“Where Do We Live,” Hunka Essay, Considered

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Man your battle stations. I just read George Hunka’s “Where Do We Live” essay and I have a few things I’d like to say about it. Generally speaking, and as I’ve learned during my first six months as a serious theatre blogger, we live where we choose to — whether on the fringes of the reality-based community or at the center of it. Provided, that is, that we aren’t readjusting where we feel the center of that community is.

Ah, the joys of speaking elliptically. I think I’ll try to speak more directly in this post, and I write this not to attack (although I’m quite sure I’ll be attacked) but provide some other views.

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I should first say that I was cruising through Matt Freeman’s blog when I stumbled on “Where Do We Live,” and Matt is, as ever (and endearingly so), far more diplomatic than I am, noting that he’d prefer not to comment on it. I’ve gone back and forth on the same subject, wondering whether I should ask some questions, debate some points, argue a bit and raise some red flags or not bother at all. For those who recall my dust up with Hunka over his 100 Saints fiasco, the last thing I want is another battle in the war of dying theatrical roses. I hope to keep it civil.

Much of what Hunka observes is obvious and true: the part about sniping at Times critics, the part about the prevalence of inside baseball, the part about self-promotion. I am particularly glad he recognizes self-promotion to be inevitable:

…many bloggers have abandoned longer discussions of form, craft and content for plugs of their own shows (and that’s not necessarily a criticism, for that’s one of the things the blogosphere is best at — self-promotion — and it does have an impact).

Let us imagine our ideal version of a healthy, progressive theatrical blogosphere: Would not the prevalence of inside baseball connote some degree of acceptance of the blogosphere by the wider industry? After all, you don’t get bits of inside baseball without inside-baseball players fully arrayed on the field.

Taking Times critics to task, Hunka correctly notes, is a sport as old as inside baseball. Brooks Atkinson’s earlier predecessors Alexander Woollcott and, even earlier, Edward A. Dithmar, of whom little is remembered today, are also examples. And maybe better ones: it’s well known that Atkinson, like Boston’s Elliot Norton was beloved by industry creatives and businessfolk alike. Certainly Atkinson was more intellectually curious than Walter Kerr, who, with Atkinson, has a Broadway theatre named for him. I admire Kerr chiefly for his relaxed, chatty prose. I think Brantley tries for that at times, by the way, to varying levels of success. Whereas a Kerr review typically reads like a fireside chat, a Brantley review reads like a forest fire.

Hunka also makes this observation:

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Where the blogosphere has been particularly poor is in providing a place for the longer essays and thinking about theatre and drama that used to be the province of the Times Sunday edition.

I’m not quite sure I agree. I have read many a long (and occasionally long-winded) critical essay on theatre blogs, and one of the refreshing aspects of these pieces is how relatively free they are of critical-ese and journalistic-ese. However, I would observe that this freedom reinforces the notion, which I do have a problem with, that there must exist a wall between theatre blogging and theatre journalism — or even more broadly, theatre blogging and all writing about theatre, including academic. The nature of my pointed and sustained broadside against Hunka’s unwise review of 100 Saints was that bloggers are part of the critical discussion — right here, right now, today.

Let me digress slightly because I’d like to share something. Less than a week after the fusillades between myself and Hunka started going back and forth, Aaron Riccio emailed me and asked if he could call me; I readily agreed. One of the things that stunned me in our conversation (which was terrific and friendly) was the degree to which Aaron felt that he, as a theatre blogger, had a questionable role to play in the critical dialogue of our present moment. He even said, in a tone I found flattering yet unfortunate, that there were mainstream critics like me on this side and bloggers on that side. My response was that I believe theatre bloggers — especially the major theatre bloggers and I think we all pretty much know who they are — should be brought into the fold, not excluded from it. I further maintain that the biggest threat to theatre blogging is self-segregation. And I quite with Hunka that Aaron’s getting better and better as a critic. I just think things need to go further — a few of the major public relations professionals in town know that I think the major theatre bloggers, like Aaron, should be put on press lists. I don’t care if they go on second-night lists or first-night lists (first-night critics see shows in previews; second-night critics see shows after opening). And that brings us to Hunka’s comments about a “crisis of legitimacy.”

