The following was sent to Scene critic Keith Joseph by actor, writer and pianist Hershey Felder, in response to Joseph's review of Felder's Beethoven, As I Knew Him.
Recently, due to the many reviews and reports on my work, a well known publisher has asked me to create a collection of these reviews and comment on them for publication. Philosophical as I am about these things, it is rather interesting to have the opportunity. In general I will comment and respond on pieces that I think have interesting ideas, and yours is one. This letter, and your response if any, will be published in the collection.
I rather thought you had an interesting idea about creating a tale, or drama, about the ghost of Beethoven going to recollect two of his skull bones at San Jose State University. On the surface of it, it actually struck me as an idea with lots of possibilities and a playground for a good deal of fun. I do read critical press … after all, one never knows if somewhere lurking, someone has something really good to offer. We'll get back to this idea about the bones in a moment.
What is interesting to me with regard to Cleveland is that an old theatre adage seems to hold true: “Absolutely no one likes Hershey Felder's work — except the audience.” I find it very interesting, that for all three productions, aside from one or two student publications and of course , WCLV Radio, all printed reports in Cleveland have been negative. Still, daily ticket sales overshadow just about every other Cleveland Playhouse and locally produced theatrical productions. One can also look to the adage “Never underestimate the taste of the public,” but I don't do that, so perhaps, could the problem be that you are missing the point?
The point of these three works is not necessarily to create some kind of intriguing made-up tale. I've encountered so much of that in my theatre-going experience. Most of the time I find myself bored and untouched. For the longest time I felt alone in this, and so created a work setting a character in his proper environment, doing what the character did, and quite simply telling the story of that character's life as he himself would tell it. I thought that perhaps there were a few like me, who preferred this kind of work to the kind you suggest you prefer. Given the public's response, it seems I was correct. That said, while I don't argue with the notion that Herr Doktor Gerhard von Breuning is overwrought, and that Beethoven gesticulated and between the two of them overly dramatic hyperbolic statements were daily bread, I do argue with the rather self-serving idea, that we in this day and age know better as to how they back then should have really done it. 1870 was a time when the kind of presentation you witnessed was the norm, and Germans, and of course the Viennese, behaved (and still do) much like the behavior you witnessed. In that I live in Europe and speak German, and come from a part-German family, I can vouch for that.
But let's get back to your idea about the bones, and let's have Gerhard von Breuning, an actual eyewitness with a period testimony disappear but for instigating the notion of stealing the bones. Now, let us create the ghost of Beethoven, and take him on a dramatic journey to reclaim two occipital bones, of his now partial skull. If that is indeed the premise, are we to have him wearing a head bandage for much of the show until he gets the bones back? Are ghosts full images of what they once were? If so, once he gets the bones back, then what? But just think, a ghost chasing around two pieces of his skull for the better part of two hours. No matter how brilliantly crafted, just the simple practical psychology of the thing will have your audiences in a state of total disbelief. And of course, that play becomes about you, not about Gerhard von Breuning, how he behaved, what he saw, and what could very much so have been the style of the day.
Asked quite often what I make of critics, I respond with what I believe. There are critics who choose to be critics because they are good at what they do. And then there are those that give the rest of them a bad name.
Best wishes to you in your continued efforts.