I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, â€œWhatever happened to Chicago?â€ To this mysterious question he added, â€œI kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.â€ Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. â€œEds and meds,â€ he said. â€œEvery second-tier city has those.â€ That concluded conversation between usâ€“-for the rest of the trip.
And thatâ€™s the problem with Rachel Shteirâ€™s article on the front page of last weekâ€™s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind youâ€™d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So weâ€™ve had a week of â€œSoâ€™s your old manâ€ and â€œIâ€™m rubber, youâ€™re glueâ€ without anybodyâ€™s communicating much of anything worthwhile.
Which is a shame, because Shteirâ€™s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that â€œChicagoâ€ is a performance. Chicagoans perform the cityâ€™s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots evenâ€“especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that sheâ€™s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue reading “Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality”