Thursday, July 16, 2009

"It Was Very Well-Acted"

This anecdote didn't come to mind when I saw Krapp's Last Tape in June, but I remembered it recently.

When I was studying abroad in France, I took a theater course. The professor had a habit of going off on tangents that went over my classmates' heads (and over my head too, sometimes, though I came into the course knowing much more about theater than many of my classmates did). At one point, he told us about how excited he got when he learned that his parents were in the audience at the Paris premiere of Krapp's Last Tape, which took place before he was born. He eagerly asked them if they remembered anything about the production, and what they had thought of it.

"Unfortunately," he said, "it wasn't their kind of theater. I think it confused them, and they didn't like it very much, but I guess they thought they should have liked it. So they told me, 'But it was very well-acted!' Just like that--'It was very well-acted!'"

I had never before thought of "It was very well-acted" as a phrase that people use to damn things with faint praise, but when my professor put it like that, I had to agree with him. He had the French avant-gardist's scorn for well-meaning bourgeois audiences who, not knowing what else to say about a play and wanting to be positive, fall back on "It was very well-acted" as the universal compliment. It reminds me of the kinds of attitudes that Daumier caricatured.

And ever since then, I always smile a bit skeptically whenever anyone tells me, "Oh, I don't think that play was very good--But it was very well acted!"

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