In very much the same way that some of my Republicans friends will stretch any truth, propound any lie, contort any point and swallow boiling hemlock before giving Barack Obama credit for anything but a total national apocalypse, theater artists are more apt to blame critics for their shortcomings than blame themselves. In the years that I’ve been a theater critic, the brickbats have run the gamut of credulity: “He didn’t understand/like the play because he didn’t read it first” or “He didn’t understand/like the play because he did read it first”; “He didn’t understand/like the play because he is male or gay or young or old” or “He didn’t understand/like the play because he isn’t male or gay or young or old.” And so on. Isn’t it always easier to blame someone else for a mediocre or disappointing result, whether we’re talking about art or commerce or politics or war, than to look within oneself and truly be critical or unyielding regarding personal expectations or artistic standards?
No, no, no: actors, playwrights, directors and designers — and let’s not even get into stage managers and crew — are never wrong. Never. It’s always the critic, slouching in his or her seat, grumbling and friendless and mindless and in a default mode of negativity, who is unspeakably removed from the sweat-soaked vicissitudes of the work and therefore doesn’t get it. Critics are the permanent scapegoat. Critics are the Jews of art.
The latest affirmation of this attitude came in the Guardian on Nov. 27. Written by Mark Brown, the piece alleges that British critics attending the first-night performance of a Timberlake Wertenbaker play, The Line, were too snockered from the seemingly unlimited booze served at the Evening Standard Awards to focus on the play.
Wertenbaker complained to the Guardian that she had had, in her career, “bad press nights and bad reviews” but that she has never had “the sense that the critics were too tired to engage.”
She went on to say that The Line “is a complicated play, it’s difficult, you have to pay attention to it. …I just felt that the play didn’t have a chance. The actors said they had a great night the previous evening and the atmosphere was very different. They did feel they were wading through something quite heavy. They weren’t all drunk but it’s hard to get through something like that [a long awards ceremony] without being tired. It was very unfortunate that our press night was after it.”
Then the Guardian included quotes from critics who claim not to drink at all. They pretty much took a hatchet to the play, albeit with varying levels of invective.
Subsequent to the Guardian story, Chloe Veltman, on her fine blog Lies Like Truth, picked up the boozy baton and ran with it. Veltman’s post sparked a discussion that, like all the reasons why artists can blame critics for coming up short, ran the gamut. Some commenters insisted upon high ethics in criticism while others advanced the notion that if The Line‘s producers knew that the Evening Standard Awards were being distributed that day and still elected to host first-night critics that evening, well, they more or less deserved what they got.
Smart as the reporting is, and terrific as Veltman’s post is, there are still some issues that no one has fairly addressed. How does anyone know that Wertenbaker saw what she said she saw — or if, for that matter, she smelled what she said she smelled? Where in the theater, exactly, was she sitting (or watching from)? Which specific critics, does she say, stumbled into the theater or fell asleep or absolutely reeked of gin? Did she stare at them all — all at the same time? She doesn’t say, perhaps — or perhaps the Guardian would rather not print specific names, lest the U.K.’s libel laws actually do anyone outside the Windsor-Mountbattens some good.
The consequence of all this is that both the Guardian piece and Veltman’s post leave the reader unsure of what to make of Timberlake’s accusation. The reader is left suspending in a kind of she-said-he-belched dynamic that doesn’t address the problem — assuming, of course, there was a problem to be address on that particular night.
Finally, isn’t there a certain amount of hubris on Wertenbaker’s part? Isn’t there, in her statement, a certain ice-floe of temerity and presumption — talking about how the actors felt about their performance the night before, or calling the “complicated” and “difficult”? What if the play wasn’t so much “complicated” and “difficult” as tedious or self-impressed or garrulous or boring?
Here are some additional thoughts.
1) More critics would like more shows — or at least be kinder to them — if more of them actively drank. In fact, several theater critics here in New York ought to go directly to an IV drip and dispense with the niceties. Alcohol decreases inhibitions, and there’s a fair amount of work, especially along commercial Broadway, that would provide critics with more pleasure if only they permitted themselves more feeling. Those pinched expressions are signs of constipation! What they need is lubrication.
2) Scratch #1. I was enjoying a scotch.
3) Speaking for which, I limit myself to one drink before reviewing a show — almost always with dinner. And I would argue that sometimes — again, sometimes — there is something to be said for experiencing the theater as the average ticket-buyer does and not some refugee from the theatrical monestery. No, you can’t be expected to operate at full-speed when your liver is calling in reinforcements, but Wertenbaker’s notion that someone must be stone-cold-sober in order to properly appreciate her work makes her work seem like work, not entertainment. Not all theater must be entertaining — it can and, in the best form, should instruct and delight and provoke. But reality is reality and people will have dinner before a play and enjoy an alcoholic beverage. The idea that critics should on no account indulge in this behavior actually promotes a disconnect between the theatergoer and the audience, and isn’t that something that theater artists are always railing against, too?
4) Critics should not work totally drunk. That’s just obvious. But until Wertenbaker gets specific, the weight of the evidence is against her, not with her. Here in New York, I can think of two former theater journalists — note that I’m using the word “journalists” and not “critics” who I have personally seen in a state of advanced tipsitude at the theater. They aren’t going to press nights any more.
Want to know their names? You reveal your names, Ms. Wertenbaker, and I’ll reveal mine.