Joy Ride: Lives of the Theatricals by John Lahr, book review: Mixed metaphor and vacuous flamboyance

The long-serving New Yorker drama critic and biographer is engaged in a one-man rescue mission, but falls painfully short

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When it comes to blowing your own horn, John Lahr, long-serving New Yorker drama critic and biographer, does so with gusto. In his preface to this vast selection of his reprinted profiles and reviews, devoted to such theatre titans as Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Ingmar Bergman and Nicholas Hytner, Lahr pronounces theatre criticism to be in serious decline. Its consideration of “dramatic craft and process”, he believes, has been usurped by a media obsession with theatrical life-styles and celebrity gossip. “If we see a play today, it's usually in the context of no context,” he claims, with audience appreciation diminished, thanks to this mythical down-market lurch.

Lahr, though, hailed by his publisher as “the most celebrated theatre critic of his generation”, reveals he is engaged in a one-man rescue mission. He says he has already fought a rear-guard action to restore audience pleasure and understanding. The method? Simple. He offer his readers illumination, the chance to be brought “up close and personal” – such unfortunate Hello magazine adjectives – with artists and their processes, by way of his in-depth profiles. That's not all. Unlike the old run of critics, who apparently spent time scribbling in notebooks and missing the action, Lahr keeps his eye on the main event, fulfilling the critic's mission “to paint a picture both of the play's events and the meaning beneath the narrative hubbub.”

Yet Lahr's reviews are not nearly as good as the fascinating illuminations of his interview/profiles, where playwrights such as Tony Kushner, David Rabe and Neil LaBute confess the impact of dominating, fierce, aggressive fathers. True, his reviews show flashes of evocative power, but often they become caught up in descriptive commentary. Humour is not a bow in his critical armoury. He does not match the terse, dazzling analyses or destructive wit of Kenneth Tynan, who dethroned a whole old school of theatre. He succumbs to mixed metaphor and vacuous flamboyance, best characterised as the Lahr di Dah school of critic-speak. “Their outrageousness works a kind of psychic jujitsu that dethrones the serious and neutralises moral indignation,” he writes unbelievably of Amanda and Elyot in Noel Coward's Private Lives.

He has none of the analytic elegance of Irving Wardle, who reviewed for The Times and The Independent on Sunday; none of Michael Billington's reasoned lucidity. “What Lahr has is the key to the dressing room,” the book jacket boasts. Maybe, but sometimes the door just doesn't open.