Joy Ride: Lives of the Theatricals
Bloomsbury, $60 hb, 590 pp, 9781408868638
James Ley states in the introduction to his book The Critic in the Modern World (2014) that the significance of a critic 'depends on their ability to position themselves in opposition to certain prevailing tendencies'. Given the widespread shrinkage of space allotted to theatre criticism in the digital age, John Lahr's considered long-form approach to the art could in itself stand as a refutation of prevailing tendencies. His pieces for the New Yorker, where he served as senior drama critic for a record twenty-one years, are a satisfyingly detailed form of biographical criticism which deliberately evoke Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets.
In Australia, Lahr is perhaps better known as a biographer than as a critic, having penned the unforgettable Prick Up Your Ears (1978) about English playwright Joe Orton, and the definitive biography of Tennessee Williams, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014). The son of actor Burt Lahr – the Cowardly Lion in MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Lahr fils came reluctantly to the position of theatre critic, and has consistently shirked the more bloodthirsty aspects of the role. Certainly, the writings that make up Joy Ride, profiles of playwrights and directors separated by a compilation of reviews, reveal a man more curious than condemnatory.