When I got my hands on Chris Jones‘s new book, Bigger Brighter Louder, first it was a disappointment and then it wasn’t.
Jones’s book is subtitled “150 Years of Chicago Theater,” and there’s a subtitle to the subtitle: “As seen by Chicago Tribune critics.” A glance at the table of contents revealed that Jones, the incumbent theater critic, has put together 101 pieces by Tribune critics ranging from 2012 back to 1853, almost all of them reviews. So what is this? A book-length exercise in self-regard that gives the Tribune more credit than it deserves for the present eminence of Chicago theater and could have been titled The Road to Me?
But when I poked around inside the book, I found:
The Tribune‘s 1975 review of the play that put David Mamet on the map, followed by Jones commenting: “Roger Dettmer was not an especially insightful theater critic, his skills in the music field notwithstanding. This first review of the world premier of ‘American Buffalo’ . . . joins that undistinguished group of opening-night reviews of great plays by critics who completely missed the point . . .”
Will Leonard’s one-paragraph report on Second City’s opening night in 1959, followed by Jones commenting: “Sometimes—maybe often—Tribune critics missed the importance of huge events. Here’s a case in point . . .”
This comment echoes Jones’s introduction, in which he says, “This book does not, of course, tell about the shows that the Tribune chose not to review, choices that create a counternarrative of their own . . . . Egregious omissions occurred . . . . Coverage of African American theater was scant in the newspaper throughout the first half of the 20th century—and arguably well beyond.”
Jones doesn’t stint on candor. And because it got my back up when I realized that “150 years of Chicago theater” was 150 years as noticed, for better or worse, by the Chicago Tribune, I appreciated Jones for acknowledging after a Richard Christiansen review that helped put Steppenwolf on the map in 1979 that at the time the Reader “was becoming well known for its extensive theater coverage, often publishing far longer reviews than either of the two dailies. Reader critics made it to shows that Christiansen never saw.” Jones went on—perfunctorily, I’d say: “But the Tribune, with its huge subscription base, had the most powerful voice.” Certainly in Wilmette.
At any rate, Bigger Brighter Louder (University of Chicago Press) is more than an anthology of reviews; Jones follows each of them with a commentary, and these tell us things—not necessarily flattering—about the critic, the production, the state of Chicago theater at the time, and sometimes even the Tribune. Jones has done his homework; he’s consistently interesting.
Christiansen was the Tribune‘s chief critic from 1980 until 2002 and one of two whose tenure can fairly be described as an era. The first was Claudia Cassidy; between 1943 and 1971 she wrote 33 of the pieces in Jones’s collection. In one of his commentaries, Jones writes of her hitting her “poisonous stride,” not an unreasonable way to characterize a critic who once, in a review of La Traviata Jones has included, wrote that the lead’s voice suggested the “parrot coached cawing of the crow.” Truth is, though, he feels honored to be, several critics removed, her successor. “I hugely do admire her,” Jones tells me. “I think she’s a brilliant writer.” Now that I’ve read her, so do I. It occurs to me that Bigger Brighter Louder is first and foremost an opportunity for Jones to put much of Cassidy’s finest writing where it has always belonged—between covers. And Jones confirms that if he hadn’t had Cassidy to draw from, there’d have been no book.
He doesn’t, couldn’t, offer her whole. As the Tribune‘s performing arts critic, Cassidy reviewed the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera as well as theater. Jones launches her huge portion of the book with the report she wrote in 1943 of a production of Carmen (in Soldier Field!), pointing out afterward that it exhibits “the dichotomy that haunted much of Cassidy’s writing: an enthusiastic embrace of populism coupled with a deeply felt anxiety that such an embrace would somehow reduce standards.” Later, there’s the Traviata review. Otherwise, Jones sticks to theater, mentioning only in passing that Cassidy forced symphony conductors out of town and that an unnamed soprano threatened to punch her in the nose.
So-called lost writing rarely gets this good. I knew about Cassidy’s legendary 1944 review of The Glass Menagerie and her continued championing of the play, without which it probably would never have reached New York—at least not without the happy ending producers had been telling Tennessee Williams to provide it with. “I was snatched out of virtual oblivion,” Williams wrote in his diary about the reception his new play got in Chicago.
