John Lahr wants us to see what's behind the curtain. The eminent theater critic, who retired recently after covering the beat for the the New Yorker magazine for 21 years, produces the most probing, original and well-written work on performance, performers and the theater today. His most recent collection of profiles and reviews, Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows, is now out, and he is leaving his London home to promote it: Lahr will be speaking at the Tattered Cover Colfax on Monday, September 21.
In a world where much arts writing consists of free publicity, puff pieces or what Lahr calls “academic tracery,” he’s an example of rigor, clarity and depth of observation. His intimidatingly eloquent pieces set work in context, make cultural connections, and raise questions that don’t have a pat answer. “There’s a big distinction between theater reviewing and criticism,” he says.
Lahr gives much credit to literary critic Christopher Ricks, who taught him at Oxford and who’s still a champion of “practical criticism,” an approach that disdains shoehorning subjects into preconceived theoretical frameworks. New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane is another Ricks alumnus. “I guess there’s a whole generation of us, the spawn of Ricks, and I think the world’s much better for it,” Lahr says.
And Lahr has more arrows in his quiver. He’s a novelist, and has worked “both sides of the street,” as he puts it – he is a playwright and the only theater critic to win a Tony award, for his script for Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in 2002. (“She had this image as a loosey-goosey broad, but she wasn’t like that at all,” he recalls.) His father was the beloved comic actor Bert Lahr, who’s best remembered as the Cowardly Lion in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. His string of masterful biographies, including those on comedian and artist Barry Humphries (Dame Edna), playwright Joe Orton and his own father, was joined by his definitive Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which won a slew of awards in 2013.
Is this book tour akin to taking a victory lap? “Taking a lap – that’s appropriate," he says. "I was the longest senior theater critic in the magazine’s history. And by the way, they should be lauded for keeping so much space in there for it – it’s not cheap to do that. So I’ve been very lucky to have that outlet. There are really not many publications out there that will let you do that.
“I was lucky, too, in that I started when I was fifty, so I already had something, I had done a lot. Then I wrote over a million words over twenty years in the New Yorker. I will still do profiles; I’ve got one of Julianne Moore coming soon; I did one with Al Pacino earlier this year. I love doing those; I’ll keep doing those.”
Lahr has some Colorado connections. He taught at Colorado College in the 1980s, and returned to accept an honorary doctor of Humane Letters degree there in 1994. He reviewed the famously ungainly production of the Peter Hall/John Barton epic play cycle Tantalus at the Denver Center in 2000; he caught innings of the Yankees-Mets World Series on a borrowed TV during breaks.
Lahr has consistently championed the misfits and troublemakers, and is quick to bring their work to the attention of the general reader. His grasp of the importance of transgressive comedian Bill Hicks is a case in point: “My son, who is now forty, was then sixteen, saw him on TV, told me, ‘Dad you have to see this.’ Saw the show on Friday, went to theater to meet him on Saturday, by Monday we were working on a profile.”
Being the son of a famous performer gave Lahr an inside look at show biz. “I’ve seen firsthand how the man goes out on stage is not the man who comes offstage,” he says. “My father would come offstage, and it was like he deflated. I’m interested in precisely that moment; the change from the ordinary to the extraordinary. My father had thousands of reviews in his lifetime, and none of them were about him. When he died, there were hundreds of glowing obituaries, but there was none of him in them. They saw him but they couldn’t see him, and I wanted people to see him.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the traits of entertainers," he continues. "You know, in England the subtitle of my latest book is not Show People and Their Shows, but The Lives of the Theatricals, in the spirit of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. It’s really the same thing. We need to chronicle this. We need to get down the facts of their lives, the details that will otherwise be lost forever. The artists, I think, are really how we understand our time. These fools sliding across the political stage right now, they don’t really enter our consciousness, even if they dominate things for a decade or more. The people who are important are the ones who seize our imaginations. They’re the ones asking the important questions.
“There’s a greatness in knowing that, in making that accessible to people," he concludes. "And there’s just the ravishing pleasure of it, of course. I love that, and I love to write about it.”
Writer, biographer and critic John Lahr will discuss and sign his new book Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, at 7 p.m. Monday, September 21. For more information, visit tatteredcover.com.