Are there issues around the availability of tickets? You bet. Is it clear to the industry yet that theatre bloggers drive ticket sales? You bet…that we don’t know yet. And while I know theatre bloggers largely didn’t create their blogs to drive ticket sales, once aware of that power, once of some assurance that they possess that ability, they will surely take full advantage of it. It’s not about power, it’s about voices — it’s about leavening the market.

And so I return to my sad song: When theatre bloggers agree to accept complimentary tickets to a show in previews, they are at that point willing participants in that transactional dynamic. And I think that’s excellent. Whereas I believe that self-segregating — i.e., not having to play by the rules that other critics play by — is tantamount to creating a lower-class of writers.

Elsewhere in his essay, Hunka discusses the idea of having a comments section. I choose to have a comments section and rarely reject a comment when I receive one, even if I feel the poster is writing out of rage or idiocy or both. While I respect Terry Teachout suppressing a comments section on his blog, I find it counterintuitive: the ethos of “read my view while I suppress yours” strikes me as the very antithesis of conservative thought. I also think anonymous posting is an inherently cowardly act. Now, this past week, in response to a post and another post about the Jewish Theater of New York brouhaha, I received an anonymous comment and I published it, leading to a little back and forth. But the unwillingness of the poster to be forthcoming made the whole experience — to use Hunka’s word — impotent, akin to sitting on Hannity and Colmes and debating Harvey the rabbit. When an anonymous poster, presumably the same one, sent in a really objectionable, nutty, ridiculous anonymous comment, yes, I rejected it; the dialogue had devolved enough that I felt no one was truly being served. Fundamentally I’m committed to a free exchange of views, even if it gets vindicative and sniping and ungentlemanly, as we know certain New York critics to be. Fundamentally as well, it’s my blog and I’ll reject if I feel I ought to. There’s either a trust that I moderate comments fairly or there isn’t. I’d hope that Teachout would appreciate the idea of letting the market, for the most part, decide.

I have to admit I scratched my head a bit when I read this:

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There is a breathless sense of self-promotion and self-importance rather than the contemplation and serious consideration that the condition of our theatre and audiences demands. The need for fast, vituperative, jazzy prose and an attentiveness to juicy gossip to attract attention (in the absence of any significant content) is a very New York trend; but this style doesn’t suit longer-form dramatic criticism and essays. There’s room for that breezy, casual style in the print media; in fact, the print media feeds on such language; it sells magazines and newspapers. The blogosphere, on the other hand, sells nothing — it’s a loss-leader, a freebie. But because it doesn’t have that fiduciary responsibility to the publisher and stockholders, the barriers to entry are far lower, and the playing field is level.

Frankly, I don’t understand what Hunka is getting at here. If self-promotion is not what the theatre and its audiences demand, how can bloggers plugging their own shows “not necessarily be a criticism, for that’s one of the things the blogosphere is best at…”? Any J-school graduate will tell you, too, that “fast, vituperative, jazzy prose” is not a New York trend. I’ve looked at lots of theatre blogs in other cities, and I see plenty of (stellar) jazz there, too. I rather like jazz, to extend the metaphor a little. The style seems to suit the medium. I don’t think the blogosphere would benefit from critical prose handed down in double-column measur like a gift from God.

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I think Hunka is offering a lament for old-fashioned theatre criticism, and in that I very much support him. I take the history of theatre criticism very seriously, mostly because what I have learned is that things really are cyclical: the form has evolved more than people realize. There may far fewer venues in traditional media and certainly fewer column inches, but I think Hunka should also remember that critics, on balance, are far more openminded today compared to, say, 100 years ago. The Mansfield Theatre wasn’t renamed to honor Brooks Atkinson because the man was incurious; Atkinson deliberately championed the new and the progressive, the daring and the adventurous, even if he didn’t fully understand it or grasp how to frame it for readers. It was Atkinson who, in his book Broadway, wrote these paragraphs about William Winter:

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The best-known critic was the most virulent — William Winter, both in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1836, and critic for the New York Tribune from 1865 to 1909. The older he became, the less tolerant, the more petulent, the more vindictive, sanctimonious, and prudish. He came to have a proprietary attitude towards the theatre, as if he thought it should conform to his knowledge and taste — and to his prejudices, which were massive.

