“There are a lot of comments on your Guthrie review,” said Daily Planet editor Mary Turck as I arrived at this morning’s staff meeting. “People hated it.”
“Oh, good!” I exclaimed with genuine relish. It’s always nice when people care enough to disagree with you.
This wasn’t, however, actually very good. In fact, it was mortifying. My review criticized the Guthrie’s new production of A Streetcar Named Desire for its “commercial sheen,” which I said was exemplified by the cheesy sound effects heard behind certain passages of dialogue. “When an audible gunshot accompanied Blanche’s reminisce about a past tragedy,” I wrote, “I had to look around me to confirm that I was watching a classic play at the Guthrie and not a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime.” I blamed director John Miller-Stephany for making the poor decision to include the sound effects.
It turns out I was blaming the wrong guy: hallowed playwright Tennessee Williams, commenters pointed out with justified snippiness, in the script explicitly calls for the use of those sound effects. Whoops.
It was an extremely embarrassing gaffe on my part, but when you write hundreds of reviews a year with only yourself as editor and fact-checker, these things will happen. I added a note of clarification and apology to the review, and have to live with the fact that there may be some people who will henceforth put less stock in my writing. In the future, I will certainly be a bit more deliberate in my reviews, and will do a little more homework to reduce the risk that this kind of incident will be repeated.
Does my mistake invalidate my review? To some extent, yes. The bottom clearly falls out of my argument—written with a cocksure, sarcastic snap that now seems appalling—that Miller-Stephany and his creative team distorted Williams’s original vision. The review can’t be simply “doctored,” as one commenter suggests—the whole piece is premised on my false idea about a script I obviously haven’t read. On the other hand, though, cheesy is cheesy. Do the sound effects seem like a better idea if I know that Williams wanted them there?
It’s certainly unusual for a playwright to specify sound effects that aren’t explicitly tied to the plot; I had supposed that the loud streetcar passings that happen at significant moments had been called for by Williams, but I didn’t imagine that a great playwright would call for effects that I perceived as clumsy, distracting, and redundant.
Knowing that the sound design was Williams’s own adds an important element of historical perspective. There were plenty of hackneyed and sentimental stage productions around when Streetcar was first produced in 1947, but there hadn’t been the decades of stage and screen productions—doubtless inspired by Streetcar—that have used and abused the effects Williams employs. The effects might have played very differently to audiences of 63 years ago.
That said, it is 2010, and those effects have been driven into the ground. While it’s a very different matter to employ the effects as a faithful rendition of the playwright’s vision than it is to freshly concoct them and impose them on the production, it’s still the director’s responsibility to present the audience with a fresh and compelling experience. My discovery of the sound effects’ author only reinforces my sense that this is a rather safe, traditional production.
Could Miller-Stephany have left some of the effects out? I can’t find any evidence of a production that has, but surely in all these decades at some point that has happened. To do so, especially at the Guthrie, would surely inspire accusations of betrayal and arguments that all of the effects are essential to Williams’s richly layered play. Knowing that the effects were written into the play, I’m glad to have seen a production that duly incorporates them, but if I were to direct the play—a prospect that now seems even more distant than the distant prospect it seemed when I woke up this morning—I would definitely omit the gunshots and the polka music.
Sifting through the pieces of my carefully-constructed review that now lies shattered on the Web, there are a few sentences that I can still stand by, among them: “In a play as superbly-written as this, there’s absolutely no need for melodramatic sound effects and showy lighting cues to underline dialogue and events.” The effects may have made a bang in 1947, but in 2010 they distract. Tennessee, if you still give a rip what I think—and I can’t blame you if you don’t—you can go ahead and roll over in your grave again.
Ricardo Antonio Chavira and Gretchen Egolf in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy Guthrie Theater.