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April 14, 2010

Awards Are Meaningless (Unless We're in the Running)

There's a great scene near the beginning of the movie "In & Out" where Oscar nominee Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), walking the red carpet on the way into the ceremony, pauses for an interview with entertainment reporter Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck).

"Everyone's saying that you won't be going home empty-handed," the reporter says. "How do you feel about that?"

"Well, basically, to me, uh, awards are meaningless," the star replies. "Um, I'm an artist, uh, it's about the work, all the nominees are artists -- we shouldn't be forced to compete with each other like dogs."

"Well, I hear ya. Good point," the reporter says. "So then why're you here?"

"'Case I win," the star says, flashing a smile. Then he turns and waves to the screaming fans.

I mention this because all day I've been trying -- futilely, as it happens -- to resist the urge to respond to Ben Brantley's take on this year's drama Pulitzer. "I have never bought a book, read a poem or seen a play because it was by a Pulitzer winner," he writes in today's New York Times. "So any indignation being vented over this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama leaves me a bit mystified."

Even if he hadn't qualified his lack of respect for the Pulitzers by confining it to "the categories devoted to the arts" -- a handy asterisk for a newspaper reviewer -- that would be a curious, rather navel-gazing thing for a critic to say. He's right, of course, that "the Pulitzers have usually gone to firmly middlebrow works." Even so, dismissing the awards as measures of artistic merit is one thing; denying their power is another. The Pulitzer Prize may be a marketing tool, but that doesn't make it meaningless.

Awards can and do make or break careers. Playwrights who win the Pulitzer get produced; they get work, and their work gets seen. The modifier "Pulitzer Prize-winning" follows them the rest of their lives, all the way into their obits. In contrast, playwrights who navigate their careers without that prefix face much steeper odds with producers and audiences -- both categories flush with people who do, in fact, see plays because they're written by Pulitzer winners.

As Brantley well knows, drama critics don't consume theater the way ordinary mortals do. They see much of what they see not because they're personally drawn to it but because it's their job to write about it. A great deal of the rest comes under the heading of necessity: keeping up with the field. Being conversant with the contemporary canon means in part being familiar with the work of recent Pulitzer winners, middlebrow or not, and Brantley no doubt is. If they're on the radar of the American theater, they have to be on critics' radar, too.

And while it may be true that Brantley has never been lured to the theater solely because a play was written by a Pulitzer winner, he certainly has reviewed plays that never would have made it onto his Broadway beat without the rocket-propelled professional boost that is a Pulitzer. The 2003 winner, "Anna in the Tropics" -- by Nilo Cruz, one of this year's dissed drama jurors -- is a case in point.

April 14, 2010 3:46 PM | | Comments (1)


How does art build currency? By reviews certainly, and a good Brantley review doesn't hurt. But prizes also help enormously, and Ben knows this. His argument sounds to me like those who complain about the inadequacies of our political process and choose to condemn the legitimacy of the whole thing rather than engage the reality of it and work to make it better.

When it comes to the arts and arts writing, the Pulitzers have a puzzling and erratic record. It's hard to know what they actually stand for now, and that's a real flaw that has damaged/will damage their credibility. That seems like an issue worth debating, particularly given, as you point out Laura, the power they still have in the marketplace. The danger isn't so much a misstep (or two or three) in judgment as it is a growing cumulative confusion as to what the arts Pulitzers actually reward.

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