Bigger, Brighter, Louder by Chris Jones is a treat for avid theatergoers, sort of like an extra helping of ice cream. The book covers 150 years of Chicago theater as seen through the eyes of Tribune theater critics. This review looks at the book through the eyes of those in the seats and those reading the paper to help decide which shows to see. The view from this perspective is very good.
Chris Jones, the chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, has put together a tightly packed history from the first anonymous theater review of March 25, 1853, when the paper had a circulation of around 1,000 to his own May 5, 2012, review of The Iceman Cometh.
The task of choosing which reviews to include out of the tens of thousands of critics’ reports was huge. Jones has selected 101 reviews he believes are representative, woven together with his narrative and some features and interviews highlighting special events.
The title Bigger, Brighter, Louder is a perfect fit for the concept. It also raises hope for more photographs than there are. Physically the book appears rather sedate. The content, however, is not. Although one can understand production/availability restrictions considering the amount of material involved, there is no rule against wishing. More pictures would have been fun.
The book lists the Tribune critics whose work is included, and their reporting styles reflect the changes in what has been considered “proper” and in vogue over time. George Putnam (aka Peregrine Pickle) was the first reviewer. He spoke of the “personation” of Mr. Joseph Jefferson as Rip van Winkle. There is a considerable display of the great Claudia Cassidy’s opinions ranging from “twenty-one-gun salutes” to “walk the plank,” with never a doubt about what she meant. Reviews through the years have chronicled the broader range of behaviors and language now common on the stage.
In addition to being an excellent reference tool for Chicago stage history, many of the reports provide insights into related events. One of these was the Iroquois Theatre fire, the worst theater fire in American history. Six hundred people died on December 30, 1903, just over a month after a lavish opening night for the beautiful new building with Eddie Foy performing in Mr. Blue Beard. That show was still playing at the time of the fire. The review of the theater’s opening night by Tribune critic W. L. Hubbard and the accompanying story describing Mr. Foy’s brave behavior in trying to keep the audience calm, along with the experience of cast members and others during the ordeal, is one of the most gripping sections of the book. The Iroquois fire was blamed on shoddy construction and inspired many of today’s fire codes.
A less harrowing incident: Early in December 1912, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt was a guest at a banquet at the University Club. He slipped away during dinner to meet Jane Addams at Hull House. As Miss Addams’s guest, he reviewed the second act of “Justice” presented by the Hull House Players. The President’s review included, “Impressive—most impressive. The act is excellently written and surprisingly well-acted. I must have the book … I wish I could stay for the rest of the performance.” Then he stepped into his waiting car and was whisked back to the banquet. From its beginnings in 1889, the theater was a substantial part of Addams’s work at Hull House.
In more recent decades Chicago theater spread outside the Loop into smaller, innovative venues which became Second City, Steppenwolf, and other companies which now have a growing presence on Broadway. The first review Chris Jones wrote in 2007 as critic for the Tribune was for Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. The production then moved from Chicago to Broadway for a long run, and the movie version is in theaters now.
Bigger, Brighter, Louder is a natural for those already hooked on the theater. It also may appeal to others such as those just starting to attend stage shows and to movie die-hards who are wondering what some people find so fascinating about live theater.
October 2013, University of Chicago Press
$27.50, hardcover, 357 pages
—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas