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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Slings And Arrows: “That Way Madness Lies”

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“That Way Madness Lies” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 8/7/2006)

In which everyone’s a critic

(Available on Netflix and Amazon.)

“That was great crap!” “Come on! It was crappy crap!”—Paul and Sophie

It all comes down to what people think. The old maxim says everyone’s a critic, but that’s usually understood to apply to the audience and audience only. Yet in the process of pulling together a work of art, everybody involved in that process becomes their own worst critic, at least if things are working correctly. Particularly in creating collaborative art, rehearsals or meetings can turn into a series of competing visions, a time when everybody attempts to put their own thoughts over on the rest of the group, to have their view of what the work should be prevail. That makes the whole thing sound nastier than it actually is, but it’s also true to an extent: Creating art is about filtering an interpretation of that art through your own consciousness, then expressing it to everybody else. Which is, in a nutshell, what criticism is as well. Geoffrey and Oliver’s arguments are about creative process, sure, but they’re also arguments between critics, who know these plays backward and forward, who have strongly held opinions of them that are, at the same time, strongly held visions of themselves.

What I do here is nothing more sophisticated than sharing my opinion with you. Now, theoretically, I have training that helps me understand how the medium I criticize is put together, and I’ve also got some sort of training in essay writing, which should allow these pieces to keep from flying off the rails. But what I’m doing is no different from what I would be doing if we sat down for beers, and I said, “Slings And Arrows is one of the best shows ever made,” and you said, “Are you kidding? That thing sucks.” Now, on one level, this is the sort of fun argument we’ve had with friends in the past. But it can turn personal. It can become like we’re insulting each other, rather than expressing different opinions on a work of art. It’s tempting to think of our opinions as ourselves, even if they’re not. The argument becomes less and less about Slings And Arrows and eventually becomes one about who’s going to “win”: me or you. And since I ostensibly have that extra training, that means you might get nasty to drag me down, or I might get snobby to try to end the argument prematurely, or we might both get bruised egos.

Yet in an artistic setting, these arguments are all the more important because everybody’s livelihood rests on them. Get the show wrong, and the whole festival could be in trouble. Thus, it’s that much easier to jump to that personal level, particularly when you have the added incentive of, say, having a crush on your roommate, who has a crush on the girl who plays Lulu in East Hastings. Is East Hastings crappy crap, as Sophie would suggest? Well, it’s certainly not meant to be good. Yet Lulu’s song about her voice finally being heard isn’t bad, either. It’s a reasonably good showstopper of a number, and once it’s moved to the end of act one at Richard’s behest, it really does provide the show with a big, powerful closer that could find a life outside of the show. Yet the argument here isn’t really about the artistic merits of the show; it’s about how Sophie’s infatuated with Paul and can’t stand Megan. It’s about how she thought Paul was on her side, only to find out he had his eyes turned elsewhere.

Or take Richard’s attempts to save East Hastings from Darren’s… whatever he’s up to. The show isn’t winning over preview audiences, and as Richard spends his time obsessing over it and listening to all his musical albums, he realizes that the problem with the story is that Lulu’s major character beat—her turn when she realizes that her voice must be heard—comes somewhere in the middle of act two, where it has no real power and lands with a thud, instead of soaring. Richard sits down. He makes some flow charts. Darren might not be willing to listen, but he doesn’t need Darren to listen. He’s got the rest of the cast and the writer on his side, and when the show opens with that number ending the first act, it really feels like Richard has found the artistic triumph he’s been looking for all series long. He didn’t write the show, and he didn’t direct it, but he did fix it. Richard’s vision prevailed, and it turned a disaster into a hit.

That the line between “success” and “flop” is so thin is one of those things that leads to sayings like screenwriter William Goldman’s famous maxim, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s true, to be sure, as Hollywood is often taking just as blind of stabs in the dark at what people will want to see as anybody else. But once a project is up on its feet, hurtling toward release or opening night, well, then there’s usually somebody who does know something, or, rather, a whole group of somebodies, whose ideas bounce off each other, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in polite discussion. And as things get closer and closer to that point where someone will finally see the thing, everybody gets more desperate. Creating a work of art is depicted in art itself as the artist searching for the right answer, but the productions on Slings And Arrows get at the reality, which is a barely restrained panic as everybody races against time to find the “right” answer, or at least the answer that will get the most people in the doors. Fail to find that answer, and you have a colossal flop. Find it, and everybody looks like a genius.


It’s probably time for Richard to have a win, just as it’s probably time for one of Geoffrey’s schemes to blow up in his face in seemingly irreparable fashion. The Charles Kingman plan continues apace, but as the episode goes on, Geoffrey’s face gets rubbed in just how bad of an idea it is. Charles asks Geoffrey to help him with his heroin, then asks Geoffrey to move in with him after Ellen kicks him out again. (Refreshingly, Geoffrey and Ellen don’t break up, instead recognizing they have this fight with every new show, and they just need to be apart from each other until opening.) Charles’ insults to the cast grow more and more vituperative, and he’s not strong enough to project through the big storm. In the last indignity, a scene grinds to a halt because he can’t remember his cues or even where to look, the victim of a sudden onset dementia caused because he didn’t take his medication.

