A New York Times story begins with a gratuitous display of humility | Bleader

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A New York Times story begins with a gratuitous display of humility

Posted By on 04.30.13 at 03:45 PM

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Earlier play about Mom and Dad
  • Earlier play about Mom and Dad
This is about tradecraft. I read the first paragraph—no, not even the first paragraph; the first sentence of the first paragraph—of a story in last Sunday’s arts section of the New York Times, and wondered where the editor was who should have saved the writer from himself.

The writer was Joe Gilford, a playwright whose father, Jack Gilford, had been a well-known actor a few decades ago and whose mother, Madeline Lee Gilford, had been a child actor before raising a family. Both parents were victims of the blacklist, and their son’s new play, Finks, dramatizes that era.

Gilford’s Times article offers the backstory to his play, focusing on his mother’s bizarre encounter with a moonlighting actress who’d jumped out from behind a bush on Fire Island and tried to serve her with a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The article’s fine, except that this is how it begins: "Among the few things I share with Eugene O’Neill—although I am not nearly as brilliant or as important—is that we are both playwrights, we both chose to write about our parents, and our parents were actors. One thing we don't share is that my parents were blacklisted in the 1950s and were unable to work in television and film for almost a decade."

Of course they don't share it. O'Neill's parents had been dead for decades by the 1950s and O'Neill himself died in 1953. O'Neill plays no further role in Gilford's story.

The following is an educated surmise: As Gilford wrote his play, he recognized that O'Neill had gone this way already. The thought might have inspired him. It might have daunted him. It might have caused him to joke that, hell, Long Day's Journey into Night didn't turn out so badly. But it definitely kept him company as he worked away, and when the play was done and it was time to write the article, the thought returned as a handy device for getting him into his subject.

So he plopped O'Neill into his lead. What he didn't realize, understandably, was that O'Neill's work was done; he might have been intimately involved in the creation of the play but he'd seem entirely gratuitous to the Times's readers if he showed up in the article. Mentioning O'Neill imposed on Gilford a choice of poisons: He could simply compare himself to O'Neill and strike some readers as way too full of himself. Or, worse, he could do what he did and stand guilty of one of the creepiest sins of journalism: false humility.

If you've written this article and I'm reading it, you're important enough. If you've got a show about to open in Manhattan, you're important enough. We know you're not Eugene O'Neill and we know you know it too, but if you think you need to insist you're not, then maybe you don't.

I'm sure plenty of readers don't care if an author channels Uriah Heep for a line or two, but some do, and readers like us are readers Gilford lost right out of the gate. I didn't finish Gilford's article until I had to in order to write this. As I said before, it's a good article. All it lacked was the kind of alert editor who, in the old days, would have circled O'Neill's name with red ink and written in the margin, "You don't need him."

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