Superfluities and Critics


Terrific post on Superfluities, George Hunka’s blog of which so much seems to be spoken and written every time I turn around. As I’ve noted several times recently, I’m still relatively new to the theatre blogosphere, so I’m discovering who the particular heavy-hitters are. There’s a certainly lots and lots of gab-festing galore, but Hunka’s analysis of Nick Hytner’s analysis of the problem in contemporary criticism is damn smart.

I happen to think that the problem — which I’m not sure has been convincingly defined in one digestable statement– is almost too easily defined as “too many…dead white men.” Obviously the theatre is not finding itself overwhelmed these days with critics of color or the fairer sex, but the theatre is also not finding itself with more critics, period: outside the blogosphere, the list of venues is shrinking, not growing. The newspaper industry contracted something like 12% last year, and in case anyone had any illusions to the contrary, the headcount reduction came out of newsrooms, not top-level management, and certainly not ad staff.

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Critics and practitioners have a natural affinity for one another and also a natural antipathy. Fundamentally it is a question of what one believes the function of the critic should be. If you believe that the critic’s function is to act as a consumer advocate for ticket buyers, then Hytner’s criticism relates more to the problem of audience development than anything else; if you know anything about the current demographics of theatergoing in America, it’s certainly a worrisome concern. But I don’t believe the critic ought to be any kind of consumer advocate — if I wanted to be Betty Furness, I’d do just that. I believe the critic in the ideal sense is the outside eye that is there during development, there during rehearsal, there during production — the dramaturge whose views are communicated via public forums and read by a public eager to understand the work from the perspective of that insider eye. Now, please understand that what I suggest here is never going to happen. Contemporary journalism has neither a use nor a forum for this idea: As long as there is a commercial theatre, reviews/criticism will remain fundamentally all about post-opening ticket sales and marketing/advertising strategies, or, at the Off-Off-Broadway level, about just trying to get someone, somewhere, to put something about the piece in print so cash-strapped companies can get the word out.

My point is not new, and I won’t bore you with chat about Shaw and Walter Kerr and on and on. My reference point is what Peter Brook writes in The Empty Space:

“[The critic is] part of the whole and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?”

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“It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself.”

So the issue for me is not whether critics are dead white men, but whether they are people who are sufficiently interested, schooled and skilled in order to fulfill — or even consider — Brook’s dictum. Most of the time the answer is no: the only theatre John Simon would work in is the one that allows you to watch through a plexiglass window as cynanide pellets are dropped on those horrible homosexuals. But some critics are prepared, in this sense. I have done a lot of theatre, and I plan to again in the future. If you’ve never done it, I just don’t think you have a right — or a fair reference point — to write about it. And that’s not about color, necessarily, or gender, so much as thinking about how we ought to characterize, and how we ought to reshape, the critic-artist relationship, or maybe (worst-case scenario) whether it can even be reshaped at all. In the critical community, I can tell you that Margo Jefferson’s tenure as the second-string at the New York Times was not looked upon favorably — critics had problems with her style, her lengthy citations of text, and her seeming inability or unwillingness to reduce her reviews to easily quotable thumbs-up/thumbs-down bits of text. But as a black woman, I thought it was totally refreshing. Margo and I have been friendly, and I suspect she didn’t care for the grind all that much — the contemporary critical superstructure struck her as unhelpful to the theatre. I’d be curious to know what Hytner would say about that.

Anyway, the interesting thing about blogging to me is that they are neither critics, singularly, nor artists, singularly. That cross-pollination fascinates me.