In prior seasons, Geoffrey would have found a way to cover for Charles. He would have come up with miracle after miracle that would have eventually brought the cast together into a cohesive whole. Everyone would have realized Charles’ value to them as actors and people, and Lear would have opened triumphantly, with everyone realizing that they worked better together as a team than they did apart. That’s more or less the arc of seasons one and two—with some extra fillips around the edges—and it’s one kind of experience a genius director might have. Yet it’s just as important to depict the flip side of that, the moment when all of a genius director’s ideas start to go bonkers on him, and it’s all he can do to stay two steps ahead. Geoffrey made a decision last week to take a giant risk, and instead of paying off, that risk backfires in his face. Everybody knows that Charles is losing it. And since he’s such an asshole, none of them are particularly interested in covering for him.


This is to say nothing of all of the other petty arguments and distractions that usually swirl around Geoffrey. In addition to Ellen moving out, he has to deal with the fact that Sophie and Charles hate each other and that Barbara wants to earnestly debate just why her character would kill herself at the end of the show. (To her mind, she was killed by her sister.) The whole thing just becomes too much for him, and by the time Charles runs out into the rain himself, it seems as if everything has stretched so thin it will break. Come to think of it, that’s how every storyline on the show is at this point, right down to Anna trying to find a place to put the Bolivian musicians, lest they be sent back home where they would be shot. (The musicians end up in the storage room, which is what leads to Geoffrey’s new home on Charles’ couch.)

So why? Why does Geoffrey do this? It’s obvious in season one why he shies away from Hamlet and then why he goes back and takes it over, just as it’s obvious in season two why he nearly blows up Macbeth before throwing himself fully into its maw. But in this season, it’s less immediately obvious why he fights so hard to preserve a version of the show he knows is doomed to fail, why he agrees to Charles’ death wish, even though he knows it will only end in tragedy. This, I suspect, is why we get those therapy scenes. The writers surely knew this would all be a bit much to swallow, so they gave Geoffrey an outlet other than Oliver to admit what he least wants to: Geoffrey is still trying to impress his old mentor with every single production he puts on, every single thing he does. In season one, the argument was that Geoffrey was doing all of this because what he wanted—and what he ran away from—was Ellen. But even when he has Ellen, he continues to behave recklessly. He wants to impress Oliver, and in so doing, he gloms onto Charles, who so often echoes exactly what Oliver says, as if Oliver has just become a weird psychic impression of the old actor. Geoffrey is trying to close an old wound, and once again, we’re right back to the conflict opened in the pilot, never to be healed.


So he rolls the dice on something that’s far from sure. He takes a chance that his vision will be enough to move forward for the time being. But when he gets pushback, he’s allowed just enough doubt to creep in that he doesn’t fight as forcefully as he might. It’s gotten too personal, and when things get too personal, Geoffrey has a tendency to shut down. Where you and I or Paul and Sophie might fight, because of what we perceive as an attack against our core selves, Geoffrey seems to understand that an attack on his core self may be justified on some level. He stands up for the work, but only once he’s 100 percent sure. And that’s the thing: If he’s just fighting with his actors or coming up with a way to sabotage his Macbeth on opening night or slotting in Jerry at the last minute, well, that’s something he can feel 100 percent about, because that’s the sort of thing that can go wildly right. He knows he’s operating on borrowed time with Charles. He knows he’s going to lose everything sooner or later. And he knows that he’s racing against the ultimate enemy, the decay that will tear apart not just his lead actor but his creative conscience and maybe even his soul. Yet he pushes on, because he doesn’t know another way out. He’s lost in the storm. But slowly but surely, he just might find his voice.

Stray observations:

  • Ellen has the best description possible for how she sees Geoffrey, after she tells him that Barbara is her “best friend.” Geoffrey is her guy! Geoffrey raises an eyebrow in suspicion. It sounded like she was going to say that he was her lover. “I was going to say guy lover. Lover guy!” she replies, clearing all of that up perfectly.
  • Sophie and Paul plot to strike back at the musical actors via childish pranks, up to and including a stink bomb, but when Paul sees Megan sing, that all switches up. I do wish that all involved had come up with more for Sarah Polley to do than end up in a silly love triangle, but she’s worked with the actors from this storyline on future directorial projects, so there’s that, at least.
  • Frank is playing the Fool to Charles’ Lear. Frank also seems to be the only actor that Charles gives a damn about in the whole thing, even if he’s typically brusque with him.
  • Anna’s busy fretting about the fire extinguishers being terrible and needing to pass various national codes. Richard just wants to know if there’s a record player so he can listen to his old musical cast albums. It’s work, he says! Okay, enjoyable work, but maybe Anna should find some enjoyable work to do, too. The look on Susan Coyne’s face in response is priceless.
  • Barbara isn’t my favorite character ever, but I like the way she pushes Ellen to consider a life beyond New Burbage. It’s a very final season thing to do, and she points out that Ellen has become too comfortable in the life she has right now and needs to take some risks while she still can.
  • The first few times through this show, I thought Megan was a little too easy of a crush for Paul, the sort of girl we’re supposed to boo as he hooks up with her. But this time through, I’m liking how the show seems to at least somewhat value her skill at dancing and singing, even if she doesn’t know much about Lear. (She does know West Side Story is based on Romeo And Juliet, though!)
  • Oliver’s glee at Geoffrey admitting that all he wants to do is please Oliver is wonderful. Stephen Ouimette won his Gemini for this season, and it was richly deserved.

Next week: The whole thing starts to fall apart as we find out who’s “Every Inch A King.”