David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes


Tallulah Bankhead (Public Domain, via Wiki Commons)

Actress Tallulah Bankhead and critic Alexander Woollcott were sitting together watching a pretentious revival of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Aglavane and Slysette. On this occasion, Ms. Bankhead proved to be the critic. She whispered to Mr. Woollcott, “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

After art critics panned the work of Sarah Bixby Smith, the wife of author Paul Jordan Smith, he was angry, and he decided to paint a work of art in a style that he thought the critics would like. Therefore, he created a crude painting of a woman holding a banana, and he showed it to his wife. They had a good laugh, then forgot about the painting until one of their sons brought home as his guest the art critic of the local newspaper. The art critic loved the painting and asked for information about the artist. Being an author, Mr. Smith made up a name—Pavel Jerdanowitch, a foreign-sounding version of his first two names—and a school of art that he called Disumbrationism. Amazed by the reaction of the local art critic, Mr. Smith then entered the painting in a major art exhibit in 1925. A Paris art magazine published a long article about the painting, and its editor wrote Mr. Jerdanowitch for information about his life. Mr. Smith happily responded to the letter with made-up information. The following year, Mr. Smith created another painting—portraying a large woman washing clothes—and exhibited it in Chicago. This time, Art World magazine published a story about the exhibition and printed a photograph of the painting in its article. Mr. Smith kept the hoax going for a few more years before revealing it. Even that didn’t stop interest in Mr. Jerdanowitch. In 1927, the Vose Galleries of Boston exhibited four “Jerdanowitch” paintings so that the public could see what had fooled the experts.

In Batignano, Italy, Musica nel Chiostro (Music in the Cloisters) produced The Turn of the Screw. Singers in the opera often stopped by the kitchen to help with preparations of the meal, where they often sang as they worked. One day, with the right number and right kinds of voices present, they sang Act II of The Marriage of Figaro. As they sang, Adam Pollack was in a nearby room speaking with the most influential opera critic in Rome, attempting to get him to come to The Turn of the Screw. The critic heard the singing in the background and asked, “Is that rehearsals going on?” “No,” Mr. Pollack replied, “that’s just the kitchen staff.” The critic came, and he gave The Turn of the Screw a glowing review.

Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade once criticized President Abraham Lincoln when the president tried to tell him an anecdote. Senator Wade told the President, “It is nothing but anecdotes. I have heard enough of them. You are letting the country go to hell on anecdotes. We are not more than a mile from there now.” President Lincoln replied, “Mr. Wade, that is just about the distance to the Capitol, isn’t it?”

At the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, critic Robert Ebert arrived late and had to get in the back of the line. Unfortunately, the theater filled up before Mr. Ebert was able to get in. Hoping to use his immense influence as a film critic to snag a seat, Mr. Ebert walked up to an usher and asked, “Who are these people? Why are they getting in?” Unimpressed, the usher replied, “Because they are next in line.”

Sometimes theatrical critics and directors behave badly. James Agate once arrived late for an act of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Vivien Leigh, due to his having enjoyed the refreshments too much at a bar during intermission. As Mr. Agate staggered down the aisle, Laurence Olivier, the very annoyed director of the play, slapped him.

While singing at the Metropolitan Opera, soprano Renata Tebaldi was surprised when the critics left before the end of the opera in order to write their reviews and meet their deadline. She asked, “Do they never stay to the end of the opera? How can they tell what has happened?”

A critic for the New York Times once accused tenor Michele Molese of producing “squeezed” top notes, so Mr. Molese sang a perfect high note at a performance, then stepped up to the footnotes and announced to the audience, “That high C is for Mr. Schonberg.”

Critics sometimes don’t want a black dancer to portray Satan, as Namron did in a 1975 revival of Ninette de Valois’ Job. However, black dancers also sometimes portray Jesus, as William Louther did in Barry Moreland’s Kontakion.

Not all great painting is liked. After Paul Gauguin finished painting a portrait of Marie-Angélique Satre, wife of the mayor of Pont-Aven, she looked at it (its title is La Belle Angèle), called it a “horror,” and would not keep it in her home.

Peg Bracken blew up many balloons for her daughter’s sixth party, but rain fell, necessitating a cancellation until better weather arrived. Her daughter was disappointed, saying, “It seems like a terrible waste of balloons.”

Charles Ives used his composition “Three Places in New England” to make fun of marching bands in small towns. One of his instructions for playing the piece is to “count as if practicing the beginning and getting it wrong.”

Franz Liszt didn’t care for critics. Once, some of his friends suggested that they play a game of whist, but another friend said that he didn’t know anything at all about whist. Liszt told him, “Then you can be our critic.”

Edith Wharton once showed her home to a snob, who told her he approved of everything—except a bas-relief located in the hall. Ms. Wharton told him, “I can assure you, you will never see it again.”

A critic once called Maya Angelou a “natural writer.” She strongly disagreed, pointing out that she sometimes spends two weeks writing a paragraph that probably no one will notice when it is published.

As a young actor, Albert Finney acted the lead in Macbeth. One critic did not like his performance, describing it as “like a juvenile delinquent in a kilt.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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