Critiquing a Critique of 'La Bête'

Critics ought to be critiqued. Respectfully, Ben Brantley's recent NYT review of La Bête seems to fundamentally misunderstand the play. 

(Quick plot summary: The exalted 17th Century French playwright Elomire—a stand-in for Moliere—is being forced by his royal patron the Princess to admit into his small royal theater company a narcissistic buffoon named Valere. Elomire is horrified and won't stand for it. After an extended introduction to Valere's hilarious idiocy, the action of the play moves to a confrontation between Elomire and the Princess.)

In his review, Brantley seems to interpret David Hirson's play as a straightforward indictment of the fool Valere. With that in mind, the problem is that Mark Rylance's portrayal of Valere is so preposterously entertaining that the audience can't help but sympathize with him. "[Rylance's] performance," Brantley bluntly declares, "turns out to be the undoing of the play's argument." Brantley continues:

As Mr. Rylance presents him, this grotesque buffoon is also touchingly human, and when he puts on a silly, pretentious play (at the Princess's insistence), you feel the presence of an artist's anxious heart. Combine that aspect of his performance with its throbbing inexhaustibility, and how can you not root for him?

He's right about Rylance's astonishing performance. But I think he's dead wrong that it exposes a fatal flaw in the script. Rather, this uneasy shift in sympathy toward Valere appears to me to be precisely the subversive point of the play. 

Brantey also writes: "The essential problem with 'La Bête,' and this seems even truer now than it did in 1991, is that Mr. Hirson never makes much of a case for Elomire's side."

I'm blown away by this reaction. To me, the first 30 minutes of the play are an overwhelming endorsement of Elomire's point of view. Valere's buffoonery makes Elomire's case for him. In fact, La Bête begins by stacking the deck against Valere. It's impossible not to agree with the serious playwright Elomire as the fool makes a fool of himself. 

By the end, though, we have had our sympathies gently manipulated and Elomire's firm convictions seem more tragic than high-minded. The subtle case for Valere's is made by the Princess, the supporting cast, and—as Brantley correctly states—Valere's own humanity. 

In the end, what Hirson delivers is a powerful case for synthesis of high and lowbrow. Brantley criticizes the second half of the play as drifting. What he calls drift, I interpret as a nuanced shift. What he thinks is flawed writing, I read as Hirson's highly sophisticated case for the Princess's point of view: We needn't see the world in black and white terms of highbrow vs. lowbrow. Great entertainment ought to be smart and punchy.
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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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