AMERICAN THEATRE | Dan Sullivan: Good friend of Audiences, Mentor of Critics

Dan Sullivan, longtime theatre critic for the Los Angeles Occasions in addition to the previous director of the Eugene O’Neill Nationwide Critics Institute, died on Oct. 4. He was 86.

“If the play appears at instances incoherent and tedious, the reviewer will point out the heresy that this can be extra the fault of the writer than of the director.”

The play? Hamlet, no much less. The reviewer? Dan Sullivan, no much less. The manufacturing? The 1963 opening of the Guthrie Theatre, no much less.

Most of us critics have a tendency to depart Hamlet alone, on the grounds that its bona fides are—properly, because the Supreme Court docket would possibly say (or as soon as would have mentioned), settled regulation. Safer guilty the manufacturing.  

However not Sullivan.

Hamlet is a superb poem, trapped inside a cumbersome melodrama, and you’ll’t lower the melodrama with out hurting the poem,” he wrote for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He had a degree, and, the identical overview reminds us, a neat method with phrases: “’Nice’ is the phrase for Ellen Geer’s Ophelia. The woman reveals spine in her early interview with the prince (‘Certainly, my lord, you made me consider so’ is delivered with out the customary whimper) and within the mad scene she is definitely mad. Hair in soiled dysfunction, robe stained with grass, she falls to her knees with a sob and claws the ground of the palace together with her fingernails.”

The model is authoritative, descriptive, fearless, clipped, third-person, unconcerned with the niceties of psychological well being; certainly, given our present period of essentially self-protecting critics, you wouldn’t learn such a paragraph right now. However Sullivan got here from a special period, one wherein hedging was as a lot an indication of weak spot as a run-on sentence or an over-reliance on adjectives. He didn’t usually use first individual—few of his friends did—and would have lower “I really feel that” and its kin, not that such phrases would ever have discovered on their method from fingers to typewriter to printed web page.  

Sullivan variously wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, New York Occasions (for whom he lined Off-Broadway), and, most notably, the Los Angeles Occasions, the place he labored for 22 years, a lot of it locked in a fierce important rivalry with Jack Viertel. This geographic vary meant that Sullivan didn’t include the standard New York parochialism of his career, although he actually wrote within the model of the large metropolis newspaperman (or, within the case of the Chicago Tribune‘s infamous Claudia Cassidy, newspaperwoman). The lede was the lead; it was not the critic clearing their throat. Fancy phrases have been to be eschewed (so have been parentheses). Readability was a creed, spelling errors a curse. Paragraphs so long as this one have been pushing their luck.

For his era of critics, critiques weren’t a contract task however a beat, as common as a sports activities columnist, whom such critics usually resembled. Reporting what was on view was the primary obligation. Verbs wanted to be robust. Prepositions shouldn’t finish paragraphs. Nouns have been your pal; descriptive adjectives have been far more practical than meaningless qualitative expressions of reward like “glorious” or, worse, “actually good.” And writing on deadline was a muscle that needed to be saved in form by going to a form of author’s gymnasium of the thoughts. Delay simply meant extra blather.

Above all, Sullivan believed, the critic served the viewers. Not the actor unable to face the reality. Definitely not the nervous producer. There was no obligation to be supportive of the theatre, and a sure Anton Ego-like theatrical flourish down the aisle was acceptable, even when Sullivan was, like many (however not all) critics, an introvert.

Dan Sullivan in his workplace on the Los Angeles Occasions. (Photograph courtesy of Ben Sullivan)

Improbably, maybe, Sullivan was completely devoted to educating younger critics, which is how I got here to know him once I took over the Nationwide Critics Institute on the Eugene O’Neill Heart just a few years in the past. I inherited a submitting cupboard with yellowed notes, and even Sullivan’s longtime affiliate, the gregarious theatre professor Mark Charney, who cherished Sullivan, who could possibly be gruff, like a brother. The cupboard turned out to be considered one of nice curiosities for anybody within the mild artwork of theatrical reviewing: a bevy of recommendation for cultural writers could possibly be discovered within the drawers therein, with a specific specialty in strategies for dealing with the dreaded urgent deadline and the stubbornly empty web page. 

Sullivan, who had continued on the O’Neill, which he cherished, properly previous the standard retirement age, clearly discovered it arduous for one more to take over his place. I’m sufficiently old now to raised perceive that—I consider Edward Albee known as it the 360-degree view, the place you’ll be able to see each your youthful errors and what lies forward—however he was nonetheless gracious and supportive, particularly as soon as he understood that modifications in this system, and its model, have been wanted to maneuver with the instances. Sullivan didn’t have to show folks methods to cope with hateful collective assaults on Twitter and Fb.

However we’ve saved a lot of what Sullivan put in place: writing on in a single day deadline, a flurry of exercise, forthright dialog on what it means to be a critic, which obligations to take significantly and which to disregard, regardless of how a lot stress comes your method. And we nonetheless attempt to assist of us proper nice first paragraphs, to hitch them properly to what follows thereafter, and to finish with a heck of a kicker. The place nonetheless may be very a lot him, even when virtually every thing about theatre criticism has fully modified.

As somebody who has learn extra of his work than most, I’ll finish with this: Dan Sullivan was extremely sensible. He didn’t a lot overview theatre as wrestle with it. 

(A good kicker—if solely it ended with a stronger noun.)

Chris Jones is the longtime theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune and the Broadway critic for the New York Day by day Information. He now additionally serves as editorial web page editor for the Tribune. He wrote for American Theatre for a few years, however that is his first piece for the journal shortly. 

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