Friday, April 27, 2007

Playgoers and their Playthings

It was inevitable. The New York Times posted a brief story by William S. Niederkorn on the state of the Shakespeare authorship debate on Sunday, and the fact that the paper devoted column inches to this widely-dismissed topic is now fuel for a prominent theater blogger's ire.

Having seen Stratfordian ... er, excuse (the blogger in question finds the term objectionable)... orthodox ire in its more unhinged forums (who ever thought the Virginia Tech slayings could, however tortuously, be linked to "Shakespeare deniers"?), I can at least applaud "Playgoer" for not calling for Niederkorn's diesmbowelment. Huzzah.

In short, as "Playgoer" notes with heaving sigh over having to actually touch keys on his keyboard in response to complete lunatics:

"Who else but an amateur zealot would even ask such bullshit questions? ... The scandal is not really why this one individual thinks what he does --but why the New York Times continues to legitimize his unsubstantiated insinuations against, effectively, the entire community of professional literary scholars, critics, and historians."

"Playgoer" gives us links to his previous rants against Niederkorn and the Oxfordians, so I won't waste pixels recapitulating his arguments against the heretics. (Hint: That desperate, sweaty-palmed analogy to Holocaust deniers gets trotted out just like Godwin's Law mandates.)

But the ultimate gist of "Playgoer"'s argument is self-evidently absurd, especially given his own profession: As links on his blog reveal, he's a drama critic for the Village Voice. If the job of an arts section is to always and unfailingly toe the majority-rules party line, then "Playgoer" had better forget championing those brilliant off-off-Broadway productions that may be life-transforming but would never pack in one-tenth of the warm bodies that a Les Miz Sunday matinee brings in.

Niederkorn is not running with the pack on his occasional assignments outside the walls of traditional Shakespeare scholarship. No denying it: The authorship skeptics are not mainstream, nor could his laudable coverage be accused of portraying it as such. But unless one believes in the Pravda school of groupthink journalism, reporters should in fact be obligated from time to time to pursue stories that they suspect, despite their subject's less-than-mainstream profile, will ultimately be important investments for them and their publications to make.

It's always a balancing act. On one hand are the experts and the voices of mainstream and conventional wisdom. They're often where they are for very good reason. On the other hand, when a critical mass of skeptics raise at least some reasonable critiques of the experts, one needs also remember that these same experts are not infallible either. They rely on all the familiar foibles and tricks that people play when under fire. And in those cases, Upton Sinclair's sage words should be kept in mind, too:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
Amen to that.


Dave said...

I'm coming into an investigation of the authorship question relatively late. I bought SBAN about a month ago and have been reading it carefully. It's quite convincing.

The most convincing aspect of it to me, in fact, is that fact that it is an actual biography about an actual person who really lived in a historical context. In other words, it offers real evidence.

When the Stratfordians react the way The Playgoer reacted--or even more strangely, the way that poster who connected skepticism with the Virginia Tech shootings reacted--I am baffled.

They have no evidence for the Stratford man at all, yet they jump up and down screaming in indignation when others offer evidence!

jhm said...

While it pains me to say it, "The Playgoer" does have a fraction of a point, so to speak, when he says: "over half of those contacted just blew it off?" It's actually just over 47.66% (but playgoers can perhaps be forgiven for forgetting their long division), and this might be skewed by the pollsters' admission that: "If a survey respondent completed the questionnaire more than once or was not part of the sample, responses were not included in the results." Given the technical acumen of the average Shakespearean professor (no slight intended), we can imagine a certain percentage clicking twice, or incorrectly, or not bothering in the first place for reasons completely independent of any opinions on the matter.

All in all, including an estimated margin of error of +/- 5%, it might be asserted that these data aren't as positive as they might appear.