That Championship Season

by Jason Miller

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Critical Overview

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When That Championship Season was first produced, the play was generally praised by critics who had found the quality of plays in New York on the decline. Though there were those who had various problems with the play, they were a distinct minority. Clive Barnes of the The New York Times is one critic who believes That Championship Season struck a deep chord. He writes

This is an enormously rich play. It is one of those strip-all, tell-everything plays in the tradition of Virginia Wolf or Boys in the Band. These are hollow men, bereft of purpose, clinging to the empty ambition of p ower. . . . They are morally and intellectually bankrupt. And yet they are human, recognizable and even, in a way, likable.

The way Miller drew these characters, and what these characters represent, appeals to many critics. Barnes’ colleague at the The New York Times Walter Kerr believes it ‘‘is a play that commands, and seems to possess, a second sight. Its people are not just stand-ins for the rest of us, handy pegs to make a pattern or point a moral. They are people who don’t want to get their shirts wet.’’ Douglas Watt of Daily News concurs, believing ‘‘The play . . . is brimming with vitality. Miller writes with strength and insight. His people are vivid and their situation becomes vital to us.’’ Catharine Hughes of America also agrees. She argues

That Championship Season is a good play, one of the very best—’conventional’ or otherwise—American dramas of recent years. It is good for a quite simple reason: its characters are good, ring true, throughout. Equally important, it uses the recent past to illuminate the present, personal concerns to develop public insights, yet manages to be unobtrusive about it.

Several critics point out the power of Miller’s writing, especially his use of the vernacular, for these men. The New Yorker’s Edith Oliver writes, ‘‘As the evening progresses and the men get drunker and drunker, everything is revealed about them and about the way they live and have lived and how they have been damaged and disappointed—and revealed in conversation, rather than in synthetic soliloquies.’’ While Jack Kroll of Newsweek agrees with Oliver and others about Miller’s dialogue, he finds the play wanting. Kroll argues

the men are shown to be a microcosm of America in decay: moral emptiness, fear, venality, bullying impotence. Miller writes with great theatrical effect; his dialogue is sharp and funny. The play works as a machine . . . but . . . it is thin underneath and its thesis, that the winner-take-all ethic explains everything bad about America, is much too simple-minded.

While several other critics have similar reservations about That Championship Season, a few could find very little to like about the play. Richard Watts of the New York Post writes, ‘‘They are, in fact, a group of deadly bores, and herein lies the weakness of Mr. Miller’s drama. When they get in their cups, which is quickly, they may reveal the truth about themselves and their hatreds, but, in the midst of their self-revelations, they grow occasionally tiresome.’’ Saturday Review’s Henry Hewes believes, ‘‘That Championship Season ’s theatrical effectiveness depends less on thesis than on its freeswinging delineation of a very recognizable kind of nitty-gritty vulgarity.’’ Along similar lines, Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic argues, ‘‘The play brings out different degrees of rattiness and deception and venality and disintegration in each, together with glib revelations of race and religious prejudice that are all small reverse pats on the back for the superior audience.’’

After the first run of That Championship Season, the play was occasionally produced in the United States and other countries. While most critics of these productions found some value in Miller’s writing, the play and its prejudices did not age well. Of a production in Boston in 2000, Karen Campbell of The Boston Globe who generally praises That Championship Season remarks, ‘‘this is compelling and provocative theater, if somewhat dated as social commentary.’’

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism