Another Problem with Theatre Criticism II


Martin Denton has a great post today on the reasons why theatre critics do what they do. While we’re friends and colleagues, Martin wouldn’t necessarily know I became interested in theatre criticism well after I became interested in working practically in the theatre, which I did pretty consistently from 1990 through 1999. I considered criticism — reviewing — a sideline and I used to cringe when confronted with the idea of considering journalism my primary occupation and playwrighting and directing and dramaturgical blah-blah-blah secondarily.

I do have some thoughts on Martin’s thoughts. First, I’ve always taken Peter Brook’s advice in The Empty Space to heart — about critics “getting their hands dirty,” engaging in interactions with artists, or perhaps giving the old art form a try, if so inclined. The bottom line: Brook is not in favor of the Ben Brantley glass wall. It’s deadly. The critic may think their aesthetics are kept pure in this way, but all it does is alienate the critic from their very subject. Martin’s insistence upon interacting in various ways with artists is far more nurturing, whether the artists realize it or not.

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Martin’s astute when he writes that “reviews are part of the Conversation about Theatre,” but I must say I’m not sure people look at reviews to “compare notes.” Some do, of course, just as the most conscientious among us do with anything — reading The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review and then scrolling down down down to see what the wackos on are writing. I think Martin’s talking about a specific, all-too-rare theatregoer — it also depends on what kind of theatre we’re talking about and the venue for the distribution and consumption of reviews. People interested in Broadway are still going to be interested in what the Times thinks, unfortunately. I’m not saying there aren’t more channels from which to obtain and absorb information, just that old habits in the creative economy ossify before dying hard.

I’m also not sure I agree that “some reviewers think they’re allowed to (or even supposed to) decide what the Conversation is About,” that “reviewers just react and respond.” To me, the act of analyzing the work and presenting that analysis for public consumption represents an active participation in that Conversation — an insertion into the conversation, whether wanted or otherwise. And that brings me to another point. Martin writes that he “thought for a long while that the Conversation would be directly WITH artists” and he seems to lament the fact that he feels that hasn’t happened. On the contrary, I think that in his tirelessly generous case, it has happened, beautifully so. In 10 years of reviewing, he writes, “I can name perhaps three theatre artists with whom I engage in authentic dialogue about their work” — well, I don’t know what “authentic” means, as that’s a subjective term, but I’d argue that by supporting so particularly the OOB world (e.g., publishing play anthologies, creating vehicles of exploration like podcasts), he engages in meaningful discourses with artists all the time, and to the benefit of all. He may be right that artists “aren’t looking to reviewers (or critics, for that matter) to shape or guide their work or their process,” but without professional and public feedback, practitioners would all be further distanced from anything outside their professional bubble — and how disastrous would that be? If artists don’t want to engage with critics, that’s just — sorry, folks — their stupidity, their complicity in the dysfunctional creative process.

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It’s like when Tina Howe asked me not to take her playwriting class because she just couldn’t imagine why a critic would want to study with her. I mean, what total, total silliness — the fear in her eyes, the mortal terror, the expression of cognitive dissonance.

I do think the critics’ job is to assess, even in a cursory way, “what the art has to say to us,” and I think Martin does so — good critics always do. Directly? Well, not always: the reviewer’s main job, he rightly says, is reviewing. But many critics take both longer and shorter views. George Jean Nathan championed O’Neill long before it was fashionable, continued doing so as O’Neill became fashionable, and still continued doing so after O’Neill became viewed as passe. Theatre criticism is about the here and now, but equally about yesterday and tomorrow.

I just believe that critics are an essential, indispensible part of the process.

(This didn’t start out to be a love letter to Martin, but his post piqued my interest and worried me so!)