Critical I: Peter Marks, Chief Theater Critic, Washington Post

In the Critical I: Peter Marks

In the Critical I: Peter Marks

Peter Marks

Welcome to Critical I, a new feature at the Clyde Fitch Report in which we bring you a first-person interview with a cultural critic, largely written in that critic’s own words.

We live in a time in which it is fashionable to debate and assail the role of criticism in our culture. More and more this debate encompasses dueling, inexact and contradictory versions of what criticism is; who is and who is not a “critic”; who the audience is or ought to be for criticism; and what proper standards for comportment in a critic ought to be.

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Our view is that, whoever they are, critics must not be sidelined from these discussions. Our idea to ask critics — paid or not, full-time or freelance, in traditional or new media — for their stories, and their views.

Which critics would you like to see profiled? Please email us at [email protected] and let us know.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words. Begin with “Peter Marks is…”
Peter Marks is…chief theater critic of the Washington Post. I’ve had the job since 2002; before that I spent a decade at the New York Times, where I covered Long Island; wrote the now-defunct “On Stage, and Off” column; spent four years, give or take, as a drama critic, and covered the 2000 presidential campaign.

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As a critic, what are your main area(s) of expertise?
I’d hardly describe myself as an expert on anything, and if a reader is looking for an “expert,” rather than just a reasonably well-informed voice, or someone who has seen ungodly amounts of theater and may or may not share their tastes, I’d refer them to some scholarly journal or other. I think I’ve got a pretty good eye and ear for acting and writing talent.

In what year was your first professional review published?
1996.

Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but would consider trying? Why?
Television. Because I started watching in utero, and the writing nowadays on cable can be so damned good. Although how long I’d last watching Duck Dynasty, I don’t know.

Can any person be a critic? Why or why not?
Any person can criticize. Every person has opinions. I don’t say I am the best example, but to be a critic or reviewer for a general interest publication you must be, first and foremost, a person who not only respects the written word, but also can string bunches of them together lucidly; be eager to see hundreds of works, regardless of how much you want to; be willing to stick your neck out and say what’s wrong with a work as well as what’s right; have an elastic intelligence, a reporter’s curiosity, a generous spirit and a thick skin. Anyone with most or all of these can probably, eventually, write good reviews.

Which living critics, in your own or another field of expertise, do you admire and why?
I began to learn how to review — a skill I never envisioned for myself — on the job, watching and reading Ben Brantley, so I have enormous admiration for him. I think he’s a brilliant analyst. I loved Frank Rich’s passion and authority and persuasive powers. I have huge respect for a number of my newspaper colleagues, from Charles McNulty at the L.A. Times to Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune to Linda Winer at Newsday, for their integrity and insightful gifts; I believe what they say even when I don’t necessarily agree with them. The film reviews of A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis often blow me away, and, at my own paper, Ann Hornaday’s movie notices and Hank Stuever’s TV criticism are informed by smarts and graceful writing. I tend, as you can see, to concentrate on newspaper writing, because I’ve been doing that myself for 36 years. As to the bigger brains, I look to insight into Shaw and Brecht from Eric Bentley; into Ibsen and Pirandello from Robert Brustein; into Shakespeare, Marjorie Garber

Which dead critics, in your own area of cultural focus or any other one, do you admire and why?
It’s de rigueur to mention Tynan and Kael and George Bernard Shaw and Dorothy Parker, so I won’t. Walter Kerr, the Times drama critic, was a stylist and a thinker and just a delight to read. His work holds up beautifully. Vincent Canby was a glorious movie critic. I often go back and reread Harold Clurman, just for the breadth and sense of history in his reviews.

In hindsight, name one review in which you know you were dead wrong.
How can your gut be wrong? I think that’s for other people to decide. The review I most regret is the one I wrote for Glory Days at Signature Theatre in Northern Virginia, but mostly because, rather than be seen as an encouraging notice for some young writers, it was used to push the show (prematurely) to Broadway. I’m sure I’m blameworthy. I should have added more caveats in my initial, highly supportive review.

In hindsight, name one instance in which many critics were wrong and you were right.
August: Osage County. The swooning for it in many quarters wrecked it for me, by the time I saw it. The second-act dinner scene was pretty amazing but otherwise, I thought Letts’ earlier plays were far more entertaining.

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be?
A stay at home dad. Nothing in life has come close to the joy I’ve felt in raising a child.

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  • Great – fun – column. Wonderful insight. Can’t wait for the next one.