But I hadn’t read the review. Actually, I hadn’t read anything by Cassidy, and I doubt if I’m alone in having thought of her as a historical figure it was more important to know of than to know. Now I know her at her snarkiest and most ardent. Jones is proud of what he’s resurrected: for instance, Cassidy’s elegiac salute to Williams written for the Tribune in 1971, when she was in retirement and he had lost his way as a playwright; and her wry commentary on electronic music in which she proposed that the Tribune provide her with an “IBM machine at Ravinia into which I could feed the program, the name of the conductor, the temperature, assorted train and plane noises, and several mosquitoes, whereupon it would relay a neat review to THE TRIBUNE,” thereby somehow anticipating by half a century the Tribune‘s adventures with Journatic, which proposed to cover suburban news cheaply by using computers to churn data into news in that very way.
And then there was her exchange with Arthur Miller in 1947. Cassidy championed Williams and Eugene O’Neill, but she thought much less of Miller, dismissing All My Sons as “an earnest, not very competent play” that asks a timeworn question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” and answers yes—duh. But in a second piece, she gave Miller plenty of space to defend his play. This defense intrigues Jones; he thinks, though he can’t be sure, “that this was Miller writing to Cassidy.” He’s sent the response to three Miller scholars he knows, and he says none of them was familiar with it. Now it’s preserved in Bigger Brighter Louder. A coup.
The title is spun off from a 1910 column by Percy Hammond, one of the first Tribune critics, Jones tells us, “whom readers actually followed by name.” Hammond claimed to have overheard a director lecturing his cast, which was on its way back to New York after a long run in Chicago. “The things that made your audience laugh this evening would cause a New Yorker to shudder,” said the director. “On Broadway you must be different. You must approach your points subtly, with finesse. You must be deft, quiet, inferential, suave, and artistic, else the engagement will be a failure . . .”
Hammond scornfully reports this advice, which Jones thinks he might have made up, but there you have it: the famous chip on this city’s shoulder. “‘Make It Loud for Chicago,’ Managers Tell Their Players,” is what Jones calls this piece, and he draws a line from Hammond to Cassidy, who exhibited this deathless chip by sneering at lazy road show editions of Broadway hits. “To find its way, Chicago had to have somebody willing to reject the dregs of New York,” Jones tells me, “and she was willing to do it.” His Exhibit A is more rueful than acerbic: when the South Pacific traveling company hit town in 1950, Cassidy reported that the trouble with the leads was that “they are impersonating [Mary] Martin and [Ezio] Pinza.” The result of these and other casting cop-outs was a South Pacific that simply wasn’t South Pacific, not “as it was in the original, even on the nights when the magnetic Pinza was happily loafing on the job.”
But although Cassidy insisted Chicago deserved better theater, she offered spotty support of the homegrown. “She did not spend a great deal of time in sweaty basements—she ignored most of that,” says Jones. “There wasn’t a lot but there was a bit of it. You can look at African-American theaters in the 40s—she didn’t show up.”
There was a lot more of it when Richard Christiansen came along, and he did show up. Christiansen didn’t write “screeds,” Jones tells us; his style was not “bravura.” In fact, “he was a Chicago newspaperman of the old school,” a gentle writer, poles apart from Cassidy. But he mattered enormously, and Jones introduces him with his 1982 review of Steppenwolf’s The Glass Menagerie. Cassidy had discovered this play 38 years earlier on a frigid, stormy night in a nearly empty theater; Christiansen regrets there were just 20 customers in the company’s church basement in Highland Park, despite room for 90. It depressed him that “this gifted troupe” couldn’t attract more people to “so fascinating a production.” It was a problem Steppenwolf didn’t have for long, and Christiansen had a lot to do with why it didn’t.
Jones says he went “round and round” on whether to limit the reviews he collected to the Tribune‘s, and finally decided he should because the narrow focus would give him through line and, besides, those were the ones he could easily get rights to. But it was the Reader, he allows, that didn’t miss a show. It was the Reader whose theater listings were indispensable because, he says, they were “stunningly accurate and nobody else was right.” It was the Reader‘s Albert Williams who won a George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism, and it was the Reader who published those “3,000-word essays” Jones fondly remembers. “That’s worth a collection in and of itself.”
But the Reader has never gone in for anthologies. Which is another story.