Walter Kerr was a very influential theatre critic, so every syllable he’s ever written has to be taken with a saltlick. That said, I find that at least once a year it’s important for me to sit down and read his collection of essays, How Not to Write a Play.
I think of Kerr as being the audience’s advocate. He found Sondheim to be pretentious and unlike today’s theatre industry wasn’t afraid to say so. He reserved some of his harshest criticism for his close friends. His base standard for any play was, “Did it entertain the audience?” If not, anything else the play is trying to do is pointless.
Every time I read this book, I see myself and my plays somewhere indicted. I have a deep and abiding admiration for playwrights of the beginning of the twentieth century; Ibsen and Shaw in particular. But even in 1955, when Kerr’s book was first published, these playwrights were popularly viewed as the theatrical equivalent of brussels sprouts. Watch and actor's list of friends shrivel when he announces he's in a storefront production of Candida. Chekhov comes off only slightly better in Kerr’s opinions, but only as artifacts of a specific time and place. It’s still quite likely he never saw a production of The Cherry Orchard he enjoyed.
But as a playwright, his essays are essential for me. While I'm working on a full-length piece, I will go through a phase where I quietly congratulate myself for thinking “big thoughts” and on occasion “having something important to say.” Viewing my plays through Kerr’s eyes is invariably the antidote. First and foremost the question has to be asked, “Is this entertaining?” If even I am not entertained by something I’ve written, then it’s back to the drawing board. I have a personal ethic that everything started must be finished to the best of my ability. That’s not to say I don’t have dozens and dozens of files of work that will never again see the light of day. I do. When I can see my play won’t hold much value for Walter Kerr, most likely it's not of much value to ticket-buying audience either, and I don't go public with a piece until it is.