When he resigned from the New York Tribune in 1909, he was seventy-three. He had a scowling face and long white hair that was carelessly combed. He looked like a surprised but doleful dolphin. ‘Weeping Willie’ was what [critic James] Huneker called him. He wrote an imposing, rolling style, with occasional words and phrases that were self-consciously bookish, and a general impression that life was so common that writing about it had become an intolerable duty. His principal reviews were about 3,400 words in length, set in small type in double-column measure. They looked like proclamations sent down from heaven, which indeed they might have been if God had not had a sense of humor. Since Winter never had an office, he wrote his reviews standing up in the New York Tribune business office. He always wrote section of his reviews before the opening night performance — having read the script, perhaps, or having attended a rehearsal. He was paid $50 a week — the smallest salary paid to the head of a drama department in any New York newspaper. To make a living and to support his family in Brighton, Staten Island, he wrong long polemics for magazines, and wrote several books, generally in two fat volumes. In his solemn prose style with its rare and haughty phrases (‘impartment of predestinate evil’), in his intolerance of new ideas in the theater, in his thunderous vituperation over what he regarded as indecent or radical, he represented the ponderous cant of his time. Immorality became a vice of hideous mien in his writing. Of [Edward Sheldon’s] Salvation Nell he said: ‘Those persons who wish to have their minds dragged through the gutter and drenched in the slime of the brothel can gratify their desire at the Hackett [Theatre].’ Harrison Gray Fiske [publisher of the New York Dramatic Mirror, a broadsheet] said that Winter could ‘unearth impurity from the quotations of the stock market and wantonness from the Declaration of Independence.’

Read many of the other critics of Atkinson’s era — and earlier — and you’ll find little intellectual curiosity and much dismissing of the hand and fears of prurience. Does no one know what Shaw, arguably the finest theatre critic ever, went through when he began writing plays? Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg — all were mocked and maligned at a time when there were more critics than now; imagine how devastating to the theatre’s progress their dismissals must have seemed! To me, a more interesting, less facile conversation would involve not observing that there are trivial posts and sniping posts and self-promoting posts and posts that fail, as Hunka’s suggests, to fulfill the intellectual promise of the theatre blogosphere, but what must be done to steer the blogosphere in that direction. Perhaps his post itself represents one such action.

Finally, Hunka bemoans the “apparent irrelevance of the current blogosphere to New York theatre; an irrelevance matched, it seems, only by the condescending coverage with which major New York print publications have been considering theatre,” and here we come to my earlier point about the reality-based community. Truthfully, the theatre blogosphere is the furthest thing from irrelevant; talk to any producer, nonprofit or commercial; talk to any industry creative — playwright, director, actor, dramaturg — who uses a blog to get ahead, to consider victories and defeats, challenges and breakthroughs. The blogosphere isn’t marginal, and I disagree that there is a lack of serious, thoughtful concern about and for the theatre. It may not be the thoughts or concerns Hunka would like to see (and I should add that his point about sloppiness in grammar and spelling is well taken), but it isn’t marginal.

And I think the New York theatre regards the theatre blogosphere as quite legitimate; that they haven’t figured out how to interact with it doesn’t mean they dismiss it. Shoot, why else would Playwrights Horizons have invited Hunka to that fateful half a performance of 100 Saints? If anything marginalizes anything, it’s the tendency — we’re all guilty of it, I guess — to want to get a corner on truth. It’s not that “the alternative to print criticism that the blogosphere represents is no plausible alternative at all.” It’s that the blogosphere doesn’t fit Hunka’s definition for what that is. My fear is that demanding homogenization is what ultimately spoils the milk.

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