superlative critique.